The Iroquois League was an association of six nations of indigenous people in North America. The Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora formed a confederation, a central government, called the Grand Council. In the 1700s their stewardship of land and people was an example to the struggling Americans fighting for a foothold in the New World.
The Six Nations gave us an example of representative government that may have been looked to by our founding fathers when they drafted the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. They also gave us lacrosse, a game deeply embedded in the origin, tradition and culture of the earliest peoples of North America.
I had never heard of lacrosse until I met Joe Quackenbush. Joe and I served together in the Marines. In the Bronx we played stickball, boxed and pitched pennies. Inner-city boys had no connection to lacrosse. We sure missed an opportunity to actualize the essence that defined being a boy.
Joe would go on and on about the mystique of the game, and I began to think, if there’s a Zen to sport, then it must be embodied in lacrosse.
My fascination was buried in the circumstances of what life held in subsequent years. Recently it has been rekindled in conversations with Mark Jewel and Kyle Smith.
Jewel is a general manager and coach in the Pasadena Lacrosse League. Currently he is spearheading the momentum to introduce lacrosse throughout the adjacent communities. Smith is the women’s coach for La Cañada High and is gearing-up for the upcoming season.
After listening to these guys, I now understand the Zen of the game. The mystique is found in its history and traditions.
The earliest accounts of lacrosse originate from the French missionaries of the 1600s. Derived from the French word “croiser,” meaning stick, lacrosse was initially played on a field as long as three miles and with as many as 1,000 players on each side. Games were typically played from sunrise to sunset for two to three days. The competition gave homage to the gods, promoted the warrior spirit, and settled tribal disputes.
Lacrosse is steeped in legend and those who played the game did so in the spirit of warriors connecting to the creator and ceremonial ritual. The warriors played to glorify themselves and their tribe. The game has its own life, its own spirit; because in the end, it is lacrosse that is victorious, not the players.
“The game lives on and after, something remains: connection, camaraderie, and community,” Jewel told me. “Lacrosse is an athlete’s game.”
He explained that the lure of lacrosse is steeped not only in tradition, but also in opportunities to express athleticism and the competitive spirit. He predicted, “In a few years, lacrosse will sweep across the nation and will be a major sport in America.”
It’s becoming more popular here. In addition to La Cañada’s team, Saint Francis High School recently announced that it will field a lacrosse team in the fall.
I was particularly intrigued by Jewel’s description of San Fernando Valley coach Joe Boucher’s approach to the game. Before and after competition, the coach would have his players sit in a circle and he would blend the rich history of the game and teach life lessons based upon a definitive code of conduct.
This code has a connection to the moral precepts of the Arthurian Code. Sportsmanship, respect, commitment, self-discipline, integrity, responsibility and dedication are foundational to the game. Winning is incidental to becoming a better person.
As a boy, I was a consummate student of history, but somehow while growing up I missed this game. The more I read about lacrosse, the more I am fascinated by it. Studying the history and traditions of the game you begin to realize why the six nations called it “The Creator’s Game.”
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at email@example.com.