Lacrosse: "Not for the faint-hearted"

Cambridge University Lacrosse Club men's captain, Carl Tilbury

As a sport that involves wearing vests known as ‘pinnies’ and which, in the UK at least, is usually associated with girls’ schools, men’s lacrosse is not for the faint-hearted.

Charlie Troman for CAM

The modern sport traces its roots to games played by Native Americans, games that lasted several days and involved hundreds of men from opposing tribes or villages.

Today, teams are smaller and games shorter, but in many respects men’s lacrosse bears striking similarities to its ancestors, variously described as ‘stick ball’, ‘men hit a round object’ and – more ominously – ‘little brother of war’ and ‘bump hips’.

“It’s certainly a full contact sport,” says Carl Tilbury, captain of the men’s lacrosse team and a fourth year chemical engineering undergraduate at St John’s.

If you’ve never watched men’s lacrosse, you’ll see from the armour they don how full-on that contact can be.

“We wear a full head helmet, like ice hockey or American football, with a face mask and grill to stop the ball going in. Goalies also wear neck protection, because you don’t want a rubber ball travelling at 90 miles an hour hitting you in the throat,” he says. “Then there’s shoulder and chest protection, upper-arm guards, gloves and a box, which is advisable if you’re in goal or a defender.”

Add to that a large metal stick – six foot long if you are a defender – and ‘little brother of war’ sounds like a pretty accurate description of modern lacrosse.

Although a player’s legs, head and neck are not meant to be hit, anyone with – or near – the ball is fair game. “You’re only meant to use a stick on an opponent’s gloves or stick, but if the ball’s on the ground you’ll see a lot of hitting,” Carl explains. “And you can come in leading with your hands or shoulders and floor an opponent.”

Despite starting to play lacrosse at the age of 16, when coaches from the touring US team visited his school in Reading to promote the game, Carl has so far escaped serious injury. “Mostly it’s just pulled hamstrings or bruised arms,” he says, though adding almost as an afterthought, “I have been concussed a few times.”

Some of his opponents, however, have fared worse. “Once when shooting I hit someone. He ended up on the floor unconscious and when they took his helmet off he was bleeding from his ears,” Carl remembers.

The game’s controlled aggression is what drew him to lacrosse as a teenager. “That’s what was attractive to start with, but as I played more the skill involved is what’s kept me interested. You need good hand–eye coordination, good stick skills, and you need to be agile to beat your opponents,” he says.

Spending the second year of his degree on the MIT exchange programme in the USA – where the men’s game is more popular, and taken far more seriously compared with the UK – has made a huge difference to Carl’s game. “It was good to be in the US, they had great facilities. We trained every day, and had four coaches for a team of 24. It was sweet!” he says.

The men’s game is, however, spreading among UK universities, and Carl wishes lacrosse was more widely played in schools. “There needs to be more focus on the game among schools to make a big difference to the men’s sport in the UK,” he says.

In common with many Cambridge club captains, Carl’s primary sporting goal this season is the Varsity Match, which he hopes will be a hat trick against Oxford come March: “We’ve won the last two matches but before that we had a run when we didn’t do so well.”

Due to graduate next year, Carl is keen on doing a PhD at Cambridge, not least because of the University’s plans to boost its sports facilities. “I’m really looking forward to the new year and the new season,” he says. “I’m not ready to leave yet, and a new sports centre would really encourage me to stay.”

For more information about Cambridge University Lacrosse Club, visit www.culacrosse.org

This originally appeared in the the 64th edition of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)