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A Love Letter to Lacrosse

Aug 31 2017
Photo by
Kyle Sweeney
Photo by
Kyle Sweeney
Kyle Sweeney
New York Lizards
Aug 31 2017

S he was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

I was 12 years old and I was in love.

My eyes settled on her as she leaned against the wall. I could tell she had some stories to tell. Her beauty was understated, but I saw it right away from across the room. I was proud that I noticed her among all the others. It’s hard to explain how it felt at that age, but it just hit me in the gut.

She was the one.

The STX Gait Strung Turbo.

My first lacrosse stick.

That stick, the one that people would eventually mistake for a fishing net on family trips down the Jersey Shore, became my obsession.

G-A-I-T.

Gate with an i. It almost looked like a typo, honestly. I was like a kid walking into a Foot Locker to buy a pair of Jordans without a clue who Michael Jordan is.

Eventually, I’d learn all about Gary Gait, the godfather of modern lacrosse, whose name was printed on that first stick I owned. I’d even face off against him on the field in my first-ever pro lacrosse game. But back then, Gait was Greek to me. I was your average American football/basketball/baseball kid … how could I know anything about lacrosse, let alone the legacy of its star player?

The scene played out in a mom-and-pop sporting goods store that was so generic it was literally called The Sporting Goods Place. It’s one of the most vivid memories from my childhood. If I could talk to that kid back in 1993, I know he would never believe what role lacrosse would play in his life — that he’d go on to have a 15-year pro career, including 177 games played in Major League Lacrosse, an all-time record.


It’s been the ride of a lifetime, but like all good things it had to come to an end at some point.

Today, I’m retiring from pro lacrosse.

At age 36, I know that Father Time is certainly catching up to me, but I can still play in this league. I probably could for a few more years. The truth is — and I think guys who are near the end of their careers will know what I’m saying — the real wear and tear of a long lacrosse career is on your psyche, your time and your family. Now it’s time to focus on the more important things.

But before I hang it up, I want to take a some time to reflect on my career.

And maybe, just maybe, tell you a few things that you might not know about the oldest American sport, one that’s played by more than a million people in this country.

Kyle Sweeney

Like many love stories, mine began in the backseat of a car.

Not like that. Get your mind out of the gutter.

My dad loved cars and he was notorious in our family for never buying new ones. There was just something about a used car that really spoke to him. If I had to guess, it was probably the price tag talking, but he’d tell you about the thrill of finding a diamond in the rough.

When I was in middle school my dad’s car of the season was a two-door hunter green Ford Thunderbird — just as hideous as it was cramped to ride in. My dad loved it. I can still remember the worn-out leather cushions that would cling to the back of my legs on summer afternoons.

To me, the memory of that Thunderbird and the sport of lacrosse will always go hand in hand. One day — before I ever set foot in that sporting goods store — my dad drove my brother and me to a boys’ lacrosse game in our hometown. We’d never seen the sport, but our local Springfield High in Springfield, Pennsylvania was playing in the 1992 state championship game vs. Episcopal Academy. It was a big deal in town and most of the community had come out to cheer them on. So we went. It was the thing to do.

And man … I’m glad we did. Seeing that game was like a religious experience for me. Watching lacrosse for the first time left me mesmerized. The sheer athleticism. The speed, combined with the skill of the stickwork. The style.

Lacrosse seemed to have it all — the good parts of football, soccer and basketball. The sport had completely stolen my attention.

On the way back home that day in the T-Bird, my brother and I were talking a mile a minute. We nagged our dad about signing us up for a league the following spring.

Kyle Sweeney

I’ll always appreciate how our parents didn’t hesitate to support this new interest of ours. They agreed to buy us all the necessary lacrosse equipment (which wasn’t cheap) and to sign us up for the town league. Looking back as an adult, I realize how big a sacrifice it was. We were a middle-class family. My parents both worked full-time, and in fact they both had second jobs almost my whole childhood. My dad tended bar at night throughout my childhood and my mom managed a restaurant in the summers. They were selfless.

We were a typical family in Springfield, a suburb outside of Philly where the cookie-cutter, single-family houses date back to the middle of last century. The community prides itself on hard work and family, and we love our sports (mostly football, basketball and hockey … and a little lacrosse). It’s almost a cliché, but because we didn’t have a lot, we valued each other that much more. That’s a big reason why a lot of my high school friends have either stayed in Springfield or returned there to raise their own families.

Which brings me to a big stereotype about lacrosse. Because there are a few.

Let me ask you: When you think about lacrosse, what comes to mind?

Here, before you think of your answer, let me take a guess.

You think of privilege. You think of wealthy families who send their kids to prep schools. You think of vacations in the Hamptons. You might even think of boat shoes, the Ivy League and guys named Alistair Woodglenwick IV.

Right? Me too.

I had many of those same preconceptions, too, and frankly, there’s truth to some of them. I’ve met plenty of what are perceived to be “lax bros” in my day, but honestly those guys are in the minority. If you’re a real pro, you’re not a bro.

But when I think of the stereotypes surrounding lacrosse, I sure as hell don’t think of the path I took.

Kyle Sweeney

By high school, I was all-county safety in football and I even got a few recruiting letters for football from Division III colleges.

But in lacrosse, by the end of my junior year, I was the No. 2 ranked recruit in the country. Every high school kid probably wishes he were the No. 2 ranked quarterback in the country. And I did too. But you know what? That wasn’t my reality … and I was just fine with it.

I went on recruiting trips to a few colleges, and I ended up choosing Georgetown.  

The news about me getting into Georgetown was no small deal around Springfield. It turned out that I was the first student in my high school’s history to go there.

I’ll be honest, I was a little worried about the academic part. I was a public school kid. I was a jock. I remember my AP Statistics teacher sitting me down before I graduated and giving me a lecture — basically, in the nicest possible way, he said to me, “It’s going to be really hard and you’re going to have to study like hell to keep up.”

I’d never been the bookworm-type, so I knew I’d have a lot to prove — to professors and to my fellow students. The Georgetown Lacrosse sweatshirt I wore to classes was kind of like a target on my back. But a switch must have flipped. I borrowed a skill that had served me well in lacrosse: I worked my butt off. I tried to be the first kid in line at my professor’s office hours. I started to get obsessed with managing the little free time I had outside of lacrosse, which chewed up around 40 hours a week. I had to grind harder just to be on the same level as my classmates. I ended up graduating with a 3.2 GPA and a double major degree in International Business and Marketing while playing four years of lacrosse.

After graduation, all my friends went to D.C. or New York or Chicago to start their careers.

But I wasn’t ready for a desk job just yet. I wasn’t ready to give up lacrosse.

Kyle Sweeney

For a moment, let’s go back to Gary Gait.

That name on my first lacrosse stick.

Turns out that he changed the entire sport. Gary, who actually has a brother named Paul, who also played pro lacrosse, is as close to a living legend as you have in the sport. They both are.

Here’s the short version of their legacy: The Gait twins both played at Syracuse. While they were there, ‘Cuse won three national titles. Basically, they were Canadian behemoths who looked bigger than the Orange linebackers. Gary and Paul were also pioneers of the sport — they popularized a bunch of moves that every lacrosse kid knows today. Before the Gait brothers, you didn’t see moves like around-the-world shots or behind-the-back passes in regular play … in big games … done with such confidence, ease and style. They were flat-out ballsy.

Gary Gait even coined a move, later named the “Air Gait” — where he actually jumped from behind the net to score. The NCAA eventually banned it for being too dangerous.

So yeah. Gary’s an absolute legend. And I got to witness his greatness in person, in the flesh.

In my first Major League Lacrosse game ever, in 2003, my defensive assignment was Gary. What are the odds of that?

Seeing Gary up-close on the field for the first time, my initial thought wasn’t even awe, it was funny, my reaction was … Jesus, this dude’s OLD.

Now that I’m retiring, things have really come full circle. I’m the exact same age today (36) that Gary was the day I guarded him back then.

So, I’m the old guy on the team now. And today, I have a lot more respect for Gary, knowing just how tough it is to keep up with these 22-year-old kids in the league. Not just on the field, either. Those postgame nightclub excursions are bad news for an old dog like me. Let me tell you: The early flight out the morning after those late nights is much harder in your late thirties.

Back in 2003, not only did we win that game against Gary’s team, but I also notched my very first pro assist.

A win, an assist … and a run-in with Gary Gait the legend. That a was special kind of hat trick for me.

Here’s the truth about pro lacrosse: No one plays it for the money or the fame. They might … if there was any of either!

Here’s the truth about pro lacrosse: No one plays it for the money or the fame. They might … if there was any of either!

Early in my career I came to a crossroads. Unless I was going to dedicate my life to lacrosse, sacrificing relationships, family and other dreams, it wouldn’t make sense. I had to be all-in or not in at all.

First of all, you don’t make enough money as a “pro lacrosse player” for it to be your only job. Every guy has a second one. In fact, before I was drafted, the league asked me, “So … what’s your job situation?” It felt like a question you’d get on a first date.

My first year, I made approximately $500 per game … for a grand total of around $6,000 per season.

So I had to put my Georgetown degree to use. I found a corporate job in New York City.

My first team was the Bridgeport Barrage, which played and practiced in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And while I’d love to say that the team chose me strictly for my lacrosse prowess, the fact that my new corporate job was within commuting range of Bridgeport definitely factored in for them. Still, from my office in Midtown Manhattan, the commute to Bridgeport was about 90 minutes on the MetroNorth. That’s not including the time to get from my desk to Grand Central Station.

I learned a lot in those days.

Like, for instance: Do you know how to carry a six-foot lacrosse pole through a crowded Grand Central while wearing a suit and wingtips when you’re late for your train?

I certainly didn’t.

(I’d like to take a moment to apologize to my fellow travelers for all the times I inadvertently skewered you with my stick as I was hustling for the train.)

It was a grind, for sure. Some days it put me in a bad mood. Some days I even thought, What am I doing with my life? For the subsequent 15 years, I’d often repeat this same question. Friends and family asked me that more than I asked myself, I’ll tell you that much. It wasn’t a glamorous lifestyle, but the truth is, it was addictive as hell. Some days I would look around on the commuter train at the guys in suits drinking their end-of-the-day tall boys and I’d think to myself, I’m pursuing my life’s passion right now.

And just like other lacrosse players I know, we make those sacrifices because … well … because we’re all sick bastards obsessed with proving we’re one of the best.

The difference between the guys who say, “I could’ve played in the MLL for a few years” and the guys who’ve really made a career out of it, is that level of sacrifice and obsession.

Kyle Sweeney

Like any athlete at the highest level, you’re going to experience low points.

Mine came in 2002, when I got cut from the U.S. squad for the World Lacrosse Championship, which is held every four years and is akin to the World Cup. Believe it or not, I don’t like being told that I can’t do something. So instead of feeling sorry for myself, I tried to channel that frustration. I doubled down on lifting weights and improving everything from my stick work to my footwork. I sacrificed everything outside of the sport. Four years later, in 2006, I went out for the team again and this time I was selected.

But ultimately, we didn’t get the gold medal, falling to Canada in the finals.

And guess who was on that team from Canada?

Gary Gait. The man himself.

Four years later, we got our revenge. I was 30 years old and at the top of my game. We faced Canada again in the finals and we beat them.

It took eight years, but I finally got to hoist that plaque with my American teammates.

Kyle Sweeney

I want to conclude with some shout-outs to people who have helped me along the way.

But first, I have some parting advice for the young bulls in the league:

Don’t miss the birth of your first child.

It happened to me in March 2013. I was on a two-game swing from Colorado to Minnesota. My wife, Angela, was pregnant with our first child. She wasn’t due for another month, but Mother Nature has a funny way of telling you who’s boss. In the middle of the night, Angela called. She was in labor. I was stuck in a hotel in Minneapolis. I was trying to remain calm but inside I was panicking. I was frantically talking on the phone to Angela. The baby was coming. Angela was alone. My teammate, Ned Crotty, woke up in the bed next to me. He was a single dude and 25 years old at the time —  and he was freaking out more than I was. There was no way to get back to Angela in time. By the time I booked a flight, I was too late. She ended up taking a cab to the hospital by herself, scared to death, and she was too far dilated to get an epidural.

Up until that moment in my life, I thought of myself as a pretty tough guy. But what Angela had to do that night? Alone? She’s an absolute savage.

I’m so thankful that both Angela and our son, Owen, made it through labor safely, but that moment really started to put my lacrosse career into perspective. I remember thinking, once again, What am I doing with my life?


Now for those shout-outs.

To my teammates, most of whom are a decade younger, I hope you might see me in a similar way to how I saw Gary Gait when I was young — ancient as hell, for sure, but someone who tried to do it the right way … someone who, over a 15-year lacrosse career also built his business, became a father of three and still gave it his all the way he did at age 22.

Brett Sweeney, Dave DiPaola, Steve Dusseau, Jake Bergey, Brodie Merrill, Chris Sanderson, Thomas Hajek, Coach Urick, Ryan Boyle, Tony Resch, Brian “Doc” Dougherty, John Gagliardi, Paul Rabil … and the list goes on — you all contributed to making me a better player.

Thank you, lacrosse. I will miss you.

To paraphrase NFL legend Deacon Jones: You left me with a few scratches and a few marks … and nothing but a bleeding heart.

Kyle Sweeney
New York Lizards