Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Nellie Theorem and Lacrosse

The best season of the year is here. Lacrosse has started and the two eldest Nelligan boys grind it out at Severn School varsity practice on windswept fields in winter twilight.  Cold, tired, and aching from hits.  This is what it takes.   
From the afternoon chill of a high-performing varsity, the next morning at 7:30, it’s even colder, and hey, perfect -- it’s sleeting.  A third Nellie is in a fierce fight for a roster spot on a top-notch traveling team – the crucible will be a 35-minute scrimmage that trims 42 kids to a team of 17.  “No pressure, my man,” I tell young son before it starts, “If you don’t make it, your life will be ruined.”
No, there’s no sport like lacrosse.  It requires masterful hand-eye coordination –catching and throwing on the run, both left and right handed, with the ball coming in hard at a pocket 1/3 the size of a baseball glove.  The game requires continual, instant decisions on angles across a huge field of play on which there are at least a dozen guys moving. It requires the endurance to run distances, accelerate fast, cut, and backpedal.  And oh yeah, you have to absorb 15 to 20 collisions a game, some from the blindside.  There is simply no other sport that asks as much on a consistent basis.
It’s also a sport in which personal initiative plays an essential role.  It can come down to a kid throwing a ball against a wall, left hand, right hand – for hour after lonely hour, day after week after month.  I know.  I’ve seen three sons do it. 
In the larger scope, it’s commitment.  And numbers tell the tale.  Not long ago, wool-gathering at a practice, I happily ventured through the lacrosse career of eldest son Devlin.  All told, he’s been a member of 38 separate teams (school, rec league, travel).  He’s played in approximately 780 full-scale, refereed, and scored games.  And he’s attended about 1,800 practices.  And that doesn’t count today’s practice.
And yeah, there has been driving involved.  Conversely, that’s one of the best elements of the entire crusade.  Dad and a kid in a car – one-on-one with no brothers, no rush, and conversations about anything and everything.  If you drive 55 miles to a game and lose, it’s the old man saying, “Tough luck, bud.  Shake it off.” If you win, you recite, play-by-play, every minute of four quarters.  And after every game, there’s always the same sequence (derived from the 2006 Cherry Blossom tourney):  “Ok, pal, let’s talk The Good, The Bad, and the Don’t Over-react.”
The weekend tournaments – at home or in Rhode Island, Virginia or in New Jersey -- are even better.  Three or four games a day, constant pressure to win, Dads yelling around -- “Move the ball!!  Wheels, wheels!” and my personal favorite, "Get your head in the game!" In the older tourneys, college coaches sit in chairs on the sidelines. 
Middle-son Braden was on a team that won half-a-dozen tournaments in a single season.  Every championship game, I’d be in my usual froth:  Muttering and pacing up and down the sideline, mouth full of chewing gum, hands in pockets, kicking the ground with my shoes, a total nervous wreck.  In all my professional life in politics, working on the Hill and for cabinet officials, I have never been more anxious than on a sideline in a tight game with about two minutes left in a one-score thriller.
Why Why WHY?!  It’s the Nellie Theorem, and it applies to all sports in general.  First, any kid on a field has placed himself in full glare to be publically judged and measured – parents and kids take this for granted all the time but it’s vital to remember. Second, being on that field, a kid is welcoming adversity.  The wrong move, the dropped ball, the opponent crushing them – every decision counts and carries with it consequences.  Third, a kid is on a team and forced to work with others to accomplish a goal.  Those kids who can’t join and achieve?  Well, you’ll find them in the basement playing COD eight hours a day. Fourth, sports requires endurance – mental and physical – grinding, focused attention, which is converse from a shallow, entertainment-saturated, electronic culture of instant acknowledgement and gratification. 
The Theorem payoff is earned success, confidence, resilience, toughness.  A bonus, of course, is that you can marshal the talent, poise, and leadership into an assist for getting into college, which Devlin was able to do recently.  And all that means is more sidelines for the old man to pace, chomping gum and muttering like a madman.
And yes, the season looms ahead.  I recently, after work, was able to catch a little of Devlin and Braden at the Varsity practice. Wow, just like many years ago on the Bethesda six-year-old team, both sons on the field at the same time.  And no, no misty eyes for Dad.  Rather, I marveled at what it took for them to get to this level -- last spring, Severn was ranked 39th in the nation by ESPN.
I’ve seen how the sport designed them, in its intangible fashion, into these rugged and alert young men, hulking in helmets and pads and gloves, digging in around the goal as the opposing midfielders headed toward them on the dead run.  Man, here it is -- speed, angles, strength, decision making, teamwork, confidence – all again for the first time.
Yep, 1,800 practices.  What it takes, indeed.