Although I’ve only had the privilege of meeting Greg Gurenlian on one occasion to date,
it’s not an experience I will ever forget. It was the summer of 2013 and I had driven with my younger brother all the way from Carthage, New York to Berkley Heights, New Jersey for a face-off clinic hosted by Gurenlian’s FaceOff Academy. It was a 10-hour round trip for a 3-hour clinic, and it was completely and totally worth it.
Upon arriving early in the morning, we found that we were one of only two vehicles in the
parking lot next to the field. As we sat there, wondering who else had decided to show up even earlier than we did, my brother Paul spotted a large, muscular figure carrying (not dragging) one of the cages (with what I’m pretty sure was just one hand) from one end of the field to the other. We looked at each other and asked, almost simultaneously, “is that who I think it is?”
After going out to the field and shaking hands with one of the friendliest guys I’ve ever met in my life, I then partook in what was my favorite lacrosse experience ever from the player-at-a-clinic perspective under Gurelian’s Face Off Academy tutelage. From the get-go, Gurenlian was both incredibly friendly, personable and just a flat-out fun guy for all of the players there but also very straightforward with what the expectations were:
“It’s one thing if I see a guy jump early [before the whistle] by accident but if I catch you
intentionally cheating or trying to hurt someone at any point, you’re done,” he said in the pre-clinic stretching circle.
It didn’t matter how far any of us players had traveled or how much we’d paid to be there. If you didn’t compete with class and integrity, you had no business being in his presence or that of his fellow FaceOff Academy coaches. That’s the kind of guy that many of us lacrosse fans will sorely miss being able to witness performing for the New York Lizards. I’ve since had the privilege of coaching a couple clinics in Syracuse with Joe Nardella’s Face-Off Factory, and I try to create an atmosphere where the players I coach are as excited as I was back in 2013. As I said above, meeting Gurenlian was an experience I will never forget.
Fast forward to this year when Major League Lacrosse’s regular season wrapped up on the first weekend of August. Passionate fans at James M. Shuart Stadium were treated to both an exciting win and, more importantly in my opinion, the last MLL performance of none other than Greg “The Beast” Gurenlian. Naturally, the Beast performed in classic Beast fashion throughout the course of his final contest winning 20 out of 33 face-offs (60.6%) against the talented tandem of Brendan Fowler and Kevin Massa.
What was very profound about the way the battle at the X unfolded was the fact that Gurenlian scooped up 11 ground balls on his 20 wins, while his opponents managed a combined total of 6.
Although it was by no means the most dominant performance of his career percentage-wise (even though it easily would be for most other guys), the manner in which the Beast continually controlled what ensued between the 2-point arcs from the opening whistle, thus willing his team to their 7th (and final) win of the season, was very telling of the grit and fortitude with which he has approached his craft since first entering the league back in 2006.
What was most touching about the entire evening however was the farewell speech given
by Gurenlian to the fans who have supported one of the greatest this game has ever seen since his joining the franchise seven years ago. “When I got here in 2010 you guys took me in right away and I played for you. I played healthy, I played hurt, but I always played hard and I wanted to give you guys something to cheer about… because I love you. Thanks for loving me.” Now that we sit at the conclusion of one of the greatest careers the league has ever witnessed, I think it’s safe to say “something to cheer about” as it pertains to the Beast’s seven-year performance would be a pretty severe understatement, albeit a humble one (again, classic Beast fashion).
Since Gurenlian first donned the team’s uniform in 2010, the Long Island/New York Lizards have consistently led the league in one category for six out of the last eight years: the face-off.
Let that sink in for just a minute.
Gurenlian declined to walk away (where many others might have) after being shunned out of the league in 2009. He didn’t quit after a season-ending injury in 2011. He refused to let any of the condescending notions that once surrounded the face-off position dictate the passion and sportsmanship with which he performed it, dominated it and ultimately redefined it. After all that and more, his team leads the entire league in both face-off win percentage since 2012 and number of face-off wins since 2014. In the process, the Lizards were rewarded with four playoff bids and a well-deserved Steinfeld Cup in 2015, which was appropriately dubbed “The Year of the Face-Off Man.”
Although many ardent lacrosse fans will be understandably saddened by Gurenlian’s
retirement from the league (which deserves all of the pomp and glamour as that of an NFL superstar as far as I’m concerned), his no longer being a player in the MLL does not mean that we won’t be able to witness the Beast perform at a high level at least one more time. According to a CBS New York article from this past February, Gurenlian has indicated that he will in fact make one more run at a World Lacrosse Championship gold medal with Team USA on the advice of ESPN’s Paul Carcaterra. Needless to say, I’m already looking forward to summer ’18.
So there you have it, although the major league playing career of one of the greatest ever
to set foot on a lacrosse field must alas come to an end, the legacy that Gurenlian leaves behind serves as a reminder to all in the lacrosse community of what hard work and dedication on a daily basis can do to revolutionize and revitalize a key aspect of the fastest game on two feet.
Obviously I am going to miss the days of watching the Beast duke it out at the X with other all- time greats like Geoff Snider, Chris Eck, Anthony Kelly and more recently guys I currently work with like Joe Nardella. However, I am more than happy to settle for him taking the international stage one more time, bringing home the gold with Team USA and proving, once again, how drastically our sport can thrive at a grassroots level when we have more “beasts” and fewer “bros.”
From all of us with a special place for the game of lacrosse in our hearts, thank you Greg
Gurenlian. Thank you, Beast.