Rugby is a gentleman’s sport played by savages; lacrosse is a savage’s sport played by gentlemen. Don’t ask me where I first heard that formula — it works best as a nugget of bona fide sports folk wisdom, an aphorism too perfect even for Yogi Berra to have coined. Brazenly racist, elitist and sexist — women play both sports — it captures the paradox in the history of each. Rugby, for all the beery swagger of its players, is a product of the social laboratory known as the British public school — namely, the Rugby School, home to Thomas Arnold, Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown and Flashman. Its very name screams of inherited privilege, empires and cold baths — three things, I am convinced, the world is mainly better off for seeing less of.
These days lacrosse may be the near-exclusive property of prep schools and suburbs, but it was born in the North American woodlands and baptized in the blood of the martyrs. Jean de Brebeuf, a missionary dispatched by the Society of Jesus to present-day Quebec, to evangelize to the Huron Nation, took note of epic, bruising contests that ran for several days, involving hundreds of war-painted men on each side. Ignoring its martial overtones, Brebeuf dubbed the game le jeu de la crosse — also the French name for field hockey. Translated literally, it means “the game of the [bishop’s] crosier,” which both field hockey sticks and lacrosse sticks resembled. In its ferocity, the Huron game might have reminded Brebeuf of the Council of Nicaea.
George Orwell once admitted to having a “doomed love affair” with cricket. My fickle mistress was lacrosse. As a kid I was pitifully uncoordinated; when it came to balls, my hands and mitts were made of stone. What was worse, to hear my parents tell it, eye doctors had declared me the most nearsighted kid ever born in northern New Jersey, and warned that any rap on the head stiffer than a ruffling of the hair would leave me blind for life. By the age of 12, I considered myself doomed, to borrow a phrase from Howard Stern, to live life as a veal calf.
At first, lacrosse, which I first observed in its most abstract form — pairs and trios tossing around balls in Central Park — offered only a very abstract hope of redemption. My high school did not have a team of its own, and the sport seemed to belong to the sort of kids who could wear turf shoes with pegged pants without looking ridiculous. But even in its warm-up drills, lacrosse had an elegance no other sport could have hoped to match in 1,000 years. With a moderate snap of the wrists and hips, a player could send a ball flying faster than the average American League pitcher (unless he threw split-fingered fastballs). If he really wound up, he could launch it toward the goal at speeds close to 200 mph. But even then, there was no awkward, grimacing follow-through.
In its economy of effort and motion, lacrosse was the Dean Martin of sports.
Its contact with Europeans occurred in the context of a relatively honorable form of colonialism. Brebeuf, Gabriel Lalement and the rest of the French blackrobes didn’t advance behind conquistadores — if there’s a Huron equivalent of La Malinche, I’ve yet to hear of her. Aside from a few traders, they penetrated the wilderness alone, with nothing to endear them to the natives but their people skills. In the purple words of Francis Parkman, quoted in Patheos by Dr. Pat McNamara, the Jesuits “spent the noon and evening of their lives, ruled savage hordes with a mild paternal sway, and stood serene before the direst shapes of death.”
Brebeuf, at least, seems to have gained this sway by becoming an early model of what would today be called cultural sensitivity. He learned Huron, invented an alphabet, wrote a catechism and made himself generally useful to his hosts. Fr. Jim Martin recounts how he accompanied the migratory Huron, hauling canoes, surviving for weeks at a time on daily fistfuls of maize. In short, he was Hawkeye the Deerslayer without the rifle. A sport named by such a man was a sport any boy would be proud to play.
When I was 16, I bought my first lacrosse stick — black, graphite, made by Brine. For two years, I did nothing with it but throw the ball against the wall of a handball court in Carl Schurz Park, catch in the net, cradle it, and throw it back. The entire ritual — especially the cradling, by which a player twirls the stick while retaining the ball in the net — had a faintly masturbatory quality. (If Brebeuf had seen me, he’d probably have sighed and approved in a spirit of ad maiora mala vitanda, or “to avoid the greater evil.”) But nobody seemed to be holding any pickup games, so amusing myself, by myself, looked like the best I could hope for.
Why I took the thing — along with the gloves, shoulder pads and helmet I later acquired –to college, I’ll never know. The school was in Arizona; as far as I understood, lacrosse did not exist west of Ohio. But I soon learned I’d been misinformed. Not only did Arizona State University have a team, it had a team eager for walk-ons. Actually, all its players were walk-ons. Though the lacrosse Sun Devils played in Division II of the Pac-10 conference, they were formally a club. This meant they equipped themselves and paid for their road trips by selling t-shirts and holding keg parties. All the school provided was a blessing. The best players were good enough to have played for the competitive Eastern schools, had they taken the game more seriously than they took, say, smoking pot.
The Five Nations of the Iroquois took lacrosse seriously. They called it Tewaarathon, the Little Brother of War.
In the days of the blackrobes, the Iroquois also hated the Huron. In 1639, following a declaration of Tewaarathon’s big brother, they captured Brebeuf and Lalement. As Fr. Martin writes, scalping was the nicest thing these warriors did to their prisoners:
The Iroquois heated hatchets until they were glowing red and, tying them together, strung them across his shoulders, searing his flesh. They wrapped his torso with bark and set it afire. They cut off his nose, lips and forced a hot iron down his throat, and poured boiling water over his head in a gruesome imitation of baptism. They scalped him, and cut off his flesh while he was alive. Finally someone buried a hatchet in his jaw.
As soon as Brebeuf was dead, the Iroquois cut out his heart and ate it — not because they were running low on rations, but because they wanted to tap into the source of his courage. The gruesome imitation of baptism ended in a gruesome imitation of the Eucharist.
One day at practice, about six weeks into the season, by which time I’d already won infamy for my flat-footed run and my cataleptic stiffness during passing drills, I lunged one-handed for a ball that had gotten loose in the dirt. One of my teammates, a Long Islander named Martin, checked me right in my blind spot, knocking me flush on the joint of my extended shoulder. As I landed, I heard a crunch. When I tried to stand, I found I could only crouch, like Quasimodo. With a certain gruff charity, Matt, the team captain, trundled me into his Cherokee and drove me to Tempe St. Luke’s hospital.
I was brave until they got me on the gurney and announced they were going to inject me with Demerol before taking X-Rays. With a clarity as complete as it was sudden, I realized I’d take too large a dose, die, and be disposed of quietly so that the hospital would escape liability. “Suit yourself,” the nurse told me when I begged off the drugs. Then she twisted my upper body so sharply I thought she meant to tear it loose from my lower body. When I screamed loudly enough to turn heads the length of the corridor, she dropped me and said, “Look, I can’t have you bellowing like a caribou. Either take the pain or take the drugs.”
I took the drugs. Reader, they felt wonderful. When she saw my eyes were good and pinned, the nurse smiled down at me and asked, “Isn’t that better? We’re not cannibals, you know.”
That evening, as I floated home in the cab of Matt’s Cherokee, my shoulder newly restored to its joint, a bottle of auxiliary painkillers in my good hand, the woman’s meaning seemed pretty straightforward — basically, “We’re not primitives or butchers; you needn’t doubt our competence.” But now, considering the context of Brebeuf’s and Lalement’s deaths, I take her words as a reminder that I am not made of such stern stuff as to face cannibals. Just add martyrdom to my list of favorite spectator sports.