Welcome back to another edition of The NLL Unstrung! In the first article, The Start of a New Series, we discussed the birth of the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League, which today is known as the National Lacrosse League. The second article, The Start of an All-American League, discusses the league’s start with four teams made up solely of American born players.
Thanks again to Brian Shanahan, former NLL player and current NLL analyst, on sharing his perspective on the league, with his background growing up in Canada playing box lacrosse with his brothers and well-known players like John Tavares.
This article gives you firsthand stories from an American born field lacrosse player that played in the EPBLL in its early years.
I had the chance to talk to Todd Esposito, who shared some stories on his years playing for the New York Saints. Esposito grew up playing field lacrosse on Long Island before his All-American career at Nassau Community College and the University of Virginia.
Following graduation, Esposito said, “Some guys were called to a meeting to start an outdoor pro league. I played club for the Long Island squad, but it didn’t last long. There was not a whole lot of money to travel so everything was by bus. That league only lasted six games before going bankrupt. Teams didn’t even have enough money to pay players.”
There weren’t many playing opportunities in the 1980’s. Esposito has many stories of playing club ball because that is all that the guys knew at that time. “You’d go home from college and play in the league. Everyone knew each other because they had grown up together,” said Esposito.
That was the norm.
Players like Esposito were trying to figure out where to play after college graduation, but then box came around. Yes, at this time in 1986, the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League was being formed.
“I was in DC at the time and was going to play for the DC team, but the coaches knew I was going back to New York. They weren’t going to pay for me to travel back and forth so I played with the New York Saints,” said Esposito.
Let’s rewind. Remember in my last article, I told you how the league tried to get local players on each of its four original teams to cut down on expenses? Esposito was one of those local talents, and he spoke about his experiences firsthand.
Let’s talk salary, just to fully paint the picture for you. Esposito told me that each player got an estimated $350 per game during their first season, but that was only if you played. If you didn’t play, you didn’t get paid. Practice players played for the love of the game because they didn’t receive a paycheck.
He also said, “It was the same price for everyone that played. $350 for first year guys and then players got a $100-$200 raise every year after that. If players were in the league too long and started to get $1000-$1200 per game, the teams would only play you a couple of games so they did not have to pay you as much. Then they’d have a ‘special night’, which ended up being your final game in the league.”
In other words, when players salaries would reach four figures after being in the league for too long, the team would organize a special game honoring their last game in the league. That would be the end of their time playing in the EPBLL.
So at that time, between financial boundaries and injuries (which we will talk about more in a later article), players rarely stayed in the league for more than a few years.
This helps explain why teams could not afford to pay players to relocate to a new team or to fly in for games. Esposito claims this was all well known throughout the league. But the players didn’t care because everyone was playing for the love of the game, not for a check.
Esposito knew the general manager for the Saints, which is how he ended up joining the team. Esposito told me there was no draft back then. “Teams had open tryouts they invited everyone to, but they weren’t really for everyone. You knew who the coaches were and they knew you. They would call you and give you a roster spot, so some didn’t need to tryout,” said Esposito.
“Teams also needed practice players so unfortunately open tryouts were basically for practice players. They weren’t going to see the field but they just wanted to be part of the team.”
Since practice players weren’t paid, teams would pick up local guys to fill those spots.
“We played back then for the game, not the money,” said Esposito. “There were no summer club teams. Nobody thought of starting a summer team for fifth or sixth graders and make money through coaching like now. It was all about playing. We did it because we loved the game. We just wanted to play. You thought you were better than the guy next to you. Then afterwards everyone met up for a beer and were friends.”
Let’s take a look at practice. Back in 1986, teams didn’t have their own practice facility, so they had to share practice times with other local teams in different sports. The New York Cosmos, a professional men’s soccer team at the time, opened up an indoor soccer facility and were kind enough to let the Saints practice there twice a week. The hard part was that the indoor 5v5 soccer field was not the same size as the floor for a box game. So even though they were able to practice, they still couldn’t work on their offensive and defensive plays.
Esposito also shared a great story about traveling to games on little to no money. Back in the 80s, there was a low-cost airline called the People Express.“The flights were cheap so you could fly from New York to Dallas for $49 and they always overbooked so if you were willing to give up your seat you’d fly anywhere you want for free,” said Esposito. “Flights flew out every 90 minutes. So to travel we had a system. We would get tickets through People Express, go early to the airport, give up our seats, and then get tickets to fly to our game for free.
My jaw dropped when I first heard that story. I don’t know if you knew anything this airline, but I knew nothing about it.
More importantly, I hope this gives you a better sense of the start of the EPBLL. There was no funding back then like there is now. But it didn’t matter for the players – they just enjoyed playing lacrosse.
I have more stories including the adjustment to box after playing field, rules, injuries, and more but you will have to wait for the next edition of The NLL Unstrung for those.
Thanks to Jason for reaching out to me on Twitter about your uncle Esposito! I also have to give a shout out to Todd Esposito for sharing stories of his NLL playing days.
Don’t forget you guys can message me on twitter @ReneePWash or tag me using #NLLUnstrung to share your stories with me. Let’s continue to uncover the history of the NLL one string at a time!