To penetrate the Indian game, one must enter a world of spiritual belief and magic.
– Dr. Thomas Vennum, Jr. American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War
Robbie was too excited to sleep that night. He tossed for hours, staring out his window at the light from the full moon and dreaming of the endless possibilities of the stick. His imagination spun questions and answers concerning the carvings and writing on the shaft. Finally, after drifting off, he was met in a dream by a young Indian boy. Though asleep to the rest of the world, Robbie was completely awake in his dream, fully aware of what was happening to him.
The Indian boy approached Robbie and introduced himself. “Hello, I’m Red Hawk. You’re Robbie, right?”
“Yes,” Robbie said, stunned that the stranger knew his name.
“And you are now the custodian of the stick?” Red Hawk asked with a broad smile.
Robbie smiled back, “Mr. Lewis gave me the stick this afternoon.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” Red Hawk offered sincerely.
“Same here,” gushed Robbie, overwhelmed by the notion that he might be talking to someone who had lived two-hundred years before. Though Robbie didn’t ask, based on their similar heights he could tell that Red Hawk was about his age, perhaps fourteen.
“When he gave me the stick, Mr. Lewis told me that it was special, but I had no idea that this is what he meant.” Robbie continued. “This is unbelievable!”
“Well, I know this is hard for you to believe, but through the stick I have been able to visit several other boys, and all of them had the same initial response. They have all been great boys and men!”
“What am I supposed to do with the stick?” Robbie posed as an obvious first question.
“That’s up to you. You can do whatever you want,” Red Hawk smiled again.
Robbie wasn’t sure what was in the realm of possibility, so he asked a more pointed question. “Mr. Lewis told me that I would be able to find out more about the history of this stick through the stick itself. Did he mean that someone like you would be able to teach me things?”
“That depends on what you want to learn,” Red Hawk replied cryptically.
“Can you tell me how you got the stick, then?”
“Sure. But perhaps we should talk about some other things first. I should start by saying, Robbie, that we’ll be able to visit people and places of the past. We’ll be able to see and hear all around us, but none of the people of those earlier times will notice us. We’ll be there, but we’ll be completely unknown and invisible to anyone involved,” Red Hawk explained.
Robbie’s dream was so real and so clear and he went deeper into its magic.
Red Hawk thought it best to begin with a narrative on the nature of the game of lacrosse in his culture.
“For any young man in our Cherokee tribe, these sticks symbolized a great deal. As soon as we touched the sticks, every one of us could immediately feel the power and spirit of the warriors, living and deceased, in our tribe. What the French named lacrosse, we called stickball. The game was a central part of our lives as boys, a way for us to be accepted as men. When we were still too young to go into battle with our older brothers, uncles, and fathers, stickball substituted as a means to show our strength, skill, and courage—the same traits that would make us successful as hunters and defenders of our tribe. When we became older, we still played with passion, mostly to invite the favor of our gods, to strengthen our boys, to earn respect for our clans in contests with others, and to continue to parade our physical prowess and courage. It was a game but also a tool that helped us become men. Would you like to see what the game looked like for my people?”
Red Hawk walked Robbie through a small stand of shade trees which ran into the shadows and burst out into a bright, sun-lit meadow. This was Robbie’s first trip through time and it was to a Cherokee village on the Little Tennessee River in current-day Smoky Mountain National Park on the western edge of North Carolina. The year was 1835.
Red Hawk began, “This is the clan of my grandfather, the Bear Clan. They are preparing for a stickball game with the Wolf Clan, who issued a challenge earlier in the summer.”
Robbie soaked in the lush green scenery, the gentle mountains all around. Red Hawk led Robbie to a small stream where they saw about twenty Cherokee young men waist deep in the water. Red Hawk described the scene.
“These players are undergoing preparations for the contest tomorrow. They must cleanse themselves completely. Our tribe calls this ritual ‘going to water.’ It is conducted almost exactly like the ceremony for warriors going on the war path. It is necessary for each combatant, each player in this case, to cleanse and purge themselves.”
Some of the youngest warriors drank strong spirits from a jug and immediately vomited in the stream.
“That man,” Red Hawk pointed out the older man, “is the village conjurer or shaman. He is responsible for invoking the proper spirits and rituals to ensure success.”
Robbie watched as the man wiped ointment on the small sticks and then prayed over them. The boy noticed the interesting shape of the sticks. They were much smaller than he expected, and they were used in pairs. They were not quite like the one he had just inherited.
“The conjurers play a great role in determining the outcome of a contest,” Red Hawk shared. “They perform many rituals over the players. They even cast spells on the opposing team to impose poor play on them.”
The young men left the stream and began to march to the village center, where they were received by a large assemblage. “This is the ball play dance, Robbie. To energize their team all the villagers come out to offer chants, to beat drums, and to dance. These events will go on well into the night.”
Red Hawk then took Robbie to the events of the next morning. They observed the players wearing only breechclouts around their waists and feathers in their hair, marching in single file with sticks in hand to the river. “They are going to water again, Robbie. Each player has fasted at least since yesterday. Now once more they will cleanse themselves.”
The players dipped their sticks in the water and then bathed themselves. As the players waded out of the water, the conjurer ‘scratched’ each player. Robbie was shocked to observe the blood seeping out of the shallow gashes. Red Hawk brought Robbie closer. The boy stared at the scratching implement. It looked like a comb with about six or eight teeth. The teeth, however, were rattlesnake fangs inserted into a feather’s quill. The shaman dipped the comb into a pot of sacred plant juice and meticulously etched the body of each warrior. Some of the players requested scratching in two or three areas—the chest, the arms, and the legs—with the hope that this would strengthen their lungs and limbs for the contest. After scratching, the conjurer rubbed all of the players with ointment.
The players then again formed a single file and began their march to the field in step with the beat of a war drum. Some of the players bellowed whoops as they marched. Most focused silently within themselves, invoking the Great Spirit to provide strength and courage.
Before the contest started, the conjurers of each team escorted the players to the center of the field, where they faced each other. Robbie marveled at the similarity to the pre-game lineup of his games. The conjurers then offered instructions on the rules of the contest and on fair play. Robbie noticed the goals were about three hundred yards apart and marked by two sticks set about ten feet apart.
Play began with two center men battling for a ball tossed in the air. A face-off, Robbie thought. Play was intense. The ball was often picked up with one stick and then carried with the second stick placed on top of the first. It seemed as though the fastest, strongest, and smartest players were the most successful. Passing did not seem to be an integral part of the game—many players simply ran with the ball until they were stopped by force, resulting in a mad scramble for a loose ball. Robbie watched in amazement as several pairs of players dropped their sticks and wrestled each other.
Play went on for a few hours, the Bear Clan scoring fifteen goals to the Wolf’s twelve. After the game, the players again adjourned to the river for cleansing and finally to the village center for the Victory Dance.
“You can see, Robbie, these ceremonies are as important as the games themselves. The Victory Dance is similar to the one we perform when warriors return from battle.”
Robbie remembered that Red Hawk had said that his people were the Cherokee and Mr. Lewis had told him that the stick was from the Iroquois.
“Did you say that your people were the Cherokee?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Well, Mr. Lewis told my family and me that this stick was from the Iroquois.”
“Oh, right. Well, we will have plenty of time to discuss that. I’ll be back to see you soon. We must go now.” He gestured to the shadows, and they quickly moved into the trees. “I really just wanted to introduce myself tonight. I’ll see you again soon.”
The next morning Robbie woke none the worse for having been engaged in such a real and passionate dream. He shared the experience with his parents, who rather quickly dismissed it as a fantastical trip brought on by the excitement of the previous day.
Class of 1910 Gate
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Jim Lewis watched and waited patiently for the game to end as a lifetime of memories swirled around in his head. Rather than subject itself to such unfamiliar anarchy, his brain systematically quelled the maelstrom by organizing the whirl of thoughts into small, short snippets of a blessed life. His experienced fighter-pilot eyes tracked his target, an intrepid young lacrosse player—a ninth-grader, he guessed—finishing his game. Unbeknownst to him or anyone besides Lewis, the boy had been in radar-lock for two weeks now. The boy’s life was about to change, for the better Lewis hoped, as his own had nearly a half-century earlier.
Though Lewis knew this moment would come, he didn’t completely know what to expect, but in typical fashion he dealt with this watershed event like all others in his life—calmly, dispassionately, and by-the-book. He was acutely aware of all things happening both within him and without. He felt the emotion. He felt the years of memories run like a torrent through his mind but somehow was able to absorb them as they flooded by. He felt the significance of what was about to happen as well as a longing to go back and do it all again. He also felt a sense of relief at having met a lifetime of arduous challenges with grace and dignity. Now it was time.
Lewis waited for the post-game cheers and handshakes and then strode slowly, but purposefully, toward the young man and his parents. When it was clear to the parents that the stranger wished to speak with them, they slowed and offered inquisitive looks. They had never met this man. The stranger was nondescript in his appearance, of average height, perhaps five-eight or -nine. He was wearing duck boots, khakis, a blue golf jacket, dark sunglasses, and a plain blue ball cap. The salt-and-pepper hair beneath the cap betrayed some age, but otherwise his thin, strong, athletic frame could have easily deceived the couple into thinking he was a man twenty years younger. Before he spoke, he presented a remarkably dignified appearance.
“Good afternoon. My name is Jim Lewis,” he said as he extended his hand.
They introduced themselves as Mary and John Jones and then introduced their daughter Catherine. The boy firmly shook the stranger’s hand, “I’m Robbie.”
Lewis asked if the family had a few minutes to chat about lacrosse and, more importantly, about Robbie. He wanted to talk now—timing was important—and, if at all possible, on this field. Though a little confused and skeptical, the parents graciously indulged him.
“When I was about Robbie’s age, I was presented a lacrosse stick—a very special lacrosse stick—by a complete stranger, as I am to you right now. I have had the stick for about forty-two years, and it has meant a great deal to me,” Lewis began. “The man who gave me the stick, Mr. Doug Turnbull, made only two requests of me. The first was to do my best to respect the game of lacrosse and the second was to pass the stick along to a worthy young man who might also put it to good use. I played lacrosse quite a few years ago and did my best to respect the game and its history. And now it is time to pass it along. I would like Robbie to have it.”
Lewis failed to mention that he had not just played the game, but had revolutionized it in the nineteen-sixties during a string of national championship teams at the United States Naval Academy. And he didn’t mention a distinguished career as a naval aviator—twenty-nine years as a fighter- and test-pilot.
Lewis walked the family to the trunk of his car, where he carefully pulled out an old leather bag by its shoulder strap, the contents secured by leather thongs. It was an unusual and unique arrangement, not something you would expect to hold a lacrosse stick. He carefully untied the thongs, slipped the stick out, and handed it to the boy.
“Robbie, this stick is over two-hundred years old, and it has a remarkable history and some special qualities that I would like to share with you.”
When Lewis placed the stick in his hand the boy felt his whole body tingle. It felt perfectly balanced and at home in his hands.
Lewis continued, “The stick has managed to survive as it has been passed down through several generations during those two-hundred years. It is perhaps the oldest lacrosse stick still in use. The men who had it before me took very good care of it, and I’ve tried to do my part.”
As Robbie held the stick Lewis softly touched the leather and gut netting inside the head of the stick, the pocket. “This is the soul of the stick, Robbie,” Lewis said, gazing softly at the net and gently caressing the strings.
The boy and the parents could see that Lewis’s fingers had traveled these strings countless times before. He continued, “The true essence of a stick is its pocket. The person who crafted this stick did so with the care, wisdom, passion, and precision of an Indian warrior. Look at the strings, the knots, the alignment of them in relation to each other, and all the care that was put into the stringing. The warrior spirit has been passed down through these strings. You see, the bent branch is what gives this stick its shape, but the true character of the stick is embedded in these strings. Here, touch them. You can feel the oil and imagine the sweat from the hands of the warriors who used it.”
Robbie began to trace the strings with his fingers.
“The wood has been oiled and plied meticulously over the years. Take a look at the engravings on the shaft. Those were carved by each of the previous custodians.”
Robbie immediately began to wonder what those unusual carvings meant but was too overwhelmed to ask. He wrapped his left hand around the butt end of the shaft, holding it in its normal grip. Just above his hand was the first of a series of horizontal rings, each pair flanking a carving. As Robbie studied the hieroglyphics from bottom to top, his mind raced. The bottom figure looked like an Indian woman with arms outstretched. The next looked like a bird of prey, its beak and talons clearly defined. Above the next ring was a magnificently carved flower, a sunflower, Robbie thought. The boy was struck by the detail and care of the carving. The next figure on the shaft looked to be a place of worship, a church or chapel. Above the chapel was inscribed a flattened-out cross. Moving up, Robbie’s fingers traced the outline of what looked like the Olympic Rings. They, too, were carved with particular care. Perhaps one of the previous custodians had been an Olympian, Robbie thought. Next on the shaft was a carving of a book, with a barely visible title inscribed upon its cover. The final picture was clearly the block letter “N” with a small group of stars clustered above its upper right corner. Interestingly, on each shank of the “N” there seemed to be the outline of maps. One had the rough appearance of the letter “J” or a fishhook, the other a long slender figure that forked toward its end.
Robbie then traced out letters arranged along the shaft and wrapping around the head of the stick itself. The boy was mystified that they were not from his language, or at least he didn’t think they were. The letters, he guessed, were some sort of sentence or phrase. What did it say? What did it mean? Who had written it?
Lewis brought Robbie back to the discussion, “The stick is in great shape. It is from an ancient Iroquois chief who probably crafted it around the year 1780. The sticks of the Iroquois are the forerunners of the modern stick we use today. I won’t go through the entire history of the stick now, for that history will become clearer over time. My only requests are the same ones passed to me: Please respect the game and pass this stick along to another when the time comes.”
The parents were completely stunned and confused. The mother was only able to question, “Why Robbie? Why now?”
“I’m an avid fan of the game with a special interest in unique talent. Robbie plays lacrosse as it should be played. I’ve been looking for a young player who displays the ancient essence of the game. Why? That will become clear as I explain a few things.”
Robbie and his parents looked at one another, wondering where this stranger was going with this rather peculiar start. “This stick was crafted in a time when Indian warriors played the game. It was part of a culture, and their tradition required that the stick be passed down among warriors, players who learned how, when, and where to be hunters, players who could rely on their patience and then strike at the right time. I’ve seen your son display those traits. I also feel that true lacrosse players should play with enthusiasm, class, physical and mental toughness, and team spirit. The game, after all, was and is a team game. I’ve been looking for a young warrior with character, spirit, and leadership but, mainly, for a player who puts his team ahead of himself. When Mr. Turnbull presented the stick to me that was one of the things he talked about. He always said that no matter how talented someone might be, he was always obliged to contribute his efforts to the higher good—the team. Mr. Turnbull said he learned that lesson through lacrosse, and it applied to everything he did in his life. ‘With talent and ability,’ he would say, ‘come responsibility.’ My high school coach used to tell me much the same thing: ‘Those to whom much is given, much is expected.’”
The lives of the Joneses—and Lewis—had changed quite a bit in the last fifteen minutes.
“This is a bit overwhelming for us. I hope you understand,” the father conceded.
Lewis asked Robbie if he could borrow his game stick and then asked him to go about twenty yards away so they could throw and catch. The boy sprinted to the appointed spot to make his first throw with the stick. He saw the target that Lewis held up. He was focused on a spot in the pocket of Lewis’s stick about the size of a quarter. He could clearly see the intersection of the center raw-hide string in the pocket with the center of the supporting gut cross webbing. At the same time he could see his parents moving to his right and other members of his team with their parents leaving the field on the left. What was going on? He made his first pass. Lewis didn’t move the target an inch. The sound of the ball in the netting, on target, straight and true as an arrow. Robbie thought, WOW! This stick is two-hundred years old! He had never held an “old time” stick like this or thrown such a perfect pass. Robbie studied the stick. He could feel its natural and inherent balance. Visually, the stick seemed to lack the symmetry of his high-tech, latest model year attack stick. But when his eyes focused on his new playing partner, he felt something special in his hands. He had never experienced this feeling before, a feeling that old-timers considered a bond with their sticks. Today’s mass-produced “cookie cutter” sticks were all manufactured in exactly the same way, bought off the shelf with little thought or care and discarded just as easily. Robbie and his peers would never have guessed that the hand-crafted wooden sticks had a feel, a balance, a weight, and a character—a personality—of their own. A player in Lewis’s era and earlier might lift hundreds of sticks, one at a time, off warehouse racks, twirl and fiddle with each one until he found the stick that felt just right. His stick became part of him. Sometimes, if a player were truly fortunate, he would find a special stick that provided instant feedback and acceptance.
As Robbie threw and caught with the stranger, he could still feel his body, particularly his hands, tingling. He had felt this way for almost thirty minutes, since he first touched the stick. Maybe it was the fact that a stranger thought so highly of his play. Maybe it was the fact that he was holding a 200-year-old lacrosse stick. Never mind, he thought. This is really cool. Enjoy it for now.
After throwing for a few more minutes, Lewis asked the boy to stand fast. He reached further into the leather bag and withdrew an old lacrosse ball. It was a sphere about the same size as today’s rubber ball—perhaps a little bigger—but it was clearly made of some sort of hide and sewn tight with sinew. Lewis first showed it to the boy.
“This is a lot more delicate than that stick, so we’ll just take a few throws with it, O.K.?” The boy’s eyes got even bigger.
“You’d be amazed at what is inside this skin,” Lewis teased. “All sorts of things like rocks, feathers, worms, and pieces of bat wings.”
The parents’ eyes began to light up as well. “You’re kidding?” said Robbie’s father, while his daughter looked on in equal amazement.
“Not at all. The Native Americans would sew certain things into the ball to make it more lively and to increase their chances of winning.”
They took a dozen or so throws, being a little more gentle with this gem. Robbie could not believe how the deerskin ball flew out of his stick. It had such a natural feel to it. His hands still tingled. Lewis took the ball from his stick and placed it back in the leather bag.
“Whenever you’re not using this stick, you should place this hide ball in the stick—exactly where the pocket is. Be attentive to where you place this ball. Remember that the pocket is the soul of the stick,” Lewis instructed as he put the rubber ball back in his stick and began to throw again.
Lewis continued to throw with the boy, pausing a few seconds here and there to crystallize a thought or make a point, but hardly skipping a beat. Lewis delivered perfect right-handed and left-handed passes each time, right to the boy’s “ear,” just where Robbie’s coaches preached they should be. The boy did not reciprocate the changing of hands with Lewis, fearful that his comparative lack of skill on his left side might cause him to miss or drop an incoming strike or throw an errant pass. Lewis hoped the boy would change hands as he did but was not surprised that he didn’t. When the boy continued with his right hand, Lewis gently chided, “Try it with your left hand.” Robbie immediately obliged. He felt the stick throw slightly differently from the left side, and it took him several throws to acclimate to the change.
The boy was already beginning to feel the power of the stick. The fact that it was made from a tree branch, Robbie thought, may have contributed to the way it felt. He had always used an aluminum- or titanium-shafted stick, with its cold, factory-produced, inert feeling. This wooden stick almost felt alive! But it couldn’t be alive, he convinced himself.
As they threw Lewis watched Robbie carefully. He could see the boy glancing at the stick, and then at his hands, in disbelief. The retired captain also knew what the boy was feeling. His hands had tingled in the same way since 1959. Lewis allowed himself a hint of a smile as he continued to watch the boy.
Lewis then paused and again reaching into the bag, pulled out an old wooden jewelry box. He opened it and withdrew three books, a very old copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Het Achterhuis(The Diary of Anne Frank), and The Story of Mankind. Lewis offered, “The first two were passed along to me with the stick. The third one I am adding to the stick’s legacy. The Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an original edition, signed by the author. You’ll learn of the significance of these books as you go along.” Lewis placed the books gently back in the box, closed the cover, and handed it to Robbie.
Lewis handed the parents his business card. “I live and work in California, but I’m in town on business this week.”
Robbie’s parents, still overwhelmed and confused, politely said, “How can we thank you? Will we meet again?”
“That’s entirely up to you. I’d be glad to further the relationship, but I won’t impose anything on you or Robbie. The stick will take care of itself. If you never see me again, I’m certain that Robbie will benefit from being its custodian. I’ve done what I was asked to do.”
They all began to walk toward the family’s car, along an asphalt path adorned by a two-foot-high brick wall that followed the tree line of the adjacent woods. As always, Lewis’s keen senses made him acutely aware of the sights, sounds, and smells of his surroundings. As they approached a section of the wall nearest the overhanging trees, Lewis suddenly asked the boy to hand him the stick and a ball. He gestured toward the wall and, in a whisper, asked them if they could see a small bird on the edge of the path trying to fly. It had probably just fallen out of a nest in the tree above but they hadn’t noticed until Lewis brought it to their attention. Lewis then pointed out a long black snake about twelve feet away from the bird, making its way through a crack in the brickwork toward the helpless bird. They immediately calculated the imminent peril of the young bird.
Lewis positioned himself and drew the stick much like an archer would hold a bow prior to raising it up and arming the arrow. In something of a trance he said softly to them, but really to himself, “Every creature should be given the opportunity to succeed, the chance to spread its wings and reach its potential.”
The ball left the stick like a laser toward the snake and hit the wall twelve inches in front of its head, exactly where Lewis intended. There was no reason to hit the snake. The serpent recoiled but quickly pressed on. Lewis fired three more shots, each one progressively closer to the snake, until it turned back.
Realizing that the bird would fall prey to the same or some other predator as soon as they left, the family scooped up the bird, and Robbie placed it back in its nest. They all stared at Lewis, who paused for some time and then said matter-of-factly, “You see, this stick has helped me acquire that same focus and keen awareness of the warriors before me. It has helped me channel that focus into just about everything I’ve done. It is not just the senses required for success on the playing field but also in meeting the challenges of my chosen path through life—warfare in the ancient sense. It has made me sensitive to so many things in my daily life, my family, and my job. I simply don’t take anything for granted—not a single life, a single person, or a single heartbeat. This stick has been very special to me. Of the many lessons I’ve learned from the stick, one is that the gift of life is both precious and precarious.”
Arriving at the Jones’s car, the new friends shook hands, and Lewis handed the bag, stick, and ball back to the boy. He thanked the parents for allowing him to present the stick and books to Robbie and then began to walk back down the path.
As Lewis found himself below the nest of the bird, he lingered, thinking that the entire transaction had not been nearly as difficult as he thought it would be. What an incredible coincidence that he was able to use the stick to spare the life of the bird. Well, it wasn’t really a coincidence, he suspected. Just then, a warm, swift current of air swept by him and rustled the leaves above. Lewis was familiar with the signal. He looked up toward the nest and whispered, “Good-bye, my good friend. I’ve done what has been asked. I hope that I have rendered sufficient honor to you, your people, and your game. I hope that Robbie will be as blessed as I have been.”
Lewis continued along the path, blinking back a tear or two. Then he began to glow a little inside. The joy in the boy’s eyes and the stunned looks of the parents spoke volumes of the impact he had had on the boy. Lewis wondered how Robbie would do and how long it would take for the stick to reveal its true character to him. His eye caught the leading edge of the full moon as it rose above the trees in the distance. He smiled and whispered to himself, “Not long, not long.”
“Lacrosse is one of the great team games on the American sports scene. Nearly everyone who has played it or watched it as a spectator loves the game. Lacrosse gets in your blood because it is such a fast-moving and exciting sport.” My love of lacrosse remains as strong today as it was when I wrote those words almost 30 years ago. In the last three decades lacrosse’s popularity has grown by leaps and bounds, and though today’s players, whether male or female, are more skilled and better conditioned than ever before, the Game is still the Game.
The magic of lacrosse has captivated me—heart, mind, and soul for over 60 years. It is in my blood. The lessons the game has taught me have guided me all my life. The game has connected me with thousands of people who share a love for the game, resulting in lasting friendships with players, coaches, and their families.
Lacrosse, considered the oldest sport known to North America, is a game rich in tradition and history. Yet there is very little lacrosse literature. So it is with great pride that I introduce The Spirit in the Stick. This work is, to the best of my knowledge, the first and only of its kind. Its story is so deep and powerful that it is sure to enrich everyone who reads it.
Neil Duffy has shared the incredible story of a boy, Robbie Jones, who joins an ageless fraternity when he is presented with an ancient Native American lacrosse stick by Navy’s Jimmy Lewis, considered by many, myself included, to be one of the game’s greatest players. The stick and its original custodian, an Indian boy named Red Hawk, lead Robbie on a journey to places and times and to meetings with people he could never have imagined. Robbie learns lessons of integrity, respect, and honor from each of the stick’s previous custodians.
This story is a major contribution to the great game of lacrosse. Indeed, it transcends the game. The rich historical and spiritual roots of its main characters provide stories that will touch every reader, regardless of age, gender, or association with the game of lacrosse.
In much the way lacrosse does, The Spirit in the Stick will captivate your heart, mind, and soul. It will get into your blood. Prepare to embark on a marvelous and special journey. I’m sure you will enjoy it!
If I had known that Jackson would drive us from our homes I would have killed him that day at the Horseshoe.
Cherokee Territory: November 1, 1838
It was a typical fall morning in the Great Smoky Mountains—cool and damp, with slate-colored clouds hanging low in the sky. It seemed all-too-fitting that the rain couldn’t decide whether to fall or sit suspended, so it hung motionless and heavy in the air. As a bugle commanded “Forward, March,” the notes ripped through the misty hearts of the natives as surely and harshly as they did through the misty air. While the Indians didn’t know exactly what the bugle call meant, their feet acknowledged that it probably meant to move out. And so the wagons creaked into motion, and hundreds of feet began to drag westward. Thus began the infamous Trail of Tears, the forced migration of the Cherokee Nation—and that of other Native Americans—from their native homeland for relocation in the Indian Territory to the west.
The lifeless bodies of the natives shuffled forward in the mist, their goods, livestock, homes, clothes, blankets, and children having been dispassionately and, in many cases, violently stripped from them during the round-up weeks earlier. Their strength, health, and spirit had been further assaulted by the rancid conditions of the United States Army’s holding pens.
A young brave, a seventeen-year-old named Red Hawk, clutched in his right hand a deerskin bag strapped across his chest, tilted his chin slightly skyward, and whispered, “Stay with me.” His left hand held the trembling right hand of his eleven-year-old sister, Sunflower. In response to the bugle call, Red Hawk and Sunflower inched forward, hoping their movement might stir the feet of their father, Great Moose, who stood stoically, unable to look in the direction of the forced migration. He stood with his back facing south, a deliberate act of defiance signifying his contempt for Andrew Jackson.
Great Moose faced north, toward the land of his birth in the Great Smoky Mountains, where his wife had been buried two weeks earlier after being ravaged by cholera in the army stockade. Because in the time since he had eaten and drunk next to nothing, he was extremely weak. His heart had been shattered first by President Jackson, then by the soldiers during the round-up, and finally by the loss of his wife. He could bear no more.
Red Hawk released his sister’s hand, and with a nod and a gentle nudge sent her to retrieve their father. The girl slid her hand into her father’s and squeezed and tugged it ever so softly. Instinctively, her father, returning her unspoken love, turned slowly to her, and looked down into her beautiful brown eyes—mirrors of her mother’s. Seeing his wife’s face in place of his daughter’s, he found his reason to go on, and looked to the north one last time to honor her memory. He turned back to the girl, this time he looked through her eyes and into her soul. Complying with her unspoken plea, he stepped with her toward the land of the setting sun.
Understanding, if not entirely empathizing with the unspeakable affront the bugle call had sealed upon the natives, the soldiers, at least for now, were more tolerant of sluggish feet than they had been when they originally drove the helpless victims to the pens, and allowed them to set their own pace. As Red Hawk moved slowly ahead of his father and sister, a young army officer guided his mount quietly into the view of the young warrior, allowing the boy the opportunity to make eye contact. Immediately Red Hawk recognized the man as the officer who had overridden the orders of two soldiers who had detained him as his mother was being dragged from the stockade for burial.
Of the dozen-or-so Cherokee who had perished in the stockade, only the family of the first to die, an old woman, had been permitted to leave the pen to render appropriate burial honors. Immediately after that burial, as the family made their way back under the guard of two army privates, three young men in the group broke and ran to hide in the hills. After a short and fruitless chase, the soldiers summarily beat the remaining family members and returned them to the stockade. All future mourners attempting to accompany their deceased loved ones were systematically thwarted by the guards with their bayonets, which they did not hesitate to use. The act of defiance of the three escapees had immediately and unequivocally established future policy.
Red Hawk had clung to his mother’s body as it was being dragged by two army privates toward the camp gate, while Sunflower cried as she watched from the arms of her mother’s brother. When Red Hawk encountered resistance in the form of the bayonet, he had pleaded as best he could, “We will bury her! We will bury her!” True to their orders, however, the soldiers would have none of his defiance and had pushed Red Hawk and his father roughly away from his mother’s corpse. Just as the boy had abandoned any hope of a proper burial, an officer quietly approached on horseback from outside the gate. While no words were spoken, the officer immediately accepted the plea in the boy’s eyes, a silent promise guaranteeing he would not run if permitted to bury his mother.
The officer, who didn’t seem much older than Red Hawk, intentionally allowed the sheath of his sword to clang against the heel of his boot, thus alerting the gate guards that an officer had just arrived; thereby eliciting a salute. The officer gently but firmly modified the standing order, “Let them take her. I will see to the situation.”
“Yes, sir, lieutenant,” one of the soldiers drawled for effect, “If you say so,” and waved Red Hawk and Great Moose on with his rifle.
Red Hawk had carried his mother to the top of a nearby hill, and he began to dig her grave while his father stood and wept silently, his mind returning to Horseshoe Bend. For some three or four hours the lieutenant milled about on his mount a respectful distance away while Red Hawk and his father buried and prayed for his mother. Good to his unspoken pledge, Red Hawk escorted his grief-stricken father back to the stockade under the distant but trusting eye of the young lieutenant.
After the brief and silent exchange, the officer swung his horse with a snap on its bridle, thus departing as quietly and quickly as he had arrived not ten seconds before. Red Hawk and his family continued on their weary way.
History is the mighty tower of experience, which time has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages. It is no easy task to reach the top of this ancient structure and get the benefit of the full view. There is no elevator, but young feet are strong and it can be done.
A remarkable story began to unfold before my eyes, leading me on a journey I never could have imagined.
This project began some eleven years ago, with a relatively benign phone call from Tom Duquette to me. Tom was coaching the lacrosse team at Norfolk Academy, and I held a corresponding position at nearby Nansemond-Suffolk Academy. At that point, I had known Tom for several years. In fact, he was instrumental in encouraging and supporting my pursuing a career in education.
Over the years, we had discussed a variety of topics related to lacrosse and other sports as well as education in general. When we discussed the history of the game of lacrosse, Tom always spoke reverently of Jimmy Lewis, United States Naval Academy Class of 1966, placing him on the same rung with his childhood heroes Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson. Lewis had a tremendous impact on Tom as a young lacrosse player growing up in Baltimore. Though I had played lacrosse at Navy myself, I was embarrassed to realize that my knowledge of Captain Lewis’s career was close to non-existent. I had, thankfully, known of him, but I did not fully understand his on-field brilliance or that of his team, his true place in the history of Navy Lacrosse, or in the history of the game.
The nature of Tom’s call was simple enough: Could you contact the Naval Academy and get a video tape of Jimmy Lewis? Tom had hoped to share the video with his players, one in particular who had developed a burning desire to study all the great attackmen in history. As with all things, actual video would be more valuable than a second-hand description of Lewis’s play or an attempt to replicate it. I thought it a simple enough request, one upon which I might be able to exercise some sort of alumni privilege. And surely the Naval Academy had tape of their teams and players of that era, including Lewis.
It didn’t take me long to realize that my search was not to be as simple as I had hoped or expected. After calling several offices at USNA, I was told that there were no such tapes, or at least none that anyone would be able to find. In disbelief, I began to call other schools Navy had played—Johns Hopkins, Army, Maryland—and other institutions, all to no avail. After several attempts (and a couple of years) to resurrect the tapes, I went straight to the source: Captain Lewis himself. No joy. More months. More years. Still nothing.
It became clear that I needed a new angle on this problem. So, in lieu of actual footage, I began to research Lewis’s career, as well as the history of the game, so that I might find something useful for Tom and, at that point, our players (I had changed positions and was now working with Tom) at Norfolk Academy. As I dug further and further into the career of Captain James Crawford Lewis, U.S. Navy (Retired) and contacted a number of wonderful and helpful people, a remarkable story began to unfold before my eyes, leading me on a journey I never could have imagined.
Though this story’s foundation is cast in the actual lives of its main characters, Major R. Bruce Turnbull, U.S. Army (Retired) and Captain Lewis granted me the necessary writer’s license to connect the key elements of the story. Perhaps it is best left to the reader to decipher fact from fiction.