Is one ever too old to learn a new sport, to exalt in the art of athletic movement, to play with the ecstatic joy and abandon of a child? Well, actually, yes. That revelation came to me recently when I tried to pick up lacrosse. It happened the day after my lesson. Or maybe it was that evening. If I was being honest with myself, it happened as I became winded while jogging up and down the field with Greg Gurenlian, a star midfielder with the New York Lizards who is affectionately known as “the Beast.”
What possessed me to attempt lacrosse at my advanced age? For those unfamiliar with the sport—as I was while growing up in the city, until I got to college and saw preppies playing it—it’s sort of like soccer. But instead of moving the ball up and down the field with your feet, you cradle it in a mesh basket atop a stick, lobbing it to teammates while maneuvering for an opportunity to score. (The professional lacrosse season runs from late April to early August, and the Lizards’ home games are played at Icahn Stadium on Randalls Island and at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium.) Contact with your opponents is acceptable—hence the helmets, gloves and shoulder pads.
Joel Cairo for The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Gurenlian is also a strength coach and teaches lacrosse to children.
In the same way that there’s pleasure in making contact with a tennis ball, in bending the laws of physics to your will, there’s something about throwing and catching the small, rubber lacrosse ball. Maybe a better analogy than soccer is baseball—that ying and yang of launching the ball and the equal if not greater pleasure of having it land in the center of your mitt with a satisfying pop. Except there’s no pop with the lacrosse stick.
Part of the intellectual rush of lacrosse—and feel free to take my words with however many grains of salt necessary because I’ve handled a lacrosse stick perhaps a half dozen times my whole life, and only for short intervals—comes from the sense of control one can experience when a piece of sports equipment becomes an extension of the body. That’s the reason I signed up for a lesson with Mr. Gurenlian: to attempt that mind/body/lacrosse stick unity. And also as an excuse to play catch during office hours.
If you have as much interest in lacrosse as in quantum mechanics and have already considered stopping reading and moving on to the financial pages or the real-estate ads, and if you are a younger parent, here’s something to consider: According to “the Beast” (actually, it might just be “Beast,” a moniker earned not just because of his body mass index but also due to his ability to wrest, or rather wrestle, the ball from opponents—but more about that later), the sport may help get your kid into college.
“If you put the time in to get your stick skills down, you can be a great player,” explained Mr. Gurenlian, a strength coach who also teaches lacrosse to kids. “There are guys of crazy different dimensions who are crazy good players.
“With lacrosse,” he went on, “parents are looking at it as an investment. You can be any shape or size and get a college scholarship.”
Lacrosse is bigger than football at some schools—Johns Hopkins, for example; well, maybe only at Johns Hopkins—but it’s also played in the Ivy League. “My kids will go to Cornell and get money for it,” boasted Mr. Gurenlian, 28, who attended Penn State on a lacrosse scholarship.
Getting my children into college wasn’t on my agenda when we convened at an indoor field in the Bronx, and not just because one is in college and the other already out. The younger one was actually a decent tennis player with a killer instinct, but decided, as had her older sister before her, that there was something uncool about being competitive. Don’t ask me where that idea came from. Certainly not from me.
The competitive juices were definitely flowing as I faced off against the Beast. His talent, as I may have mentioned, is winning face-offs. “My specialty is popping it forward for a fast break,” he explained. “I’m unique because I like to shoot off the face-off.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that the athlete’s brawn has something to do with his success; he resembles a better-looking version of the Incredible Hulk. “My position is probably the roughest,” he reported. “Essentially, I’m fighting for the ball 40 times a game against some other guy. As soon as we hear the whistle, it gets pretty brutal.”
It’s akin to a wrestling match. In fact, Mr. Gurenlain has a high school wrestling background. “In high school, in college and in the pros now, if I’m having a game it’s lights out. It’s special.”
However, he added, “I can’t just dive on the ball and hit him.” (He might have said “hurt” him; I can’t read my own handwriting. You try taking notes when facing off against the Beast.) “Last year I led the league in face-off win percentage. It was still only 62%.”
I liked to think Mr. Gurenlian and I were relatively evenly matched. He’s 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds; I’m 6-foot-2 and 190. Of course, his weight is pure muscle, while mine is a combination of beer, cake and chocolate.
Needless to say, he won every face-off, though his success seems due as much to technique as to upper body strength. It’s difficult to describe his signature move, but it’s sort of like getting the inside rail in a horse race. It’s about positioning your basket and then working it with your wrist and stick, to gain a split second edge over your opponent.
I think I deserve credit for even thinking I could win a face-off against the Beast. But as I said, I’m competitive. That was never my problem when it came to team sports; the fear of life-threatening injury was. When playing soccer, I always thought you had to be nuts to launch yourself into the air and head the ball. I like my head.
Mr. Gurenlian said part of the appeal of lacrosse is that it’s safer than football. “The severity of the concussions aren’t anywhere near the severity of football,” explained the athlete, not wholly persuasively; he came back two years ago from a knee injury and has cracked ribs and suffered a fractured vertebrae over the course of his college and professional career. “Every year when you get done in September, I’m useless until my body heals up.”
“The draw for me,” he continued, “is that I wasn’t allowed to play football as a kid. When I got the opportunity to play a contact sport that wasn’t as violent as football, I got the best of both worlds: my parents got a sport that wasn’t as violent as football, and I got to hit people.”