Flip Naumburg passed away over the weekend, and while he leaves behind an amazing legacy in the game of lacrosse, the most important things he did in life happened off the field, when the games were over. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Flip a number of times, and while I never played for the man, he still treated me like family, because that’s what Flip was all about.
Now, this was not the warm and fuzzy type of family you see portrayed on TV, but neither was it all rules and regulations. It was always somewhere in between – a mixture of structure and warmth, of expectations and forgiveness, and an exchange of hugs and hard realities. Family was never easy, but it was never hard – it was just the basis on which Flip Naumburg approached life, and the game of lacrosse.
Flip Naumburg, Rest In Peace
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If you knew Flip well, or had the opportunity to play for him, you knew him as a coach and student of the game. His love for lacrosse was inescapable… And what a coach/student he was, winning 4 national titles at Colorado State, and prodding that MCLA program into eternal relevance. He pushed his teams, and his players, to be better. He wanted kids to get the most out of the game, and knew if they could do it on the field, then they could probably do it off the field too. He loved the beautiful game that lacrosse could be, embraced skill, passion, and hard work in his teams, and he knew that being a great lacrosse player was so much more than just being a great athlete.
If you played for Flip at CSU, you not only knew him as a coach, but you probably also knew him as a father, or a mother. Maybe both. If you knew him long enough, you may have also known him as a brother or a sister. If you only ran into him once or twice, he likely filled the role of uncle or aunt, or even grandparent. You’ll notice the words I used above to describe Flip’s possible roles span both genders, and this is because that’s just how family-oriented a man Flip was – he could even be a kid’s mother if the kid needed it. Family knew no bounds for this man. He could be hard on you, or provide a shoulder to lean on. He gave his family what they needed, when they needed it.
Of course, Flip also loved winning. He loved honest competition. He respected those who bested him, but used that respect to push himself, and his teams, up to that next level. When Flip saw a great player out on the field, he would study that player, and fully appreciate the greatness he was seeing. Then, he would take everything he’d learned and apply it to his game, or his coaching style, and he almost never got complacent. Flip was always striving for something more, something better – the perfect family – on or off the field.
He spoke from the heart, would shed an honest tear when he felt like it, and only wanted the best for the people around him. This was true within the CSU lacrosse program as well as Flip’s blood family, but it also extended to the business he started, Rock-it Pocket, and to the Vail Lacrosse Shootout, which he helped found over 40 years ago. It extended to his work within the lacrosse community on a larger scale as well, as Flip helped originate the offset head, and carved the first prototype out of wood, and then came up with another revolutionary idea when he dreamed up the idea for Epoch’s Hawk head.
Flip was creative, hard-working, passionate, and he cared deeply for his fellow man. This all combined to make Flip Naumburg a true original in our sport, and a man I count myself as very fortunate to have known personally.
I never played a game for Flip. I never played in Vail (hoping that changes this year!), and I never used a Rock-it Pocket. I met him for the first time when I was working on a documentary about him in 2013, but during the week or so I spent with Flip, we developed a bond that went way beyond the movie, because we talked about family. Flip shared his regrets with me, of which he had quite a few. He shared his triumphs as well, and it turns out there were a lot more of those, and that the regrets had pushed him forward. He talked about contracting Lyme Disease in the early 2000s, and how he had been ready to die. He talked about realizing that his life had changed, but that there was still so much to be done. Flip and I talked about life, and family, and every time I saw him after that he gave me a hug. He treated me like one of his own. I can only imagine the bond he must have shared with all the former players of his!
Flip was certainly appreciative of the film I helped produce with James Miceli of Epoch Lacrosse, but he also loved arguing with me about pockets, and how to best string them. We must have gone over the benefits and drawbacks of a pita track vs a wide traditional center track for two hours… the first time we talked about it. Round 2 went another hour or so. We also argued about specialization, shooting technique, and how physical the game could, or should, be. We talked about family, struggles, and dreams. We rarely agreed on all the specifics, but that was not the point – the point was to speak honestly, intelligently, and passionately, all in the hope that each of us could learn something new. Each and every time that did happen, and it’s a credit to Flip Naumburg.
I last saw Flip out in Vail, CO this past summer. It was my first time at the Vail Shootout, and I was blown away by the tournament even though I was injured and unable to play, let alone walk very well. Sure, it’s a great event, and the town is special, but the reality is that you can FEEL Flip out in Vail during that week. His essence is intrinsically tied to that event, even if a lot of people don’t know he founded it decades ago. Vail IS Flip, and being out there this Summer, I finally saw that.
If you watched the above video, you’ll see what I mean about Vail and Flip. It’s just a special place, blessed with an amazing event, attended by great people, created by a visionary man, and it embodies what Flip wanted most out of our game.
Now, was Flip some angel walking around with a halo over his head? Heck no. Flip was stubborn, opinionated, relentless, witty, and smart. He was driven, and he was knowledgeable, and he pursued the things he cared about with an almost singular determination. Sometimes one part of his family suffered so another part could thrive when it needed to, sometimes he went too far, but he always came back to center, to make things whole.
Flip held onto things in his life. He held on to grudges, and if you beat him on the field, watch out next time! He held on to ideas, and pursued them over decades if that’s what it required. But above all else, he held on to LOVE, and FAMILY, and it infused every single thing he did with a distinct feeling of passion. Flip was human. Like each and everyone one of us, he made mistakes, but it was how he owned up to them that mattered most.
Flip Naumburg will be missed. He was the original custom stringer. He invented the offset head. He created a lacrosse tournament in the Vail Shootout that has taken on a life of its own. He started a great business in Rock-it-Pocket, which is still going strong today. He created the program at CSU, and the accomplishments of his teams and players are legendary. Standing above all of that, Flip Naumburg created a strong family, formed bonds with countless individuals, and he gave the gift of life and lacrosse to so many.
Mourn Flip’s passing with me. Remember a man who did a lot for our game, but more importantly, did a lot for people. Use Flip as an example – a model of how to live life – and push his message forward through time. Remember the man, remember what he did, and use that knowledge to create your own family. It’s the best way to honor Flip’s life, and it would bring a big smile to his face knowing that he played some part in it all.