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Scott Marr first saw Lyle Thompson take his signature no-look backhand shot during a UAlbany practice, but he didn’t think it would turn into much more. He’d seen people take a similar shot, but purely by accident, while Thompson turned it into an accurate attempt.
Whenever Thompson ran around the left side of the net, he didn’t switch hands, instead sending the unorthodox punch towards the net.
“He just talked about it like, ‘Why do I switch to my left hand when I can just hold it in my right hand and shoot like that?'” said Marr, UAlbany head coach.
It was a shot Thompson made his own and one his former coach Mark Burnam said revolutionized the game, much like Gary Gait’s “air gait” shot of the 1980s.
Raised on the Onondaga Nation reservation, Thompson has used shots like these to propel his game onto the professional stage while also becoming one of the finest Native American lacrosse players. After graduating from UAlbany in 2015 as a career-leading points scorer, Thompson, along with his three brothers, has used his platform to inspire future generations of lacrosse from his background.
“This is a special family and they live, love and eat this game,” said Burnam. “For them it’s spiritual and they make it a part of their lives and the lives of their children and family.”
Burnam, who is part of Akwesasne and Mohawk, has never had plays like this and he’s never had many Indigenous players to look up to, especially one with the level of fame that Thompson and his brothers have, he said. Burnam grew up in Syracuse and said his biggest role models were the Onondaga Warriors, the reservation’s box lacrosse team. As often as he saw her play on the field, Burnam said goodbye to events like the Green Corn Dance Festival, where some players, like Warriors goalie John Buck, played bass in the local band.
But for Burnam, this lack of Indigenous influences in lacrosse didn’t matter because, like every other Indigenous lacrosse player, he was taught to play for the makers of the game. Thompson’s brother Jeremy said he and his brother were taught to play the game with a “good mind,” something that started when the family played in their backyard.
Those two-on-two games between the brothers were the foundation of Thompson’s awareness on the lacrosse field, Jeremy said, and allowed him to see extra defenders even when playing just two of his brothers. And when her mother Deloris called her in for dinner, Thompson always wanted to stay outside. Even after the meal, Thompson went back outside like he had “friends out there,” Jeremy said.
Rather than lacrosse being just a game played for fun, Thompson embraced the healing nature of the game, which is what the creators intended from the start, Jeremy said.
“As a born Native American, you’re basically born with a racquet, represent it, and then play until you can’t play anymore,” Syracuse defense attorney Jerry Staats said.
Staats played with Thompson and his brothers at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championship, where they represented the Iroquois Nationals. Thompson and his brothers were the first in a growing list of Indigenous idols that Staats began to admire growing up on Ontario’s Six Nations Reservation.
Megan Thompson | theme editor
When Thompson helped lead the Iroquois Nationals to their second straight bronze medal, Staats realized why Thompson and his brothers are among the most respected Indigenous lacrosse players.
“He really plays lacrosse with a deep passion and he understands that lacrosse was used for him to achieve his dreams,” Staats said. “And I kind of relate to that because that’s how I use lacrosse.”
Thompson was also unstoppable when he played for the Road Warriors, Burnam’s summer team. Burnam, then coaching in North Carolina, invited many Indigenous players to play with the team that summer, and nearly all were from reservations in New York like Onondaga. He quickly realized that Thompson and his brother Miles had immense potential.
“I had no doubt that when they went to college, they would be stars,” Burnam said.
But Burnam said Syracuse’s John Desko didn’t think Thompson could repeat what he did in high school. Instead, it was Marr who lunged at Thompson. In the fall of 2009, Marr went to the Turkey Shoot tournament where he saw Thompson and his brother play while being coached by their father, Jerome. Marr spoke to Jerome about recruiting the children, and they continued those discussions the following spring at the Haudenosaunee Promise tournament. Jerome and Marr spent almost an hour chatting before heading to the Thompson’s house to talk until midnight.
The two eventually became the only UAlbany players to win the Tewaaraton Trophy. In 2014, Thompson and Miles became the first-ever co-recipients of the award.
Years later, after playing professionally in every major North American league, Thompson was able to influence not only Indigenous players but also the next generation of the game, Burnam said. He achieved this through his unique backhand shot and a strong social media presence.
Basically, as an Indian, you’re born with a stick at birth, you represent it, and then you play until you can’t play anymore,
Jerry Staats, defender of Syracuse
Thompson has become an advocate for indigenous rights in particular, Marr said. In 2016, Marr, Thompson’s wife Amanda, and then-National Lacrosse League defense attorney Bill O’Brien drove to North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Thompson organized a lacrosse game and spoke to around 500 people about the importance of sport in his life and its general impact on the indigenous people.
“He’s not just someone who throws a ball around,” Marr said. “He’s always trying to convey to people what the game really means to the Iroquois nation and to people around the world what it really should mean. That it’s not just a game, it’s just a way of life.”
Published April 6, 2022 at 10:00 p.m
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