Somewhere the Creator is smiling. Here’s why:
There’s only one sport played by man that wasn’t invented by man. That sport is Tewaaraton. It is “the gift of the Creator” to the Mohawk people, who spread it among the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and they have played it for centuries. Games could include hundreds if not thousands of players per side, cover miles of ground, and go on for days. Tewaaraton is a “medicine game”: played as a sporting event, a religious ritual, a conflict-resolving exercise, and a celebration.
Early French explorers thought the playing sticks looked like a bishop’s crozier, so they called it “la jeu de la crosse,” from which we get the modern term lacrosse. Europeans first started playing the game – in a much more formalized style – in the 1840’s. The first lacrosse organization, the Olympic Club, was founded in Montreal in 1842. Unfortunately, natives were so much better at the game that soon their participation in games was restricted, or even prohibited. In the early 1900’s, players from Canada held exposition games that introduced the sport to Long Island, and to Baltimore, which soon became hotbeds of lacrosse, along with central New York, due to its proximity to the Iroquois. Until recently, the sport was played exclusively in those areas, but in the last decade, it has exploded in popularity and become the fastest-growing sport in America.
The Iroquois, meanwhile, have never stopped playing it. One place in particular, the Onondaga Reservation just south of Syracuse, has produced some of the best players in the country. And these players have invariably played for the university just up the road. Watch any Syracuse game and you’ll quickly note that one of the best players on the field has a three-foot-long black ponytail flowing out of his helmet and down his back. Native players are a big part of why Syracuse is the most successful lacrosse program in history.
But then this happened. Three young men from the reservation – brothers Lyle and Miles Thompson and their cousin Ty Thompson – chose another path. Instead of Syracuse, all three took their game and headed a few hours further east, to SUNY Albany. There, at a school with little previous lacrosse tradition, they developed the most explosive and entertaining offense in the country, complete with inexplicable-three-way coordination and no-look-behind-the-back-can-you-top-this trick shots that have left defenders scratching their heads. In 2014, they tore the NCAA record books to shreds. Lyle led the nation in assists (77) while Miles led in goals (82), both broke the 22-year-old record for most total points in a season, and both were named first-team All-American. Albany made it to the NCAA quarterfinals against Notre Dame, and racked up 13 goals, but were eventually undone by their defense and lost 14-13. But even in defeat, the Thompsons were mobbed by adoring young fans who crowded around and would not let them leave the field.
And then this happened. When the list of candidates for the sport’s highest honor, the Tewaaraton trophy, was announced, both Lyle and Miles were on it.
And then, finally, this happened. Last night, at a ceremony held at the National Museum of the American Indian, folks held their breath to see which of the Thompsons would be chosen. And the answer: both of them. In the first-ever split decision, and the first-ever award to a native player, the Tewaaraton Trophy went to Lyle Thompson, and Miles Thompson, of Onondaga Nation. In announcing its decision, the selection committee stated, “it is profoundly meaningful that these two record-breaking players – teammates, brothers and members of the Onondaga Nation – are symbolic of the game, its heritage and its future.”
It is a gift of the Creator. It is a celebration. And this morning, an entire generation of young players is smiling.