Combining elements of many popular sports played in America, lacrosse is not as well known or as widely played as the other sports, but not much is holding it back from reaching mainstream status in the United States. It has the hitting of football, the speed and grace of soccer, the toughness of hockey, and the athleticism and teamwork of basketball. Ironically, lacrosse was a sport long before these other contemporary favorites. Often referred to as “the fastest game on two feet,” lacrosse is a thrilling sport to watch, and new fans quickly find themselves yearning for more.
Roots of the Game
Lacrosse is by far North America’s oldest indigenous sport, being played by Indian tribes as early as the fifteenth century. Although many different accounts of the game’s origins exist, the consensus seems to be that the sport originated in what is now the northeastern United States and southern Canada, specifically in upstate New York and Ontario, Canada.
While variations of the game were played by many tribes, the one most commonly associated with the modern-day version was played by the Huron and Iroquois tribes and was called “Baggataway” or “Tewaaraton.” The game was very spiritual to these tribes. It was used in resolving conflicts and was thought to heal the weak and please The Creator. Other variations of the game took on a much more violent form, with players focusing on using the stick as a weapon to injure opponents, rather than a tool for throwing or catching the ball. This violence led to a banning of the game in some U.S. states in the early days of the sport.
Prior to the official rules being written, field and team sizes varied greatly from game to game. Large boulders or trees were used as de facto goals, and riverbeds or creeks marked a sideline. Fields were sometimes miles long, with some players on horseback.
The Transition to Modern-day Lacrosse
Written accounts of the game date back to the early 1600s, as Jesuit Missionary Jean de Brebeuf was the first to document lacrosse. The term “lacrosse” was coined by French explorers who thought the stick resembled a bishop’s crozier (la crosse, in French). So the sport was given a new name. In 1834, an exhibition game was played in Montreal by the Caughnawaga tribe and reported on by the local newspaper. This led to people outside the native tribes taking an interest in the sport for the first time.
The modern incarnation of the game first took shape in 1856, when the Montreal Lacrosse Club (MLC) was formed and rules were written by a man named George Beers. The original rules of the MLC called for 12 players per side, with the following positions: Goal, point, cover point, first defense, second defense, third defense, centre, third attack, second attack, first attack, out home, and in home. These positions were soon modified to the present-day set of: Goalie, defense, midfield, and attack. In addition, the number of field players per team was reduced to 10.
It didn’t take long for enthusiasm for lacrosse to spread south, and by 1877, there were several teams formed in the New York City area. In that same year, New York University played Manhattan College in the first intercollegiate game.
The game grew quickly for the next 50 years or so, with several colleges and universities adding teams and clubs. Then in the mid-1930s, the game truly began to evolve into what it is now. The standardizing of protective equipment in the men’s game led to a distinction between how the men’s and women’s games were played, with women’s lacrosse more closely resembling the old Indian game. Men’s lacrosse has evolved to become a bit different stylistically.
In the late 1960s, plastic heads for sticks began to be manufactured, and these were met with great approval from players and coaches. Within five years, the vast majority of players were eschewing the one-piece handmade wooden sticks in favor of lighter and more easily maintainable two-piece sticks with a plastic head and a wooden or aluminum shaft.
With more recent advances in technology, sticks now have super-light shafts made of materials like titanium and carbon fiber.
The College Game
In the United States, college lacrosse is the most popular incarnation of the game among fans (as opposed to high school or professional). Johns Hopkins University, the school with the oldest lacrosse tradition, formed its team in 1893, after some students witnessed a game on Long Island and returned home to Baltimore to spread the word.
The game quickly took hold in the Baltimore area, which is now the hottest of the hotbeds for the sport in the U.S. What started as the U.S. Amateur Lacrosse Association, founded in 1879, became the Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association three years later. That was succeeded in 1905 by the Intercollegiate Lacrosse League, which changed its name to the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) in 1929.
The current governing body for college lacrosse is the NCAA, and has been since 1971. Prior to that year, a national champion was decided by a committee. Since then, the NCAA has hosted a national championship tournament, which now includes 16 teams playing in a single-elimination format.
Since the NCAA era began, the team with the richest history has been Syracuse. The Orange have won 11 national titles, the most among any team competing in the NCAA. The Orange also boast the richest history of players. Jim Brown, a legend in the football ranks as well, was widely renowned for his lacrosse skills in upstate New York. At the time, a player of his size, strength and speed had never set foot on the lacrosse field. Fast forward to the late 1980s, when a pair of Canadian twins named Gary and Paul Gait set the lacrosse world on fire with their flare and panache developed as indoor players in Canada. The Gait brothers dominated on the field, winning three national championships in their four years at Syracuse. Gary Gait currently coaches the Syracuse women’s team, and is widely regarded as the greatest player in the sport’s history.
The Gaits aren’t the only set of brothers from Syracuse to carve out a place in lacrosse lore. The Powell family has seen its three boys (Casey, Ryan, and Michael) all attend Syracuse and successively set the school’s career record for points.
The traditional powers have dominated the NCAA tournament since its inception, and schools with multiple national championships include: Johns Hopkins (9), Princeton (6), Virginia (4), Cornell (3), North Carolina (3) and Maryland (2).
College lacrosse has an award called the Tewaraaton Trophy. It’s known as lacrosse’s version of college football’s Heisman Trophy, and recognizes the national player of the year for Division I lacrosse.
The Professional Game
Professional lacrosse has had a bit of a shaky history. Indoor leagues have existed in Canada since the 1930s, and in the U.S. since 1986, but the first outdoor professional field league wasn’t born until 2000. Body building entrepreneur Jake Steinfeld, of “Body by Jake” fame and a former laxer himself, had the idea and financial backing for Major League Lacrosse to be born. With the help of lacrosse equipment giant Warrior, the MLL was created and played its inaugural season as a six-game tour of exhibition games between two teams of star players.
Players old and young took part. Legendary names like Tom Marechek, Jesse Hubbard, Mark Millon, Casey and Ryan Powell (Mike was still at Syracuse at the time), Gary and Paul Gait, and John Grant, Jr. grabbed their sticks and let ‘em rip. The 2001 season saw the league field bump up to six teams, each playing a 14-game schedule, with a championship game played at the end of the season in September. The Long Island Lizards won the inaugural championship.
A few tweaks to the rules of field lacrosse were made in an attempt to increase fan interest and television ratings. The idea was to give the game a faster pace and make it more exciting. A two-point shot line (16-yard arc around the goal) and a 60-second shot clock were installed. A rule limiting the defense to three long-stick defenders on the field at once was also put in place, but has since been removed. Teams are now permitted to have as many as four long-poles on the field together.
After a few seasons of relative success, the league expanded to 10 teams in 2006, adding a four-team western division. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago were granted expansion teams and the MLL appeared to be gaining momentum among casual sports fans.
However, the league was hit hard by the recession and had no choice but to contract teams that weren’t financially viable anymore. Franchises in New Jersey, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia were contracted and the league was reduced back to six teams. Since the creation of the league, the MLL has had some trouble generating a strong fan base and team loyalty in many areas. College lacrosse and box lacrosse remain much more popular and it remains to be seen if the professional outdoor lacrosse will ever fully take hold and thrive.