Kennedy: Lacrosse, original American pastime

Kennedy: Lacrosse, original American pastime

March 16th, 2014 by Mark Kennedy in Life Entertainment

Last Saturday, my 12-year-old son propped his right leg on the coffee table to show me his flesh wounds.

He started up on his thigh with a big, purple bruise that looked like a paintball had detonated on his skin. Then he traced the purple dots down the front of his leg leading to a small, spidery cut on his kneecap. There were more small bruises on his shins from the whap-whap-whap of an opponent's stick.

Far from complaining, he was showing off these minor cuts and bruises as if they were Boy Scout merit badges - hard-earned evidence of a full month of competitive boys' lacrosse.

"What about that?" I said, pointing to an inflamed red spot on the top of his right foot.

"Oh, that's from getting cleated in soccer," he said dismissively.

Quietly - perhaps invisibly if you don't have school-age children - lacrosse is emerging as a major new youth sport here. There are thriving club teams based in Chattanooga, Signal Mountain, Lookout Mountain, Middle Valley, Soddy-Daisy, East Brainerd and Dalton, Ga.; many private schools field teams, as well.

I've only been around the edges of the game for about a year now, but I hear more and more parents say their children are attracted to lacrosse because it's more fast-paced than traditional spring sports such as baseball and softball. It also has ground-floor appeal - you don't have to be an elite athlete to contribute.

Once a regional sport confined mainly to private prep schools and colleges along America's Eastern seaboard, lacrosse - a 1,000-year-old game originated by Native Americans - is now on a march across the South.

Some facts you might not know:

• The McCallie School is a traditional state power in lacrosse. I was in a lacrosse retail store in Nashville recently and the Middle Tennessee clerk spoke in almost reverential terms about the Blue Tornado's recent decade of dominance.

• The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has a men's lacrosse club team that is ranked in the top 25 in the nation among National College Lacrosse League Division II teams.

• Just last week, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's nine-member Legislative Council considered (but ultimately took no action on) a request by two of its member schools to add lacrosse to the list of TSSAA-sanctioned sports. It's already an official school sport in Georgia and North Carolina.

"It's the hot-topic sport we hear the most about," TSSAA Assistant Executive Director Matthew Gillespie said last week.

On a national level the growth trends are even more striking:

• Lacrosse is the fastest-growing high school sport in America, with more than 280,000 male and female players, according the U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body.

• About half of all current youth players - pre-high school - are girls.

• In the six-year span between 2006 and 2012, the number of boys playing lacrosse nationally increased 81 percent, while for girls the increase was 69 percent. Over the same span, youth soccer participation was flat. Meanwhile, youth baseball participation dropped 24 percent in the first decade of the 21st century, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

• ESPN's family of networks televise more than 100 lacrosse games a season.

If you've never seen lacrosse played, it resembles hockey without the ice. The game is played outdoors with a dense rubber ball that players pass around using a lacrosse stick, basically a shaft with a strung head. The object is to score by shooting the ball into a netted goal.

The boys' game, while fast and physical, does not have the same tackling intensity as football, although the players wear helmets and upper-body pads. The girls' game does not allow the stick- and body-checking that are the bruising parts of the boys' game.

One of the endearing traditions of lacrosse is a post-game handshake between teams and - win or lose - a spirited "rah-rah" for your opponent. At once old and new, lacrosse feels like soccer in the 1970s, on the precipice of a popularity surge in the South that will make it a staple of the 21st century sports scene here.

Rah-rah, y'all.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.