Editor’s note: This column appears in the Summer issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.
This is a story I have not told since the week it happened during the summer of 1982. I remember it like yesterday; it has bothered me ever since.
I was a 20-year-old college lacrosse player who got his first coaching gig running a team of high schoolers in a New Jersey summer league.
The league drafted players to teams, and most of the coaches had ties to nearby schools, so they picked little brothers and their buddies. I had no such ties, so I chose the best available kids, and wound up with three eventual high school All-Americans and four more All-State players on my 17-man roster. We were loaded.
For all that lacrosse skill, the most impressive athlete was a kid named Peter from a nearby powerhouse school. He was incredibly raw, just 15-years-old, but his potential was obvious. So was his lazy streak and bad motor; one minute he wowed you with his speed and shot, the next he stopped hustling. He was motivated with the ball in his stick, bored and inactive without it, the opposite of a “team player.”
Peter’s father said the boy needed to be pushed and motivated; he hoped I’d do that while mixing him in with the well-known local stars on our team.
We won all of our regular-season games. Peter was a big factor because he wasn’t a “known guy.” He got tons of playing time. Everyone chipped in on defense, but I learned that if you gave Peter time up front first, he’d be more enthusiastic when it was his turn on the back end.
But at the summer championship game, just 11 players showed up. It was nearly 100 degrees and the August humidity made it feel like 120.
We had one sub. Our opponents had a full bench.
With our superior talent, my game plan involved slowing the pace, resting on offense, using more isolation plays to give guys with fresh legs the chance to do their thing while others conserved energy. Everyone knew they’d play defense and that there could be position changes on the fly.
It worked. We took an early lead. The guys played hard.
Peter did, too. He scored an early goal, and was active and involved. Early in the second quarter, I called a play for him; he got free but sailed the shot high. We reset the offense and I called the same play; the goalie robbed Peter with a huge save. As the ball transitioned downfield, I called Peter to the sideline, told him to get water and gather his wind, and that it was his turn to play defense.
Moments later, a tired defender came to the bench. I told Peter to go but he didn’t move.
I asked if he was injured. He shook his head no. The player who’d come off the field saw this unfold, took a squirt of water and ran back out without any rest.
I told Peter he’d be the next sub. I pulled a midfielder, Peter’s normal position; again, he didn’t go.
I was steamed. An uninjured player was unwilling to help his teammates for no apparent reason. My voice got loud. My cool Panama coaching hat got thrown to the ground. With only Peter on the sideline, everyone saw the problem.
We scored. Peter liked taking draws and my face-off guy was dragging; again, I told him to go. He said angrily that he didn’t have to listen to me, do what I said or go where I told him to go.
On the field, I said, that would be correct. But he was on the sideline. My sideline. Only players belonged there. So I told him to go home. I called over to his father to get him.
Peter’s father didn’t know what was wrong. I shrugged and walked away when Peter said, “That (expletive) Jew only wants to play the white boys.”
I went numb. It was an anti-Semitic statement that also called me out for being racist. Peter was one of two black players on my roster, but the only one there that day.
I was flabbergasted. I’d called his number, played him at his favored position and coddled him all summer. I also had no clue how he knew I am Jewish.
But I had 10 other guys and a game to worry about. I went back to coaching. At halftime, Peter’s father said he’d never seen me act in any way that represented his son’s remark. He apologized, we agreed to talk later, and he took Peter home.
My guys played their guts out, but we lost in the final two minutes of play.
I talked to Peter’s father that night hoping to learn what had provoked his son, to find out what I could do differently or better. He had no answers, but said he didn’t think I saw color in players, only the color of a player’s jersey.
I never heard from him or Peter again.
I called all of my players to apologize for the incident; no one felt I had acted improperly that summer.
I called my friend Sheldon, my teammate at Michigan, who is black. He explained that “not seeing color” may have been part of the problem.
“If you don’t see my color,” he said, “it’s like you’re making me white, just like every other guy out there; you’re stripping me of who I am and what makes me different, trying to make me more like you so that you can feel good about it.”
It was long before anyone coined the phrase, “Black lives matter,” but the message was clear. I have tried ever since to see and take every person as they are, and to celebrate whatever makes them unique, whether it is their passion for the game on the field or their zest for life off of it.
I’ll never know what prompted Peter that day, but I’ve always regretted not talking directly to him about it. I should not have let him attack me on religious grounds, any more than he should have tolerated racist behavior from anyone.
Worse yet — fearful after being described as racist when I don’t believe I am — I have not spoken up about most of the racial, religious and gender issues I have seen and heard around lacrosse.
It’s not just that I chose not to write about the 2018 incident at Amherst College when a swastika reportedly was drawn on the forehead of an unconscious student at a men’s lacrosse party, it’s that silence on that issue paved the way for the racial incident involving the N-word that shut down that team’s season this year.
I should have spoken out when Lyle Thompson – who I think currently is the world’s best player – was heckled in 2019 by a public-address announcer saying, “Let’s snip the ponytail.” But I also should have found my voice when I saw members of the Iroquois Nationals hassle servers in an airport burger joint after the 2018 World Championships in Israel for not being able to make cheeseburgers, instead of passing it off as Native Americans not fully understanding kosher dietary laws.
I didn’t speak out when a South Shore assistant coach and her players taunted my best defender as a lesbian in a Massachusetts high school game. The defender set them off by playing face-up defense on their star attacker, on my orders. While I voiced my dislike for “lax bros,” I went for humor instead of calling out disrespectful misogynistic behavior that demeans women.
Sadly, in four-plus decades of lacrosse – a sport known for its white privilege – I’ve seen too many things about which I didn’t speak up. I have always maintained that “lacrosse makes me a better man;” but on this score I’m not sure it’s true.
For that, I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen again.
The things now in America’s headlines and on its city streets demand that we not stay silent any more.
They make me question my actions in the summer of ’82, wish that I had found an answer and the truth with Peter, and wonder if those conversations could have helped me and others in the 38 years since.
Have the hard talks, find the common ground, but maintain and respect what makes each of us unique.
That’s not only what “these times” call for, it’s basic human decency. If we can’t find it on and after the field – the place we go to find our joy – we may never have it in our lives.