Lacrosse, the original American sport |

Lacrosse, the original American sport

Team Colorado and the Baltimore Crabs face off in a championship game of the 2015 Vail Lacrosse Shootout at Ford Park. The annual lacrosse tournament has been taking place in Vail since 1973.
Townsend Bessent | Daily file photo |

If you’re in town this week, then you’ll likely see hundreds of lacrosse players.

It’s a growing sport, and the path of its development throughout the years has ran through Vail via the Vail Lacrosse Shootout, currently underway in Vail for the 45th consecutive year.

The tournament was started by Jim Soran and Flip Naumburg, who met playing lacrosse at Colorado College in 1971.

Throughout the years, “most every lacrosse great has played games in the western lacrosse ‘Mecca’ that is Vail,” Naumburg writes.

These days, the Vail Lacrosse Shootout isn’t quite as bright a spot on the lacrosse map as it once was, but that’s because the sport has grown so much it has become more dispersed.

“We had so much prestige — It was the only tournament,” Naumburg said. “Everybody had to come here. But now there’s hall of fame camps, there’s pro lacrosse or there’s other tournaments.”


The fact that the tournament has become a Fourth of July staple in Vail may seem out of place, at first. It certainly has been a surprise to the directors.

“In the early years, some people weren’t quite ready for the heathens that our group represented,” Naumburg said. “So we had to come and justify ourselves each year. But that didn’t last long because the vendors came and said it’s our biggest week of the year. Now they’re glad to have us, and we’re a little more civilized.”

When European settlers first saw Native Americans playing lacrosse, they witnessed some brutality with a side of stick handling.

“They were beating each other to death, practicing their combat moves and using a rag wrapped around a rock for a ball,” Naumburg said. “Then you had these very civilized European missionaries who would come and see these games, and they were fascinated.”

The Native Americans called the game Little Brother of War and used it to train young warriors. The tactics were to cripple the opponent, rather than aim for a specific point in the goal, which was usually a natural feature such as two trees. When the missionaries began their fascination with the sport, they brought more engineering to the stick and pocket and helped bring some of the nuance you see in the game today. What you see now has a little bit of both worlds.

“The violence is still there, and I think that is what attracts some young men to the sport,” Naumburg said. “But it’s a complicated game … the equipment alone, I’ve always maintained that other than hockey, there’s no sport that requires equipment to the degree that lacrosse does.”


With that history in mind, one could say lacrosse is the most American of any sport, and so its place in Vail as the official sport of Independence Day is more than fitting.

If you’re not familiar with the game, then you may have the same experience the European missionaries had if you head to Ford Park to catch a game or two.

And there are signs that the sport of lacrosse can and will continue to grow, perhaps even to the level of the big money U.S. sports.

Naumburg has dabbled in the business of making gear for the sport, developing an apparatus called the Rock-It Pocket. Living in California decades ago, he said the nearest place to purchase a lacrosse ball was 3,000 miles away.

“Now I’m getting squashed by Dick’s Sporting Goods, Nike and Under Armour,” he said. “It’s definitely changing.”

It’s becoming more of a family sport, with the biggest growth being seen among young girls who now play lacrosse.

“I think everyone thinks if my kid can catch a ball, they’ll get a scholarship,” Naumburg said.

People are playing it until their old age, which is something you’ll see here in Vail this week with divisions for athletes over the age of 40, 50 and 60 years old. There’s even players in their 70s.

“Right now we’re really pioneering the old guys stuff,” Naumburg said. “The Medicare league.”

With all that growth, though, the part that needs to come along is the media side of the sport. The Vail Lacrosse Shootout is doing its part, attempting a first-ever live broadcast feature of all the games on their website. Watch games happening in real time starting Saturday on

“If the talking heads on ESPN start talking about lacrosse, that would really be huge,” Naumburg said. “And more and more those guys did play in college.”

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