By Stephen Stamp | Staff Writer
There’s a lot more to lacrosse teams and their players than we see on the floor. A great example from the roster of the Colorado Mammoth is transition player Ilija Gajic.
Gajic could apparently do it all when he was moving into senior lacrosse. How tough was he to face? His current coach in Colorado, Chris Gill, was playing with the New Westminster Salmonbellies of the Western Lacrosse Association when Gajic was named the top graduating player in the BC junior league. Gill was helping the Bellies’ coaches prepare for the WLA draft.
“In their draft prep they had 10 or 15 questions they asked every single draftee,” Gill relates. “One was, who was the toughest guy in junior and who was the scariest guy to play against, and every single answer was Ilija.”
Needless to say, New Westminster picked Gajic and he was a key member of the team, helping lead them to three straight Mann Cup finals beginning in 2008. The same athleticism, toughness and drive led to him being the second overall pick by Colorado in the 2009 NLL draft.
He was originally seen as an offensive player, based on his raw talent. As he will himself profess, playing in an offensive structure wasn’t his greatest asset, though. As Gill points out, “His best part of his offence was running the ball from centre in and just picking and choosing whether he was going to pass, shoot or go on a breakaway. He could read the play and he was so strong.”
Eventually, he shifted to a transition role and is once again a valuable member of the Mammoth roster after a two-year stint with the Vancouver Stealth.
As mentioned above, there’s a lot more to Gajic’s story than his skill and what he does on the turf. Gajic has always been a fan favourite, largely because he is so accessible to and friendly with the fans.
“Every single kid wanted to talk to him after the game,” Gill says of their time together in New West. “We’d go out there for three stars, he was always one of the stars. The coach would be in the dressing room wanting to talk and Ilija’s still out there talking to the fans, talking to the kids, signing autographs. Yeah, he lives for that stuff, man. He’s a great ambassador of the game.”
It’s more than just mingling with fans, though. Gajic enjoys and even seeks out chances to visit children’s hospitals and take part in events to support worthy causes. He’s a regular at children’s Make A Wish Foundation events in and around Denver, where he played in university before joining the Mammoth.
Gajic, as you might expect, plays down the extracurricular work he does. “Not that I’ve gone out of my way, I’ve just been fortunate to get hooked up with these organizations,” he told NLL.com. He may profess to just being lucky, but you tend to “get hooked up with these organizations” when you virtually never say no to a request and you clearly enjoy yourself while taking part, not to mention bringing joy to the folks you interact with.
Gajic is particularly active with charities addressing colitis and related diseases. It hits close to home since he developed ulcerative colitis in his mid-20s.
“I had to be on drugs and everything. You have to learn how to control it, what your body can take and what it can’t take,” Gajic says. “Fortunately, I don’t have Crohns, I have ulcerative colitis and it’s in a part of the body that can be controlled. I’m not on medication any more but I still hear horror stories from people I’m close to, what they have to deal with and it’s terrible.”
Gajic is glad he was able to keep playing the game he loves, especially given how big a role sports have always played in the life of him and his family. His mother, from Vancouver, was a field hockey player. His dad hails from Serbia and played soccer at a high level. Their four sons—Milan, Nenad, Ilija and Alex, in order of birth—played all kinds of sports but lacrosse is where they really made their mark.
The Burnaby clan were major contributors to the dominant run by their hometown Lakers, among the four of them earning nine Minto Cup championship rings. They also got to play together with the Salmonbellies.
“It was awesome. We’ve been fortunate to be close in age so we’ve gotten to play together a lot. It’s a lot of fun,” Ilija says. “I think once the game starts you forget about it and they’re just any other teammates. But it’s always kind of cool to have that experience. In the future, you can say we all played at a high level together.”
Ilija and Alex have even gotten to play internationally together. They led Serbia to its first ever international wins at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in 2015.
With his trademark sense of humour, Ilija pumped up the outstanding performance at the tournament by Alex, who lost the sight in one eye several years ago. “He lit it up. He was good out there. The one-eyed bandit was just sniping out there.”
Kids just seem to gravitate towards Ilija. It was no different at the worlds. I was fortunate enough to witness his interaction with a young lacrosse player who travelled from Long Island, New York to the Onondaga Nation to interview players for a school project. The youngster was nervous at first as his mother brought him over to talk with Ilija, but the Serbian made him comfortable throughout the interview.
Gajic didn’t just answer questions, he asked about the young player’s lacrosse league and his project as well, all while sporting a freshly applied cast for the broken thumb he had suffered at the tournament. For those who know him, none of that was out of character or surprising from Gajic. He’s an asset on the floor and an ambassador off it.
And he is more than happy to be part of Serbia’s efforts to grow the game. “Going to play for that country made my dad very proud and therefore made me very proud,” Gajic says. “That’s my team. I love those guys and I can’t wait to get back and hook up with those guys again and battle with them.”
For his teammates and fans in Serbia, Colorado and elsewhere, the feeling is mutual.