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Grow The Game. Grow The Family.

Editor’s Note: Please welcome Dan Osborne to Dan has agreed to share a very personal story about his family, the lacrosse community, and how life can flip everything upside down when you least expect it. Dan’s family story is also about overcoming adversity, and about people stepping up to do more than anyone would reasonably expect of them. It’s well worth your time to read the story below, but we sincerely hope it doesn’t stop there. Get inspired, get involved, and grow the family. YOU, yes YOU, can make a difference.

Grow The Game. Grow The Family

by Dan Osborne

“Top left! Ball’s top left!” Ok. Breathe, just breathe. Relax. Don’t tense up, just relax.

I started playing lacrosse when I was just four years old. I started tending goal when I was in first grade. Growing up in Central New York, everyone played lacrosse. This was true not only in my immediate family, but also in our larger community, as literally everyone played the game. Our school was only a short drive from the nearby First Nations community, and early on in life we learned that we were not born into this game, but that we had been adopted into it, and were expected to behave as a member of the family. And every family is unique.grow the family

Outsiders often see family as something entirely different than what the members themselves see, and very few understand the dynamic. Matt Groening once said, “I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense to me.” That is how outsiders often see families.

The above may explain why some people describe the larger lacrosse community as a group of “bros” wearing snap back hats and Vineyard Vines shirts. They look past the little boy practicing against the bounce back and only see affluence. They miss the grass roots campaigns that bring equipment to international teams and instead see only prep schools. They overlook the youth pick-up games that have grown this sport for decades and instead see a new generation of frat brothers with sticks.

They know the words but the sentence doesn’t make sense.

“The tumor is in the top left part of his brain.” Ok. Breathe, just breathe. Relax. Don’t tense up, just relax.

My son was diagnosed with a brain tumor at twenty-one months old, an oligodendroglioma in his left parietal lobe – a word I would spend weeks trying to remember and months trying to spell correctly. My wife and I were terrified to say the least. This was not part of the plan. We have two other children – aged three and four at the time – who needed us and needed their brother. How would our family work with a child born with a chronic illness?

We knew the words, but that sentence – it just didn’t make any sense.

Lacrosse is a unique sport. On the field or floor, it has elements that resemble hockey, basketball, soccer, and many other sports. To the outsider there is something that feels familiar but not enough to immediately feel comfortable. I’m ok with that – most people probably feel the same way about my family. We look the same as a lot of others but there is something different, something uncomfortable about connecting with the family of a sick child.

The recent expansion of the sport has seemed to highlight the sport’s lack of diversity adding to stereotypes, and taking away from the incredible accomplishments of men such as Jim Brown, Kyle Harrison, Myles Jones, Lyle Thompson, and so many others. To those standing outside, lacrosse can certainly seem like a good ol’ boys club. They know the words but the sentence doesn’t make sense to them.

There’s an important conversation in that but I’ll save that for another time, because for now, there is another part of this sport that I very much hope those who don’t play will one day understand.

This sport, at its roots, is (and always has been) about family.

Most people who have played sports at an elite level will say that family played a tremendous role in their success. Most people who have played team sports will describe their teammates as a second family. This is true for lacrosse as well but that isn’t the family that I’m speaking of. The lacrosse world is family. The player is buoyed by nine teammates on the field and thousands off the field. The sport is old – steeped in tradition that takes enormous pride in its communal roots. It reaches across team colors, across state lines, across cultures, and across oceans. Lacrosse is a single tree with a great many branches and leaves.

Today my sons’ room is littered with lacrosse gear. There are UNC gloves from Coach Breschi, a team signed jersey from Lehigh, another from the local high school, a Shootout For Soldiers jersey, and piles and piles of Navy Lacrosse gear. All of these items hold a special place in my youngest son’s heart but nothing compares to the gear from Navy. He has a number 37 jersey hanging on the wall under the uniform cover of the Marine that wore it. He has a pair of gloves signed by the entire 2016 team and a practice jersey to match. His brother sleeps under Brady Dove’s jersey and a “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag. There are too many t-shirts, shorts, and sweatshirts to keep track of.

On another wall sits a picture of him leading the team out of the tunnel with an American flag in hand – a moment neither of us is likely to ever forget. He has lived through three major brain surgeries, hundreds of tests, and countless days in the hospital, but these walls represent the moments he remembers. He has a hard time recalling what happened the last time he was in the hospital but can tell you every detail of the moment that Patrick Keena welcomed him to the team, Pat Menezes handed him a jersey, or Brady Dove pulled him into the team huddle. He remembers every time Coach Wellner greeted him like the team had organized a practice just so he could be a part of it.

My son was signed by Navy Lacrosse through TeamIMPACT – a Massachusetts based nonprofit that works to pair children with chronic illnesses with collegiate athletic programs. I first heard of the organization from a Maryland press release detailing their signing of 6-year- old Fionn Crimmins. I was reluctant to sign my son up – it seemed like just another thing that was going to define him by his sickness. I hate that. I hate that he has to be known as the kid with a brain tumor. But my wife and extended family pushed me and I submitted the application. I will be eternally grateful for their encouragement.

Both of my sons will live and die by Navy Lacrosse – and not by their wins, they couldn’t care less about that. Families win together and families lose together but they walk away the same – as a family. As long they get to walk away from the game with their brothers, their world is whole. In that sense, they are pretty miserable teammates and completely detract from a D1 coach’s goal of winning games, but Navy didn’t recruit them to rack up W’s or steamroll opponents. The coaches saw an opportunity to make a difference in a little boy’s life and watched it change the lives of the fifty boys he, his brother, and his sister grew to call family. He is on the sidelines for games while his brother harasses the team managers and his sister huddles with the team moms, chatting away about the boys and their opponent. It’s a much bigger family than we had known, but in reality, it’s still only a small branch on the much larger tree.

Families both celebrate and struggle together. The lacrosse community knows that all too well. We’ve had to say goodbye to far too many far too early, and each one has hurt. But that speaks to the strength of the community – to the strength of the tree. We know each leaf and how much is lost when one falls. I always knew and appreciated the family dynamic of this game but it wasn’t until my son was diagnosed that I realized the power of the community.

When my son is in the hospital I have players, coaches, and fans of the game reaching out to my family from all over the world. He is a Navy guy – they get that. It doesn’t matter. This last stay he had more than a dozen emails from the Harvard lacrosse team, well wishes from multiple teams in the Patriot League, letters and gifts from professional teams and coaches, words of encouragement from teams preparing for the world games, bloggers and writers reaching out through social media, and dozens of his Navy teammates at his side. Even now, many inside the lacrosse world are waiting to come alongside him as he prepares for what will be his fourth and fifth surgeries.

On the surface, he’s a rock star with a huge fan base. What kid wouldn’t want all of this attention from elite athletes? Obviously, we would trade it all in for a clean bill of health. But that’s not really an option. He’s not any closer to getting better and lacrosse is not any further from abandoning its roots.

The sport has an uncanny ability to rally around its own and carry their brother’s water when he is not able. This is the sport that was born before our country but continues to plant seeds across the world. This is the sport where bros wearing Vineyard Vines and snap back hats deliver gear to our cities’ schools that can’t afford it, and help build youth teams where kids are looking for an alternative. This is the sport that is desperate to grow but determined to keep its roots.

It’s a sport that predates all of us and that is birthed from a community that looked at this as far more than a game. This is the sport where victory will always mean more than a win and loss will always be deeper than a scoreboard.

“Top left, dad! Top left! That guy’s wide open!”  Nothing compares to watching a lacrosse game with your sons.

My son is old enough to pick up on the basic clockwork of the game but too young to see the nuance. He knows when teams are playing flat and when a team can spin the ball faster than the defense can move their feet. But he misses the picture inside the picture – he can’t see a trap defense or an attackman sneaking around from X as the alley opens up for a dodger. He knows the words but the sentence doesn’t quite make sense – yet. And sometimes we, as a larger community, see the sport with the same myopic view – we miss the nuance. It can be easy to do as the branches on the tree grow bigger and stronger.

Why look to connect with family members I can’t see when I have so many here at home?

There is both a desire to grow the game and a fear that it will change because of growth. It’s in those moments that we look at the horizon and stop walking. The problem is that the shadow is always darkest when you’re looking at it from the light. The fear of change looks daunting from the comfort of consistency. But families can not survive without change. We need new brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and mothers and fathers if we are to continue to grow. More than that we need more first, second, and third cousins. We need more box lacrosse, more World Games, more diversity. If we take a moment to honestly look at what this sport has given us, how could we possibly keep it to ourselves?

There are countless kids out there looking for a mentor, a coach, or a teammate. Lacrosse asks a lot on the field but gives so much more off of it. Please take a moment to appreciate the community you belong to and invite those around you to join in. Look across the pond at the new teams struggling to bring the game to their communities. What difference are you willing to make?

Take a moment to explain the sentence, because you know the words – not just through your voice but through your actions.

Grow The Game. Grow The Family. #GoNavy