By Julie Deardorff, Special to the Tribune CHICAGO TRIBUNE, December 13, 1991
Lyle Shirley shouldn`t have to show a videotape to explain his occupation to a sportswriter. He is, after all, a professional athlete and a member of the 1991 world champion Detroit Turbos.
But the sport is lacrosse, and if a player migrates with his equipment from the East Coast to the Midwest, he might have to explain that, no, he is not carrying snowshoes, and no, it is not a fishing contraption. He is holding a lacrosse stick and uses it to play North America`s oldest sport, which originated with the Indians.
Shirley isn`t the only professional lacrosse player who has ventured to Chicago; Turbo members Dan Pratt and Adam Mueller also reside here. Although all three are East Coast natives, they have settled further west than any other players in the seven-team Major Indoor Lacrosse League.
”It`s kind of weird to think of yourself as a professional athlete, but I guess we are since we get paychecks,” said Shirley, who will help educate some Chicagoans Saturday when Detroit plays the Baltimore Thunder in a preseason game at 8 p.m. at the Rosemont Horizon.
When asked how much these paychecks are, Shirley, who set the Lake Forest College career scoring record with 73 goals, just laughed. ”Basically you play because you love the sport,” he said.
Football star Jim Brown was an avid lacrosse player at Syracuse in the mid-1950s but opted for a slightly more lucrative career. Players in today`s MILL are paid but must work other jobs to survive. Rookies start out at $125 per game and after three years make $200. The top salary, $325, is earned by six-year veterans who have been in the league since it was incorporated in 1986.
The pay for a 10-game season doesn`t compare with other pro sports, but the travel time might. Shirley, Mueller and Pratt all commute to Detroit for Friday practices and Saturday games, as do most of the 14 Canadians on the team. The league helps cover travel expenses and uses US Air as ”the Official Airline” of the MILL.
”People say we`re crazy to work 70 to 80 hours (in another job) and play lacrosse in our spare time, but it`s an honor to play,” said Mueller, who graduated from Michigan State and works as a catering director in Oak Park.
”We have the life of a pro athlete in every area but our salary. I guess it keeps us humble.”
Obscurity also helps. Most of the 157 colleges that offer lacrosse are located in the Northeast, with Johns Hopkins (seven national titles), North Carolina and Syracuse (four each) being the perennial powers.
Northwestern and University of Chicago offer club teams, but on the high school level, fewer than a dozen Illinois schools have programs.
According to Rick Nichols, Vice President and General Manager of the MILL, transplanted easterners help the sport gain visiblility, and the preseason game at the Horizon should test the Chicago waters.
”It`s a great opportunity for us to see how people of Chicago react to lacrosse,” said Nichols. ”The city could be a candidate for expansion.”
The first step, however, is to educate those living in a city obsessed with Bulls and Bears.
Pratt, a 1987 defensive All-American from Syracuse, said he doesn`t get much of a reaction when he tells people he`s a lacrosse player, because most don`t know what that means. His bare-bones explanation is that lacrosse is
”like hockey, only a ball is thrown in the air.”
This is like saying that a Cadillac is like a Porsche, only larger. Lacrosse has elements of hockey, basketball and soccer in addition to its own peculiarities.
Using fast breaks, checking and tackling, each team uses a long-handled stick to throw a solid rubber ball into a goalie-guarded net.
The players resemble half-dressed football players, wearing helmets and hockey-like pads from the waist up, but play is just as physical, if not more so.
”If we signed contracts, you might see goons out there, but now we`re there for the love of the game,” said Mueller. ”There`s no reason to take runs or end someone`s career. We all go back to work on Monday.”
At least, that`s what Mueller`s mother, Patricia, hopes. Despite raising five lacrosse players, she still finds the game hard to watch.
”The first year I watched, I spent a great deal of time out in the lobby,” said Patricia, who used to help keep score for Mueller`s high school team. Because Adam was New Jersey`s top scorer, he was a frequent target of opponents.
”I`d hear them ask for his number and then say they were `going to get Mueller,` ” Patricia said. ”I`d say, `Excuse me, that`s my baby you`re talking about.` They didn`t know quite how to take it.”