A Season that Changed the Game 25 years ago, a brash bunch of misfits won the championship and created a dynasty
Friday, May 23, 2008
Travis Solomon and Tom Nims were good friends. They shared an understanding forged by stopping hard line drives with skin and bone: They were both skilled goalies on the 1983 Syracuse University lacrosse team.
The problem with being a goalie is that only one guy starts. SU played its first game that year on the road against powerful Maryland. It was a formidable test for an Orange team coming off a season in which the school failed to make the NCAA tournament.
On game day, Coach Roy Simmons Jr. put Nims between the pipes. The news was tough on Solomon. He had been a star at LaFayette High School and at the state University College at Cobleskill. For him, it would be a difficult thing to sit and watch.
But Nims was his friend, and only one of them could play.
Their bond remains central to the legend of that team. When Nims endured a dislocated shoulder against Maryland, his buddy took his place. SU won, 16-13. Solomon would be brilliant in the cage for the rest of the season. He was part of a self-proclaimed band of "misfits" who changed the fortunes of Syracuse lacrosse.
"We won the national championship with our backup goalie," said Simmons, now 72.
Yet the tale is about far more than who played and who was hurt. Nims, his teammates recall, never complained or grew bitter, even as it became clear that his injury had sidelined him during a historic season.
That selflessness extended to all 32 traveling members of the team. There was no backstabbing, no strident griping about lack of playing time. Over the last few months, during interview after interview, the players and coaches returned constantly to their sense of shared purpose.
"You don't become close as a team because of what you do in practice," said Mark Wenham, who in 1983 was a senior captain. "We did everything together. That team was really tight, and that includes the coaches, the trainers, everybody."
From throughout the country, players from that championship season will gather Monday in Foxboro, Mass., at halftime of the Division I title game. While the NCAA always reunites its silver anniversary champions, this gathering will have unusual resonance.
The 1983 Orange opened the door to an era. Their wide-open attack - epitomized by an electrifying comeback to claim the championship against Johns Hopkins - helped to popularize a charismatic style that would be carried on by such Syracuse greats as the Gait and Powell brothers.
Since 1983, nine more SU teams have walked off the field with championship trophies. The ultimate symmetry, however, is the presence in Foxboro of this year's Orange, the 24th "Final Four" appearance by Syracuse since the school won it all in 1983.
One of the SU standouts is attackman Kenny Nims, Tommy's son. He wears the number 10, the same number as his father.
In 1993, when Kenny was a first-grader, his dad died of complications linked to diabetes. Fifteen years later, as Syracuse prepares to vie for another NCAA title, the son goes to Foxboro with a deep appreciation for what the 1983 team meant to the school, and to the game:
"These are the ones who got it rolling," Kenny said. "What they did is what we're about."
Throughout the 1983 season, Syracuse relied on a brash, run-and-gun style of lacrosse. Skeptics sneered at the approach as nothing more than "rolling out the ball," but SU won 13 of 14 games to set up that championship showdown at Rutgers Stadium against Johns Hopkins, a dynastic college power.
Almost immediately, Syracuse seemed overmatched. Hopkins slowed down the tempo and stayed within its system. Long after halftime, the Blue Jays led by seven goals. SU Coach Roy Simmons Jr. looked up to see people leaving the stadium.
What happened next symbolized a transition within the sport itself.
Syracuse began a frenzied offensive barrage. The Orange won, 17-16, a victory that meshed with sweeping changes in the game. Throughout the 1980s, lacrosse grew in popularity at a breakneck pace. Much of that new interest could be traced to Syracuse, where Simmons and John Desko, his top assistant and today's SU head coach, encouraged their players to attack with fast-breaking impunity.
"That '83 (Syracuse) team represents one of the most exciting eras in lacrosse, certainly in my lifetime and in the history of the college game," said Steve Stenersen, president of Baltimore-based US Lacrosse, the national governing body for the sport.
Yet those Orange hardly seemed destined to play that kind of role. Many key players transferred in from somewhere else. Tim Nelson, whose uncanny passing set SU assist records that still stand, came to Syracuse only when North Carolina State dropped lacrosse. Three of the four senior captains had played for other schools.
Together, they forged a confidence that bordered on outrageous. Kevin Sheehan, a freshman in 1983, vividly recalls the first bus ride to Maryland. He sat next to Brad Kotz, whose stickhandling was held in awe within the team; Kotz kept the pocket on his stick so tightly strung that senior captain Darren Lawlor used to joke it felt like a tennis racket.
Sheehan, seeking reassurance, asked Kotz if he thought Syracuse could really beat Maryland.
"Beat Maryland?" Kotz replied. "We're going to win the national championship."
Every now and then, Simmons, retired since 1998, watches a tape of the championship game. For the coach, much of it remains painful viewing. Into halftime and beyond, Johns Hopkins was utterly dominant. Midway through the third quarter the score was 12-5, and it seemed to be less a showdown than a rout.
On the night before the game, Simmons had dared the Blue Jays to bring it on. At a banquet attended by both teams, the SU coach was asked to say a few words. He was happy to oblige. He basically used the chance to poke Johns Hopkins with a stick.
Today, Simmons cheerfully recalls how he intentionally mispronounced the name of the school, referring to it repeatedly as "John Hopkins." That was only the start. Standing before contingents from both schools, Simmons predicted the sky above the game would start off in "Blue Jay blue" - but he was certain the day would end with an Orange sunset.
"I gasped," said Mike Powers, a Syracuse junior who had transferred from Johns Hopkins. The Blue Jays had been to seven straight championship games. They had not lost to SU since 1922. They embodied tradition and success, while Syracuse had never even made it to an NCAA championship game.
Despite the Orange bravado, the game quickly shaped up as a blowout. Syracuse was jittery, uncharacteristically sloppy. By the time the deficit grew to seven goals in the third quarter, "we were just kind of in shock, kind of numb," said Jeff McCormick, a senior captain. The team needed a jolt. It was provided by Lawlor, a longstick defenseman, a guy who had not scored a goal all year.
"Enough was enough," he recalls.
He grabbed the ball at his own end of the field and took off. Lawlor faked a pass toward Powers, then give a hip fake and raced toward the cage. The Hopkins players seemed paralyzed. "He was not," Nelson said, "our fleetest of foot."
Lawlor scored, and everything changed for Syracuse.
Kotz dominated the faceoffs and scored five times down the stretch, including a goal off a feed from Art Lux that finally gave SU the lead, 14-13. The clincher was what John Desko describes as an "eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head" pass from Nelson to Randy Lundblad, who fired in the 17th Orange goal of the game.
Audacity rewarded, Syracuse was the new college champion.
Simmons would eventually create a unique and graceful championship ring for his players, which carried the same image as the one used on the NCAA trophy. The team was fitted for those rings on a humid June day, when everyone's fingers were swollen from the heat.
"This is good," Lawlor remembers saying. "They'll still fit when we're in our 50s."
He's 48 this year. He'll wear his ring in Foxboro.
That SU team was not quite like any champion college lacrosse had seen before. Simmons was an artist who worked in collage, and he once told Sports Illustrated that his team was an example of his art. He gave his players unusual freedom on and off the field, a privilege that would have been easy to abuse, but the senior captains refused to let that happen.
"They ran everything," recalls Roy Simmons III, an assistant coach for his father. "Their word was gospel."
The players say the team was extraordinarily close. They often gathered at Skytop to string their sticks and to dip them into brightly-colored dye. They would clear the furniture from an apartment and dance to well-worn tapes; one contingent loved such disco songs as "Get Down on It;" another group, made up of "rockers," preferred the Rolling Stones.
They watched Bill Murray's "Caddyshack" again and again, until Mark Burnam, a junior with fiery red hair, knew most of Murray's killer lines by heart.
It was left to the captains - Lux, Wenham, Lawlor and McCormick - to make sure no one forgot what they were to do.
Their leadership "was just incredible," said Bob Seebold, a senior attackman in 1983. "They had no problem stopping practice to make us run, if we needed it."
Indeed, the travels of the captains tell the story of the team.
Wenham, a West Genesee graduate, was a transfer from Navy. Lux, who played for Jamesville-DeWitt, left West Point to return to Syracuse. Lawlor began his collegiate career at SU, then went to Adelphi, where he had a better scholarship offer. "I hated it," he said. He missed his teammates. He came back.
Only McCormick was not "among that eclectic band that played at other schools," as he puts it. With Kotz, Wenham, Bob Parry, Powers, Lundblad, Nims and Desko's younger brothers, Dave and Jeff, McCormick was a part of an SU core that grew up playing lacrosse at West Genesee, where coach Mike Messere was building a national high school powerhouse.
Messere's approach seemed diametrically opposite to that of Simmons: He was a disciplinarian who believed in precise and controlled strategies, while Simmons embraced a breathless, shirt-untucked, up-and-down style.
To Wenham, the connection made absolute sense.
"What you get from West Genny is an incredible foundation and understanding of the game," he said. "What you got from Simmy was someone who trusts you as a player and allows you to use those instincts on the field. But if you didn't have the basics and the fundamentals, you couldn't play well in that kind of system."
If there is a way to close the circle, to draw together how Syracuse transformed from a lacrosse afterthought into a lasting power, it is by returning to the story of Nims and Solomon. Simmons had always appreciated the Iroquois reverence for lacrosse, less a game than a form of worship to the people of the longhouse.
In that sense, it was fitting to have Solomon tending goal. As a little boy on the Onondaga Nation, Solomon spent countless summer days watching as men's teams from the Six Nations went at it in the box. That is an aggressive, relentless form of lacrosse, and Solomon found kinship in the way SU played the game.
"We wanted to run people into the ground," he said.
He became the starter after the shoulder injury sidelined Nims, who would temper the disappointment with All-American performances at goalie over the next two years. Following graduation, he took a job with Niagara Mohawk. He and Julie married, and had two children. Both Kenny and his sister Taylor, now 17, would go on to play lacrosse.
In 1993, 10 years after the championship season, Tom Nims died of a blood clot related to diabetes - making him the only member of the team who did not live to see this reunion.
Even so, his legacy will be on profound display in Foxboro, where Kenny will be on the attack for this year's Orange.
Kenny was only 6 when he lost his dad. Julie took her husband's championship ring and locked it in a box in her bedroom. She has tried several times to give the ring to her son, who promises a day will come when he can accept it.
But not yet. His reasoning is built upon the lofty standards for lacrosse at Syracuse, a lasting bridge to the audacity of 1983:
"First," Kenny said, "I want one of my own."
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. His columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 470-6015.