Look in the backseat of the car Matthew Clawson drives to early-morning seminary, and you’ll find what at first seems to be a typical jumble of high school paraphernalia. There are some school books, various sheets of notebook paper, a pair of tennies, a sock or two, a crumpled burger wrapper, a soft drink cup, a sweatshirt, and a lacrosse stick.
A lacrosse stick? What’s that?
Some sort of dried fruit snack?
Something Matt picked up on a nature hike?
Guess again. As any sports fan on the East Coast of the United States, from New York to Maine, will tell you, the stick is the essential piece of equipment used in a sport called lacrosse—the oldest sport in the U.S., and one of the most popular sports in the East.
And it’s slowly catching on in other parts of the country. In fact, Matt’s older brother Jim helped spread lacrosse out West by being a key player in the establishment of a team at Brigham Young University. Back in the Yorktown New York Stake, a number of youth have been playing the fast-action game for years. Richard Stone, a priest in the Westchester Ward, has been playing since fourth grade.
The sport becomes a consuming interest among the boys who play. They take their lacrosse sticks, which are from three-to-six feet long and have small net pockets on one end, with them everywhere. They carry them around at school, they take them on vacation, and, sometimes to the leaders’ frustration, they even take them to church. But not on Sundays.
Tonight is activity night, and the Laurels and priests are meeting at the chapel in New Canaan, Connecticut, to go bowling. While they wait, a pickup game of basketball develops in the cultural hall. As the basketball players run up and down the court, Matt and his friend Mark Fuller are using their lacrosse sticks to whip a small rubber ball back and forth between the players. They seem unconcerned about the threat of a black eye or broken nose as the ball whizzes past them. They’ve watched Mark and Matt practice everywhere and have seen them play on the state championship team. They know the lacrosse players have complete control.
Mark and Matt, like many other lacrosse players in the area, have become enraptured with a sport that the Lamanites were playing long before the first Pilgrims ever set foot on the shores of New England. In those days, the playing fields were huge—sometimes covering several miles. The object of the game was, and still is, to pass the ball from player to player, using the sticks, and to get it in the opposing team’s goal. Sometimes the goals would be set in opposing tribes’ camps, and whoever scored first won whatever disputes the two tribes were trying to settle.
Today, though, the game is played on a field ten yards longer than a football field. A team has ten players: a goalkeeper, three defensemen, three midfielders, and three attackmen. The players wear helmets, padded gloves, shorts, cleated shoes, and jerseys. The game is not unlike soccer, but instead of advancing a large ball by kicking it, a ball slightly smaller than a baseball is passed from stick to stick.
“There’s a lot of action, and there’s never any dead time where nothing’s going on,” says Dean Phelps, a priest in the Wilton Ward. He gladly passed up baseball to play on the Scarsdale High lacrosse team, which also competes in the spring.
The LDS boys who play are definitely in the minority on their teams. Their teammates tease them about being LDS, but in a very good-natured way. They’ll ask the LDS players to bless the field before the game, or say a special prayer when someone gets injured, and they’re half serious. Last year, before Matt was a starter, the two players ahead of him were out because of sickness and injury. “Clawson,” the coach teased, “I don’t know if you prayed for the chance to play or not, but while you’re at it, you might pray for a little speed. You’re going to need it out there.”
It’s all in fun, though, the LDS players insist. “They really do have a lot of respect for us because we’re honest and we stick to our morals,” Mark notes. “They give everybody a bad time about something or other.”
While the players in the Yorktown Stake assert that lacrosse is their favorite sport, it has its down side as well. It’s nearly impossible to come away from a game without any bruises on your arms. It’s inevitable when players are blocking each other and their shots with sticks. And at times the drills during practice—running, throwing, catching, running, throwing, catching—can become very tedious. But they even see that as one of the sport’s assets.
“Lacrosse teaches us discipline that will help us on our missions,” says Rich, speaking for the LDS players in the Yorktown Stake who are very serious about their intent to serve. “You’ve got to work hard to play lacrosse, and I’m sure it will be the same way in the mission field. Sometimes practice is so monotonous; you do the same thing every day. But you just keep pushing and pushing. Then when it’s time for the game, you’re glad you had the practice. I’m sure it’s the same way on a mission. When it comes time to baptize someone, you’re grateful for the time and effort you put in, no matter how monotonous it might have seemed once.”
Dean agrees, and adds that the converse is also true—that mission preparation has helped his lacrosse. “Our school lacrosse program is pretty lax, and it would be easy not to work real hard, but the discipline I’ve learned through scripture study and going to seminary has helped me to stick with it and give it my all,” he says.
These young men will have no regrets when the time comes to trade their lacrosse sticks for a different set of “sticks”—the scriptures. They’re excited about carrying their scriptures around every day, even more diligently than they carry their lacrosse sticks around now.
Even though the mission field is still a way off for them, the LDS lacrosse players in New England are busy working hard and diligently to become good players and good missionaries. And you can be assured that they’ll stick with it.