Sticking With A Good Thing

April 07, 1991|By Barney Kirby

It is buried deep in the basement closet of my parents' house, beneath shoulder pads, muddied cleats my brothers and I have outgrown, crumpled baseball caps, out-of-print biology, trigonometry and philosophy textbooks from high school and college -- my first lacrosse stick.

Shaped from hickory, it is now misshapen by neglect. Every part of the stick is flawed -- its leather pocket dry-rotted, stiff as the strings of a tennis racket, its gut sidewall curled outward, its shaft warped, unbalanced when I cradle it in my hands. It is virtually impossible to play with, yet I cannot throw it away.

The last time I used it in a game was in 1973, when I was in third grade. I played in the St. Mark's Instructional League. It was my second year of lacrosse. This was during the time when the game was in the midst of a transition into the modern era of synthetic sticks and helmets which made the game more graceful, perfect.

Most of the equipment we used was donated and seems antique now. Plastic helmets were usually snatched up by the older kids, so many of us were stuck wearing weather-beaten leather helmets painted white with saddle shoe polish and fitted with bent face masks that looked like they had been constructed from wire coat hangers. Our uniforms were colored cotton T-shirts without numbers. Since lacrosse equipment was scarce in sporting goods stores, most of us wore hockey gloves, which were stiff and difficult to move our hands in. And the sticks, with the exception of a few scattered trendsetters in the league who used the early model STX, were made of wood, the kind that only the women players have continued to use.

I laugh when I think back about that equipment. There is something comic about it. There is something funny about the wooden sticks and the old lacrosse manuals that resembled some kind of charm school dance instruction. I laugh about it the way former '70s hipsters do when they reminisce about bell-bottoms and platform shoes. "Can you believe we really wore that stuff?" I laugh about the old equipment the way people now laugh at old inventions they might see in the Smithsonian: iceboxes, crank-start automobiles, phonographs, rotary telephones, eight tracks. I laugh at the slapstick comedy of invention and evolution. I laugh because that's what lacrosse used to be all about when I was a kid -- comedy.

Lacrosse then meant praying for an early spring in March when practices began, and at the end of practice welcoming the stifling heat from the car heater that thawed my hands frozen inside my gloves. Lacrosse then meant surviving the boredom of drill lines sprawled throughout the fields of Catonsville High School, the regiments of kids clad in baggy sweats, jeans, cleats, as we practiced roll dodges, face dodges, over-the-shoulder passes and scooping ground balls.

Lacrosse then meant going into the back yard with my father and brother to sharpen our throwing and catching skills. Those old sticks were difficult to learn with, heavy, cumbersome. Breaking a pocket into one took patience, something I had little of as a child. My stick resembled a snowshoe, and I might as well have been using one. Many evenings were spent in tearful frustration. We used to keep track of the number of catches we were able to make, 10 being a number beyond us. Much of the time was spent chasing the ball down in the azaleas, cheating by placing it in the stick with my hand, and then lobbing the ball back to my father in a high arching throw.

Games meant chaos, packs of kids raking and whacking at a loose ball hidden in the maze of cleats. Occasionally one of the older kids would break free with the ball and put it in the goal a few times to decide a game. But for the most part many of us spent the games trying to look like lacrosse players, trying to keep the helmets from sliding over our eyes, making sure our gloves didn't fall off, making sure we held onto our sticks, making sure we ran around a lot.

Lacrosse then meant playing for teams sponsored by local clubs of charity and good deed that lent a humbleness to the game -- the Optimists, the Knights of Columbus, the Lions, the Rotary. They began to buy us new uniforms, ones with numbers. I can remember the pungent odor of stale sweat mixed with mud and lime that filled the equipment room as we picked up our helmets and jerseys, and the indecision brought on by superstition when choosing a number. Six or seven. Nineteen or 20. Never 13.

The third year I played my father bought me a 73 fiber- glass STX with nylon mesh netting. My wooden stick was immediately abandoned to the garage. I told him that I needed this stick to compete in the older league. I also needed the new stick because all of the other kids were beginning to use them.

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