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The NLL Unstrung: Injuries, Ice, and Transitioning to Box

Welcome back to another edition of The NLL Unstrung! Last article, An American Perspective on the EPBLL, I introduced you to Todd Esposito who gave some insight on finances, traveling, the People Express, and the process of getting into the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League in the 1980’s.

Now, let’s dig deeper.

Esposito grew up playing field lacrosse successfully at a high level. In the 1980’s while he was playing club lacrosse, he had the opportunity to play in the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League, which, shortly after, became the Major Indoor Lacrosse League.

As mentioned in my last article, Esposito was living in Washington D.C. But at the time, he was moving back to Long Island, so the coaches of the Baltimore Thunder decided not to pursue Esposito. Instead, Esposito joined the New York Saints, who had just moved from New Jersey.

According to Esposito, “Back then there were no real rules. It was kind of like, kill the guy with the ball. If you were free on the field, you had your head on a swivel all the time because you knew you were going to get hit by a stick, or someone was going to take a run at you. Referees rarely called anything.”

“If I was on offense and a teammate had the ball, I could run and knock over the defenseman. Think of a defenseman covering a guy, watching him, and then someone blindsiding him so your guy could get to the cage. Guys were dropping like flies.”

At that time, the league was so new everyone was trying to figure things out on the fly including the players, coaches, league and the arenas.

The arenas for the MILL were the same arenas used for hockey games. The turf was laid overtop of ice rinks for the box games. But the process of doing that was not the same as the turf or courts that you see placed over ice in arenas today. As you and I know, technology and new information naturally changes the way things are done over time.

“They would turn the temperature down on the ice so it would melt, throw rolls of turf down over it, and then turn the air back up to refreeze the ice,” said Esposito.

My first thought knowing… that is not good. As a former soccer player, I’ve seen a lot of ACL and knee injuries on the turf. So as Esposito was telling me, I couldn’t help but cringe.

Unfortunately, the field led to a lot of leg injuries. Common injuries like blown out knees from the turf rolls were not just season-ending, but career-ending.

So just to recap. Players were getting injured because of the physicality of the game, and then also because of the floor. BUT that is not all. The third x-factor for injuries was the transition from field to box lacrosse. Anyone that has ever played field and box lacrosse knows the difference in speed of play, tempo, and the style of play.

“They would throw us out there and say ‘Okay this is where you’re playing. Have fun,” said Esposito.

“Guys were being hit into the boards and if you’ve never played before, your first reaction is to put up your hands. So some players were breaking their wrists or fingers, which would affect their jobs through the week and force some to stop playing altogether,” said Esposito.

So what was the answer to cut down on these injuries?

Said Esposito: “They started bringing NHL players to practice to teach us how to hit the boards properly without getting hurt.”

Canadian players who grew up playing box lacrosse were used to playing in an arena. For first time players, however, it was a nightmare.

“Teams wanted to have a couple of tough guys or enforcers, but they also wanted the fast, quick players. You had guys that were good defensive players, but now couldn’t use a long stick like in the field game, so they had to get used to the short stick.”

“When I first started, you could grab players with your free hand. You were allowed to tug, tackle, hit because the fans would go crazy. That was frustrating for the better players.”

Esposito continued.“Good players were frustrated because they weren’t used to being grabbed or tackled, but great defenders were also frustrated keeping up with the pace.”

“It was fun when I was young. I didn’t mind getting to play at Joe Lewis Arena in Detroit or the Spectrum in Philly. They’d sell out 17,000-18,000 people to a game. The Coliseum in New York would get 8,000-10,000. It was one of the main sports in those big hockey towns.”

“People coming into the game associated it with hockey. This game is a lot quicker since there are no out of bounds. It has the speed, hitting, and they didn’t stop you from fighting.”

“Traveling was fun. We all knew each other. And we got a little bit of the pro-player feeling with kids coming up to us wanting autographs and pictures.”

Like a lacrosse version of Clark Kent, players like Esposito were players that kids looked up to on weekends. But at work, it was a different story. No one knew about their professional lifestyle. At least, not at first.

“Back then you played because it was fun. You knew you were going to have a blast playing good lacrosse, hang out afterward, and go to work Monday hopefully with no black eyes so you didn’t have to explain yourself.”

“At first my coworkers didn’t know I played on the weekends. Most players didn’t say anything unless you had a really cool boss because if you had a game in Detroit, you’d have to leave early to fly out. But you didn’t want your boss to know that was why you left early, so for that reason, you kept it quiet. I actually had some colleagues that were lacrosse people and their kids played lacrosse. They found out I played and enjoyed it.”

Another part of adjusting to box, besides the physicality, was the gear. Box lacrosse equipment has come a long way since Esposito’s career in 1988-1990.

“I remember when the Canadian teams came to play in the Coliseum. They were doing behind the back passes and Long Island guys were still basic. Plus the Canadian players had sticks with the smaller heads”

“There is a huge difference with the sizes. The smaller heads of the stick make it easier to hold the ball, especially with the way players were getting hit in the 80’s. It also helped with close-range passes.”

Back then, players had a small selection of gloves to choose from. They wore hockey helmets, bicycle shorts, and arm pads.

Esposito said, “Guys cut the palms and fingers out of their gloves. Players had their fingers sticking out so there was always a chance you could lose a finger. There was actually a guy from my hometown that was older than me in the outdoor league that actually had his finger out of his glove. A defender checked him on the pole, and he lost his finger down to the knuckle.”

Let’s pause for one second so I can cringe and say ouch!

I don’t know about you, but as soon as I heard that, all I could do was grab my hands. I could not imagine a simple play turning into losing half a finger.

Esposito said several players had nasty career ending injuries like that one. Personally, this also makes me appreciate some of the rules we have in the NLL today even more. It may change the game but it at least makes the game even more exciting, athletic, and uptempo.

At that time, players didn’t quit because of age. They were either forced out of the league because their per game salary was getting too high as we discussed in the last article or because of injuries.

“I was in the league for two years and at the end of the second year, I got hurt. I didn’t want to take a chance of playing again since when you got hurt, you got hurt,” said Esposito.

Esposito is still involved in lacrosse. He was an assistant coach for the New York Lizards in the MLL for five years before relocating to Virginia Beach to help grow the game in that area. He now coaches field lacrosse at Cox High School where he is fighting to make the school’s club team a varsity sport.

He has followed his passion for the sport of lacrosse from the island to the beaches of Virginia as he is still finding ways to give back to the game. He’s confident that he has no regrets looking back on his career.

“We all loved the game and we wanted to play. I have great memories playing in arenas like the Spectrum. The way the bench is set up, the fans are right on top of you.”

“People would ask how you hear with all the people screaming. When on that field, for some odd reason I don’t know why, but you could hear everything perfectly. You could hear the crowds but could also hear everyone on the floor. But once you’re on the bench, with those people right on top of you, you could hear everything fans are yelling. I see it today – I know when I watch – that those guys can hear everything. But that exciting, fun atmosphere made it all worth it.”

Well everyone, thanks for checking out  another edition of the NLL Unstrung. We have more players and coaches with amazing stories to share next article so stay tuned for that!

As always, I enjoy the warm invitation by families, fans, and former players/coaches to share their stories with me. Don’t forget to follow me on twitter @ReneePWash, or tag me using #NLLUnstrung to share your stories as we uncover NLL history one string at a time!