Age no bar to his goals, on, off field Student: Tony Werner is earning his college degree and playing lacrosse with students half his age at Salisbury State.

March 22, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- If he had it all to do over, Tony Werner wouldn't change a thing. And why should he?

A dean's list student at Salisbury State University, he's on schedule to graduate with a degree in elementary education. A star defenseman with one of the nation's top Division III lacrosse programs, Werner could become part of a national championship team. With his prospects for landing teaching and coaching jobs looking bright, what's to regret?

Well, all right, he might change one thing: He wishes he could have done it all 10 years ago -- at age 30, when he figures he was at the peak of his athletic ability.

Now 40, the retired Anne Arundel County police officer is facing opponents half his age.

Balding and beginning to gray at the temples, the solid 6-foot-1, 195-pound Werner anchors a defensive unit that includes a 19-year-old who was in diapers when Werner first manned a patrol cruiser.

Jarod Lieberman, a freshman defender from Westwood, Mass., thought Werner was a coach when practice began.

"I was confused with this older guy running with us," Lieberman says. "My dad is 51, so it is weird. But I love playing next to Tony, knowing he's there. He's really the field general, and you can't argue with that experience."

Werner says time has become an ally in his improbable route to college -- even in his pursuit of a game that demands a conditioning regimen so grueling that a 1 1/2 -mile run in under 10 minutes is a warm-up for 6 a.m. practices.

"I just wasn't meant to go to college right away," says the 1976 Glen Burnie High School graduate. "I went to UMBC for about two weeks, hated it, dropped out. A couple years later, I got the job with the Police Department and figured I didn't need college."

Disdain for school didn't diminish his desire to play. Werner played in the close-knit world of "club ball," a loose association of teams that need little more than a corporate sponsor, a field and a couple of dozen players who want to extend their playing careers.

The only professional option for gifted players is the semiprofessional status of indoor lacrosse, played in arenas from Baltimore to upstate New York.

Club teams such as Team Toyota, Green Turtle Lacrosse or the old-line Mount Washington Lacrosse Club make up a subculture of players and fans, purists who worship the outdoor game.

"I'm not out to prove anything," Werner says. "It's a high just getting out there. I'm addicted to it."

Werner played for the Glen Burnie Lacrosse Club and was its president when it became the Bud Light team because it was sponsored by a local beer distributor. For 15 years, he played, organized fund-raisers, recruited players, arranged schedules and often marked lines on the fields.

"Tony didn't just walk in at Salisbury State and start," says 38-year-old coach Jim Berkman, who tallied a 119-16 record and two national championships in his first nine years. "He is motivated, and he has played 20 years. He's a great role model for our kids."

For Wayne Garrow, 43, Werner is more marvel than role model. A former club player who gave up the game two years ago, Garrow watched as Werner repeatedly crunched offensive players in Salisbury's 25-8 rout of Western Maryland College Wednesday.

"I played against him a number of times," Garrow says. "For him to play at this level is amazing. In my late 30s, I could barely move after a game. And that was weekend warrior stuff. This is a whole different level."

Bob Scott, a Johns Hopkins University coach from 1955 to 1974 and mentor to countless players and coaches for nearly 50 years, says he can't remember anyone near Werner's age playing for a college team, especially one like the 5-0 Sea Gulls, who have become a Division III powerhouse under Berkman.

"I first played at Hopkins in 1948, and there were quite a few guys who were 25, 26 because the war had interrupted school," says Scott. "And I've known club players to go into their 30s. But for a 40-year-old to be playing that level is really exceptional."

It was a change at work that prompted Werner to reconsider college. After a variety of police jobs, Werner transferred to the department's drug education unit.

Four years of eligibility

"I was out speaking to people in the community, especially in schools," Werner says. "As I worked with elementary school kids, I realized that I really liked it, that I was good at it. And beyond that, I hardly ever saw a male teacher or administrator."

When Werner mentioned his interest to Dave Mintzer, a club team friend and the coach of the Catonsville Community College team, Mintzer discovered that Werner had four years of eligibility and offered a full scholarship.

"The whole thing really started by accident," says Beth Werner, the high school sweetheart who married Tony in 1980. "A lot of our old friends laughed about it because they'd gone to school 20 years ago. But he says he works a lot harder now than he would have as a younger person."

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