The Legend of Oliver

There are several movies that no matter how many times you watch or know how it ends, somehow will always find a way to make your eyes water.

I have probably watched ‘Rudy’ at least 3x dozen times from start to finish since when it came out in 1993. I am fully aware that it is not 100% accurate and has been fictionalized to raise the dramatic levels but that never seems to make a difference to me when I choose to suspend life’s needs for a few hours to watch this classic. 

Last month, a day after witnessing one of the most miraculous, amazing sports performances I have ever seen, I finally realized why ‘Rudy’ still causes a middle-aged man like myself to consistently get goosebumps and tear up like there is a cut onion sitting next to me. I had always figured my emotions were tied to the impactful scenes when the captains of ND Football walked into Coach Devine’s office and laid their jerseys on the table demanding Rudy gets to dress. Or perhaps, its the scene when the crowd begins to chant ‘Rudy’ louder and louder. And while both scenes will always remain ‘best-in-class’ in my book, it is both the following story and key message that if you believe in yourself, everything is possible that made me realize its meaningfulness.

Here is the story and unlike ‘Rudy’ there have been zero creative liberties taken to enhance. There is simply no need.

At the end of last year, I ran a small lacrosse skills class on Tuesday afternoons. The class was held at Deer Hill gym, your typical middle-school gymnasium by most standards: large enough for a basketball court and still intimate enough to create two-sided box lacrosse drills & games.  The attendees were fifteen or so 6th grade boys whom are above average athletically and play multiple sports throughout the year. In fact, the reason the class existed was because the majority of the boys attending were unable to make the larger sized lacrosse class (Ballerz) we run on Monday afternoons at Cohasset Sports Complex because they were dedicated to attending travel basketball practice in and around the same time.  Playing multiple sports throughout the year is something I fully encourage for all kids, no matter how developed you are in lacrosse.

After running a few of these smaller sized skills classes and seeing the benefit it provided, I decided to offer the class to a few 4th graders who also attended Ballerz but I believed could benefit from some extra stick work at no cost to their parents. Since the curriculum was focused on improving stick skills, the kids were not asked to bring pads, only gloves every Tuesday.

The sentiment for offering this up to the younger class always felt right but when a few of the fourth graders showed up for that first class and you could see the significant size difference between the kids in 6th grade versus 4th grade, the second guessing kicked in.

After 40 minutes of some solid stick work, I agreed as I always do to wrap up the class with a fun lacrosse game. A popular request amongst this group is lacrosse dodgeball where two teams are lined up on opposite end lines holding soft lacrosse balls in their sticks patiently waiting to fire the ball at their opponents’ lower body with the hopes of connecting. The game is played until no one is left standing from the other team. We play to 3, meaning the first team to win 3 games, wins.

The rules which are always discussed at the beginning of any game consist of the following:

1.   No head shots.

2.   No side arm throwing to ensure there will not be any head shots.

3.   A yellow line on both sides of the floor indicating where you must shoot from.

4.   If you catch the other persons’ ball, they are out. If you try to catch and you miss, you are out.

5.   If you get knocked out, you have one chance to shoot the ball from the bleachers into the Scoop n Shoot and if it goes in, you’re back in the game.   

6.   When Coach yells stop for whatever reason, you must stop. Anyone who throws after coach yells stop, is out.

7.   Finally, if your team is being beaten badly meaning the majority of your teammates have been knocked out while the other team still has the majority of their players, you can request to ‘surrender the game’ which will give the other team a win but will allow your teammates to comeback.

Establishing rules before play are important when coaching all levels.  And not just from a safety perspective but moreover from a respecting the game and your opponent standpoint as well. As one might imagine, 6th grade boys are highly competitive creatures who can easily allow their emotions and adrenaline to get the best of them in the heat of battle. By clearly outlining and agreeing to the rules before engaging, I’ve watched these young, often irreverent adolescent boys mature into respectful young men on the field of play…well up until the farting noises begin.

The Scene

Team A, (comprised of 7 sixth graders and one 4th grader) came ready to play that day.  In record timing, they eliminated all but two players from Team B (comprised of 7 sixth grader), The two remaining players on Team B were two 6th graders who decidedly that the odds of winning did not favor them and called for a surrender.

Team A   Team B

      1             0

 The second game started just as the first one did with Team A firing on all cylinders.  Within a few minutes, Team A held a commanding 5 to 1 lead. Note, the 5 that were still alive were all 6th graders, the remaining member of team B was a 4th grader, named Oliver Buchanan. A name that the majority of the kids in the gym, including his very own teammates did not know at the time.  As one might imagine, the odds did not look great for young Olivier. 5 significant larger 6th graders who threw the ball faster and with more accuracy vs. the much smaller 4th grader who seemed much more comfortable keeping behind the Scoop N’ Shoot buckets then he did hanging in the intense combat area.  

As both a coach and a father of three young boys, I place safety above all with everything when it comes to game play. After analyzing the situation, I said to myself, I need to get this young kid out of here because if I am him, I am probably scared as heck. And when you play scared, you often hesitate, and hesitation is a killer in this game. Thus, I yelled ‘Stop’ and the kids held their fire. I walked over to the Scoop N’ Shoot bucket where Oliver was behind and said,

‘What do you think? You’re down 5 to 1, should we call a surrender”

God as my witness, he looked up at me and calmly replied, ‘No thanks, Coach, I’ve got this”. 

As I walked back to the sideline, I thought wow, this kid’s confidence in himself is incredibly awesome and secondly, please stay low. When I got back to the sidelines, I yelled “Resume” then turned to the 6th graders on his team who had been knocked out and noted, ‘say what you will about his chances but this kids got some serious stones’.

After the initial onslaught of 5 soft rubber balls whizzing by, Oliver subsequently popped out to collect as many balls as he could then returned to his home behind the Scoop n Shoot. Near the conclusion of the second air strike from Team A, Oliver popped up from behind his shield and fired back tagging one of the most athletically gifted 6th graders on the shin. His shot was not all fast by any means, but his timing was perfect. When the other kids realized who Oliver just knocked out, one could imagine what the jeering sounded like. It was now 4 to 1 in favor of Team A.

It was less than a minute after Oliver’s first knockout shot, when he connected again to knock out the second 6th grader. The roars from the sidelines heightened as we all looked on in amazement of what was happening. It was not 3 to 1 in favor of Team A.

The next victim came when Oliver decided to throw two balls at the same time in the direction of a remaining 6th grader. Believing he could catch one of the slowly passing balls, he reached for it but at the last minute turned his eyes at the other ball coming his way. The result, the first ball hit the top of his stick and then the ground. The score was now 2 to 1 in favor of Team A.

Oliver’s next elimination came at the hands of another 6th grader who after getting frustrated by multiple missed attempts, decided to lob a soft ball over the Scoop N’ Shoot where Oliver resided. This strategy proved to fatal as Oliver easily caught the ball as it descended towards him. The score was now 1 to 1.

At this point, I wish I had thought to take my camera out and capture but like most people who are lucky enough to witness greatness, all you want to do is continue to watch and not jinx.  

What I will say is though is at this point in the match, you could dismiss any type of objectivity or loyalty.  All the kids on both teams, who had been eliminated, did not hide their feelings and instead decided to chant…’OLIVER, OLIVER, OLIVER’ as the match continued.

The moment, when Oliver launched the ball that caught the final 6th grader on the arm, the entire squad in the gym rushed at him, picked him up and celebrated this monumental victory. The range of emotions that inhibited all of us in the Deer Hill Gym went from surprise to excitement to joy. The little 4th grader whose name no one knew was now and forever the people’s champ. The legend of Oliver Buchanan has been born.

A few minutes after class wrapped, I noticed Oliver talking to his Mom who had come to pick him up. Filled with excitement, I walked over to them and inquired whether Oliver had passed along this epic tale and to my surprise she informed, no he hadn’t. The people’s champ was not only a legend but a humble legend.   

The next day, I decided I would wrap up the class by telling the young kids about the legend of Oliver. As I finished recalling his heroics, I concluded by noting that if you believe in yourself, everything is possible.  

Oliver’s story has since been recalled to family, friends, former college lacrosse teammates, and most importantly hundreds upon hundreds of little scoopers. The principal message of ‘believing in yourself’ has been woven into every Scoops lesson in some form or fashion. The salience and impact this message holds is one that extends well beyond the lacrosse field. It is a message that should be adopted by all parents, coaches, and truly anyone who has the opportunity to work with kids.

 Last week, I decided to watch Rudy again. Not surprising, I found myself welling up on the scene when he makes the tackle at the end of the game. When my middle child asked, why I was crying, I turned to him and said because if you believe in yourself, everything is possible.

 Thank you for taking the time to read a lacrosse coaches perspective.

Respectfully yours,

Coach Bels



Matt BelsonComment