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Stories/Op-Ed

The 43-Year-Old Rookie Who Played For The Syracuse Smash in 1999

All Bob Nelson wanted to do after coming home from playing in a pickup doubleheader basketball game was go to sleep. It was 9:30 at night on Wednesday, January 13th, 1999, and Nelson, then 43 years-old, had a job as a school counselor and two kids to take care of at home.

But first, Nelson saw he had a voicemail on his home phone.

It was Penny Donahue, who was in charge of the lacrosse scheduling for the CNY Family Sports Center, calling on behalf of Freeman Bucktooth, then the head coach of the Syracuse Smash. One of the Smash players got held up with U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Canada border and she wanted to know if Nelson was available to practice with the team.

Nelson hesitated for a second before packing his goalie equipment and heading down to practice.

“I had to think that they asked some other guy before me,” said Nelson, now 63, laughing while retelling the story. “But I couldn’t say no to the opportunity. I figured worst case I get a good seat on the bench and watch the game.”

After playing with the Iroquois Lacrosse Association for four years, Nelson would get the chance to practice with the best players in North America’s top lacrosse league, the NLL.

Turns out he’d get to play in a game with them, too.


Nelson, center, with the Onondaga Masters. Sadly there are no photos of Nelson with the Smash.

Nelson had stayed around lacrosse after playing on SUNY Oswego’s lacrosse and basketball teams as a walk on, graduating in 1976.

He started coaching youth lacrosse in Oswego in 1984 and started playing for the Oneida Silverhawks of the Iroquois Lacrosse Association in 1995, a league he’d play in for the next five years.

How Nelson connected with Bucktooth was a different story.

While coaching in Oswego, Nelson saw an advertisement in the Syracuse Post Standard that the Onondaga Nation minors were looking for games. Nelson called the coach, Freeman Bucktooth, and both teams started playing.

They kicked the snack out of us,” said Nelson.

Bucktooth and Nelson kept in touch and became good friends and on that January night in 1999, Bucktooth called.

That night of practice wasn’t any ordinary practice for Nelson. The practice players beat the starters in a scrimmage, 6-3.

Even though Nelson hadn’t played for six months, he was invited back to practice the next Wednesday.

“All was going well ‘till JJ Graham (a teammate of Nelson’s on the Silverhawks) shot the ball through (Smash goalie) Jim Rankin’s facemask, breaking his nose,” said Nelson.

“That was also the night that Paul Gait decided to get some extra practice in, and Mike Benedict took an underhand shot that came in under my pads and broke my toe.”

In back to back weeks, the Smash saw one goalie break his nose and another, a 43-year-old rookie, break his toe. When Bucktooth and Pat Donahue (assistant coach) asked if Nelson was alright and if he could play on Saturday, he said yes. He’d be the back up to starter Derek Collins.

“Of course I did,” said Nelson. “It sure felt like my toe was broken, but there was no way I was going to say no to playing on Saturday.”

———————

Nelson was once a season ticket holder of the Bandits, and then bought season tickets to the Knighthawks once they began play in 1995. When the Smash started in 1998, they were the third team Nelson had season tickets to in a six-year span. He didn’t care about ‘allegiances’; Smash games were easier to get to and he loved lacrosse.

In the Smash’s first season, Nelson attempted to try out, but once he got to tryouts, word was out that the coaching staff had already selected their goalies. He went home without even putting his goalie pads on.

When he saw on the schedule that the Smash would be playing in Rochester that Saturday in January, Nelson bought four tickets to the game – one for he, his wife and his two kids. His daughter bailed out last second and so he called an old lacrosse coaching friend to tag along. It would be the four of them.

Until Nelson found out he’d be playing in the game. Now his family would get to watch him play. In front of 9,000 people.

“We drove up and I met the team there,” said Nelson. “I Looked around Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial trying to find them before the game. Once the game started it was hard because the stadium was packed.”

There were two things Nelson noticed during pregame warmups. One was that the Knight’n’gales, the Knighthawks dancers, smelled a lot better than the equipment. The second was how many wrinkles there were on the field.

During pregame warmups, Collins took an awkward step during warm-ups and caught his right foot on the rug and tweaked his knee. He started the game but re-injured his knee again in the first quarter. That’s when Bucktooth signaled for the 43-year-old rookie to make his debut.

When asked what the feeling was like getting the call into the game, Nelson searched for an answer before finally landing on one.

“I had a bit of a panic attack, I guess,” said Nelson. “It was kind of surreal. It was by far the biggest arena I’d ever played in at the time. I was a kid at Disney World I guess.”

“The rest of the night was a blur. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself and I didn’t want to be the reason we blew the game.”

Nelson whiffed on the first two shots, but when he got his first save on a Cam Bomberry shot, he settled down.

Still, the anxiety was there. The referees noticed, too. Nelson looks back on the episode that happened over twenty years ago with light humor.

On almost every play the referee came over to me and asked if I was okay, or needed water, or something,” said Nelson. “If we’d had AED’s he probably would have brought that out too.”

——————-

Collins re-entered the game at halftime, but was pulled by Bucktooth after the coach saw his goalie was hurting. Nelson was back in the game.

“Most people say they had 15 minutes of fame, but I was lucky in that I played for 40 minutes,” said Nelson.

The Smash trailed by only three with 9:47 left in the fourth quarter, but the Knighthawks scored on four breakaway goals to break the game open. The Smash fell, 20-13.

Having played with a wooden stick for all those years in the ILA, Nelson was in goal with a plastic stick for the first time in his career. It was also his first time playing on turf – all of the floors in the ILA venues were either concrete or hard packed dirt.

“I’m happy I had more saves than I did goals against,” said Nelson. “I allowed five goals to Ted Dowling. I like to think I helped him get to the Hall of Fame.

“I played that game with the broken toe. The end of my sock and shoe were soaked in blood from the nail being broken in a few places. I went to the doctor the next week and got it removed.”


Nelson with the Onondaga Masters.

Rankin’s nose healed and Collins’ knee was healthy enough to play in Syracuse’s game the following week. Nelson continued to go to practices. He never expected to play again, and he never did.

Still, the experience and the memories of that day, January 23rd, 1999, will always be with Nelson.

“The whole atmosphere was a thrill.”

“The guys from the Smash – before they folded – they gave me the jersey I wore that night. It’s somewhere down in my basement. It was big news for a day or two. It was mentioned a week or two after, but I don’t think anyone has mentioned it since.”

Nelson continues to coach lacrosse – he’s now the head coach of the Oswego high school boys lacrosse team – and he plays in two lacrosse leagues as a 63 year-old, masters lacrosse during the summer with the Onondaga National team and a beer league in the fall and winter.

He has a grandson who is 11 months old who already has a lacrosse stick. And he’ll be getting another one next month, courtesy of Nelson.

“I have the stick all picked out for him.”

15 minutes of fame, 40 minutes of fame, call it whatever you want. Nelson would do it all again, today, if he could.

“That was my Andy Warhol moment. And if some team called me today and asked me to play for them this weekend, I’d be there.”

“I wish I had had more practice time. I wish I could have used my wooden stick, and I wish my toe hadn’t been broken. Everyone made a big deal out of being 43 years old, but that was the least of my worries.”

 

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