Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Creator's game

First, a belated congratulations to all of the NCAA lacrosse champions crowned over the Memorial Day weekend, especially the Salisbury Sea Gulls (D-III Men) from my own home state.

On to local stickball news...

With two games left in the season, Lincoln’s high-school club team is still looking for a win. Nevertheless, it’s been a successful first season in many ways. The kids, half of whom never picked up a lacrosse stick before this spring, have improved their skills dramatically. Our defense has been strong all season, limiting the opponents’ shots and keeping the games close. But what impresses me the most is the way the kids have bonded as a team. Initially, head coach Greg McManus and I had concerns about interschool rivalries—we have kids from at least four public schools and one Catholic school, and some of the kids have faced each other on the ice-hockey rink. Those concerns have vanished entirely. Last weekend, between games of a triple-header, the parents hosted a cookout, and rather than sitting with their families the kids arranged themselves in a large circle, laughing and joking with each other and leaving the families to do their own thing on the perimeter. Later, they played "bombardment", dividing into two groups and throwing impossibly long passes across an open field—five balls in flight at any one time, and the gods help anyone whose attention wavered. I cringed inwardly at the profligate expenditure of energy (three games in one day entails a lot of running) but simultaneously rejoiced to see these kids goofing off and enjoying each other’s company so un-selfconsciously.

As I said, there are two games left. Then we’ll play some fall ball, and be back next spring even stronger. We’re only losing one senior to graduation; most of the kids are freshmen or sophomores. With age and experience will come confidence, and eventually some W’s.

* * *

Actually, that age and experience thing can only go so far as an advantage. I’ll be playing lacrosse this summer for the Rhinos club team (West squad) out of Omaha. I’ve been to three practices so far, and I’ll admit to being a little frustrated. The last time I played a contact sport was ten years ago, when I was only 31—and I wasn’t exactly the fastest, most physical guy on the field even then. Now I’m dealing with a shaky left knee, a tendency to shin splints, and residual pain in my right foot and ankle from falling off my roof onto the sidewalk about six or seven years ago. (I crushed the metatarsals; when the orthopedist saw the X-rays at the ER, he announced optimistically that there was a pretty good chance I wouldn’t lose the foot that night. Thanks for the pep talk, doc.) All of which makes it hard to stay a step ahead of my defender, to say the least. Additionally, my stick skills are a lot rustier than those of the recent UNL graduates on the team—athletes about half my age. It’s been difficult to accept that I can’t necessarily keep up with these guys, that I am suddenly (or at least it seems sudden to me) "the old dude".

So I’m going to try for a deeper perspective...

Long ago, before Handsome Lake, before Heyenwatha or the Peacemaker or anyone else whose name is still remembered, the Creator gave the stickball game to the people, for the betterment of the people but also for his own amusement. Many Native players are buried with their favorite sticks; the Northern Lights are the spirits of departed lacrosse players, still playing in the heavens, or so the traditionalists believe. On Iroquois reservations in New York and Ontario, ritual games are still played each spring, clan against clan, with bare feet and wooden sticks. These games are rarely even; one clan might have twenty players to the other clan’s ten. Despite the mismatch, all parties play as hard as they can. The outcome is not important; playing the game is what matters.

Playing the game is what matters.

No comments: