The game is sacred. The friendships treasured.
Master Onondagan stickmaker Alf Jacques beguiled the Fire U-19 boys for hours with stories of his craft and lore about the game. The 60-something Jacques, pony-tailed and handlebar mustached, talked of how lacrosse came from the Creator. It is the Native Americans' sacred game, he explains.
An Onondagan male child receives an wooden lacrosse stick at birth. He honors the stick with righteous play in life and carries it to his grave, ready for that heavenly game with the Creator when he arrives. No one but him touches the stick in life, as a Fire mother learned when she innocently reached to touch an elder's stick. The elder quickly pulled it away.
Fast forward to the Fire's second game in the expansive Onondaga Nation Arena. ("Where they play games," the Indian name translates.) The Redhawk senior boys are comfortably ahead of Fire. To even the competition several Redhawks join Fire and trade jerseys. Fist bumps and high fives follow. Competition matters, but camaraderie more so. The boys pose for a group photo after the final game.
Fire boys spent two days in competition with the Onondaga teams, playing three games. Two of the three were close, but no wins. The learnings were priceless about coping with the speed and strange bounces of indoor box lacrosse.
Fire started Day One with a trip to lacrosse star Regy Thorpe's Liberty Lacrosse store north of Syracuse. Thorpe outfitted the boys with rib protectors they were told were necessary to survive the Redhawks' legal crosschecking. Nervous laughter came from Fire. (The boys said later the Redhawks had gone easy on crosschecking, and there were few bruises.)
Thorpe put on a skills clinic using pro laxers and former Syracuse University stars Jovan Miller, Josh Amidon, Tommy Guadagnolo and Brett Bucktooth, an Onondagan. Fire heard this advice about the rigors of college lacrosse: "It's a job...hard to have a social life...time management is essential."
Fire boys didn't know what to expect about playing conditions on the reservation. They found a multimillion dollar, multipurpose arena for box lacrosse and ice hockey. More than 40 banners hung from the ceiling celebrating the triumphs of Redhawks teams from bantam through seniors.
Redhawk youth begin playing lacrosse in preschool. Fire players attribute the superior stick skills of their opponents to their early start. They also mention the Redhawks' speed of foot.
Game 1 was against the equivalent of a U-15 or 17 team. The Redhawks opened with a fast-break goal and led 11-9 after the second of three 20-minute periods. Fire rallied in the third, but fell one goal short, 16-15.
Game 2 was against the Redhawk senior boys, who opened an early and overwhelming lead. This was the game where the jersey swapping occurred. It ended as a mixed team scrimmage with no score kept.
Game 3 was a reprise of Game 1 with the junior Redhawks. The Redhawks lacked a goalie for 8 minutes, and Fire jumped ahead 6-1. The Redhawks recruited a senior goalie and shut down Fire scoring. Redhawks won 12-10.
The Onondagan parents were gracious hosts, supplying refreshments both days. Fire parents and players thank their Onondagan counterparts for a memorable experience. Parents also thank Coach Bill Shatz for drawing on his friendships with Onodangan elders to create this opportunity.
Special thanks to Gil Thelen for capturing the spirit and essence of this unique experience for the Fire Gold team players.