The Hamilton Spectator
‘The medicine is in connecting three things’
One of lacrosse’s best players comes to FirstOntario Centre to face the Rock on Saturday night
He is called, justifiably, a generational player. He’s poetry in motion, impossibly skilled in almost every aspect of lacrosse, in an arena or on a field. He is thoughtfully true to his beliefs and his heritage.
He is Lyle Thompson. On Saturday (7 p.m.), when his Georgia Swarm meet the lava-hot Rock at FirstOntario Centre, Hamilton fans will have what is probably their only chance to see Thompson play here before the arena closes for two years of renovations.
The Swarm are winless in their six games, but the 30-year-old Thompson has 14 goals and 15 assists, a scoring pace he’s consistently maintained throughout his sevenyear NLL career: 107 games, 249 goals, 558 points. He has a championship MVP trophy, a regular-season MVP award, and four sportsmanship awards in his NLL portfolio; is the only player to have twice won lacrosse’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy; has been a multiple all-star and MVP in pro field lacrosse; was 2015’s first draft choice overall in each of the box and field pro leagues; and has also starred in several regional indoor and outdoor leagues.
But his neon numbers, and steady ascent of the best-of-all-time ladder, don’t come close to telling the whole lacrosse story of Thompson, his three brothers and so many other Indigenous players of The Creator’s Game.
“Growing up in the Haudenosaunee community, you gravitate toward lacrosse: you play it; you learn about it; it is a way of life,” Thompson told The Spectator. “It’s a part of being Haudenosaunee and it comes with a lot of benefits and a lot of teaching points we can learn from. Playing has helped me understand, from a spiritual level, life itself. How to play the game, how to conduct myself while playing.”
More than 10 per cent of NLL players are Indigenous, and the league has increasingly committed itself to celebrating the ancient origins of lacrosse in First Nations, and how it is rooted in spirituality, the stick connecting the earth and the sky. The league commemorates the U.S.’s National Native American Heritage History Month in November and Canada’s National Indigenous History Month in June. The Rock’s annual Indigenous Heritage Night is on March 11.
The NLL just concluded its 2023 “Every Child Matters” initiative, spreading awareness and giving money to support groups on both sides of the border that help and honour survivors, their families and communities still affected by the atrocities of residential schools.
Thompson and other Indigenous players, have been headliners of that campaign.
“The league has given us the platform to tell the stories we want to tell,” says Thompson, who grew up in Oswego, near Syracuse, N.Y. “It’s an opportunity to educate everybody on something that isn’t necessarily being taught in school, so people can understand, from an Indigenous point of view, where a lot
of the problems stem from in the hope that people can feel and support them in a bigger way. Hoping that we can gain support from nonIndigenous people.
“At the same time, Indigenous people have to heal from a lot of the things we’re facing, so it isn’t just education for non-natives. I always say that, what you review, you heal.”
Thompson and many Indigenous NLL players keep their hair traditionally long and in braids, “allowing people to identify me as a native just from my hair itself.” Four years ago, he was subjected to wretchedly ugly taunts about the braid from the public address announcer during a game in Philadelphia. The announcer was quickly dismissed.
“By expressing my emotions, I did get a lot of support from my team, the league, the fans,” Thompson recalls. “The experience was heartbreaking but I learned so much from it about myself and the support I got.”
Thompson recognizes he’s an ambassador — which he describes as personally standing for his word, values and beliefs — for not only Indigenous players, but for the game of lacrosse itself, but says it’s as an individual. His intent is never to speak for an entire community.
But he will speak this way about lacrosse, the most spiritual of all team games: “It doesn’t really matter if it’s field or box lacrosse or playing in the backyard. The medicine is in connecting three things; the stick, the ball and the energy you’re putting into your whole body to play.”