The man with the foam chainsaw was screaming at the top of his lungs, wildly waving it above his head and encouraging others to join him. His son and daughter, both carrying foam axes, followed suit. Soon, an entire imaginary forest was systematically being hacked away by an eager team of imaginary lumberjacks. Somewhere, imaginary environmentalists wept.
It was Friday, April 14th, 2006, and Portland's new National Lacrosse League expansion team, The Lumberjax, had just defeated the Edmonton Rush. Now, one win away from clinching the West Division crown, the Portland crowd of over 11,000 was ecstatic and begging for more.
In a town in search of a winner, with its beloved Blazers rapidly becoming the Portland Warriors, this group of hardworking Canadian imports sprinkled with East Coast transplants has become the perfect tonic. Beyond the wins and goals and crushing hits, the team's eager embrace of its supporters and refusal to give anything but the maximum effort had made a former outpost of lacrosse suddenly lacrosse crazy.
For one particular American on this team full of Canucks, the feeling was reciprocated. Ryan Powell, All-Everything attackman, Syracuse legend and lacrosse idol, had found Portland, a true hinterland of sport in many ways, and over 1000 miles away from any NCAA men's varsity lacrosse, to be as much to his liking as he was to theirs. Somewhere, foam chainsaws are piping up again.
Portland, Oregon is in all respects a wonderful city. Wonderful to look at. Wonderful to live in. Wonderful to raise a family. Even wonderful to spend time outside (if you don't mind being a little damp). Yet, if you told anyone associated with lacrosse 10 years ago that Portland was going to be a wonderful lacrosse town, they most likely would have thought you to be wonderfully nuts.
A lot, however, can happen over the course of a decade. For a rapidly growing sport like lacrosse, a decade is practically an eternity for the game to take hold in youth leagues and high school programs. According to Bill Lake of US Lacrosse' Oregon Chapter, there has been a 3 year average growth rate of 243% in terms of youth participants since 2002, "and we're still not getting information from about 15% of our coaches," said Lake. In 2002, there 1,219 kids involved in U-19 and U-15 youth lacrosse. The following year, there were 1,795, a 47% increase. By 2004, over 2,200 kids had taken up the sport, only to gain in popularity in 2005. As of his most current 2005 data, Lake conservatively estimates 1296 boys, 715 girls participate in the U-19 programs, while 1775 boys and 398 girls take part in U-15 lacrosse. Overall, there are now 4184 kids working the ball through X and sliding cross crease, an 87% increase over the previous year, and the sport is only getting more popular.
For Lake, who started playing lacrosse in 1967 before playing at The University of Oregon, the growth has been beyond his wildest expectations. His Lake Oswego Lacrosse U-15 program started 5 years ago with 36 kids, now he has 345 kids showing up consistently. All of the growth in the youth ranks has been a boon to the Oregon high school and collegiate teams, fostering the development of 40 high school and seven US Lacrosse Men's Division Intercollegiate Associates (MDIA) club teams, with the University of Oregon becoming a perennial top 10 member.
Like many western states, lacrosse had existed in small defined pockets for years. Mark Flood, director of The Portland Lax World Invitational has seen the change occur from cult following to broad based niche sport first hand. Having been around for 33 years the late April tourney has consistently drawn the regions best post collegiate teams, and many San Francisco Bay Area clubs have used it as a recruiting base to lure Eastern players out to the left coast. Only recently, though, has the tournament developed into a jamboree affair drawing boys and girls' high school teams to the site, often generating upwards of 1000 spectators for the championship game.
Such new found interest has caused the new pro indoor team to generate enough buzz to be front page news in The Oregonian, the region's largest newspaper. Regardless of growth, Portland still remains a mere sprout amongst the established trees of the lacrosse forest.
It would have taken years for a homegrown hero to emerge and star on Portland's pro team. They needed a transplant lacrosse star/junkie that loved Portland that would be a reliable regional role model to keep promoting and growing the game. Fortunately for both Portland, and lacrosse, Powell stepped right into the role perfectly. As Lake said, "Ryan is exactly what this area needed. He is a beacon which the other kids can aspire to. And he tells them 'Hey, I just worked hard and played wall ball and kept myself going with my brothers.'" A true lacrosse fanatic, Powell is also a dying breed of athlete you rarely see outside of the fringe sports. A decorated American Star whose love of the game is greater than his love of the material things it brings him.
"Ryan will show up at Lake Oswego practices and see how he can help," continued Lake. "He'll do what the coaches want without trying to take the practice over. He'll sit there and feed, or help kids on cuts, whatever we ask. I think it really shows his commitment to growing the game. He could easily come in and be aloof, but instead he gets involved with the kids, celebrates with them and takes a huge interest in what they do."
Ryan's genuine exuberance was plainly evident following the Lumberjax victory on the 14th. As fans flowed onto the field for a meet and greet autograph session with the team, long lines began stretching from the players respective tables. Powell's was amongst the longest, not only for his popularity, but for his insistence on having each kid tell him how their team was doing, how their skills were coming along, and giving them a pamphlet for the upcoming Powell Brothers summer lacrosse camp in Portland. Kids left with a smile, an autograph, and a week in July penciled in as busy.
Though Ryan is neither the team's most prolific scorer (that would be Peter Morgan) nor best player (that honor goes to Canadian beast Brodie Merrill, recent recipient of the NLL Defenseman of the Year) he is in many ways its biggest star. His surname, along with Gait or Brown (as in Jim), is one of the few recognizable outside the lacrosse pantheon. His offensive abilities translate well to an American public addicted to scoring, while his on-field stick wizardry routinely incites the biggest crowd roar, aside from the occasional fight and the cheerleader bump and grind routines.
Heading into the locker room after the autograph session was terminated by the Rose Garden staff, one could overhear Powel telling the PR and security personnel, "I'm sorry about that, I couldn't tell those people we had to leave." Plans were made to meet up on Monday and explore the city a bit. Much like the town was eager to embrace Ryan and his teammates, he was eager to show off his new home.
Growing up in the tiny upstate town of Carthage, New York, population 3,721, Ryan Powell did not play organized lacrosse until 7th grade. For being considered one of the best to ever play his position, it is certainly later than most kids begin to play the sport in the traditional hotbed areas. However, when you have ultra competitive older and younger brothers who happen to be lacrosse legends-in-the-making themselves, as well as a puritanical work ethic ingrained by your father, certain deficiencies in organization are more than made up for.
Working hard was the norm for Powell, the 2nd oldest of four brothers. "We grew up in a lower middle class lifestyle", said Ryan over burgers at his Lake Oswego home just south of Portland. "My family didn't have a lot of money, but we were pretty happy anyway." Ryan's father was the type "that went to work everyday with a smile on his face", said Ryan, "It was a matter of pride for him, to be on time all the time and to work hard no matter what." Ryan believes that his father's exemplary work ethic is one of the reasons for the Powell's lacrosse success.
When Ryan and his older brother Casey discovered lacrosse they began to beg for sticks. But their father was met with a bit of a quandary. Not having a large amount of discretionary income meant there was little money for any extravagances. But in a story Ryan calls prototypical Carthage, he and Casey begged so fervently for sticks that their father ended up having to sell his shotgun in order to get them for his sons. Adding up all the scholarships, 3 livelihoods and countless business opportunities that flowed in ultimately from that early investment in a pair of Brine sticks would be impossible but Ryan says, "My father said it was the best investment he ever made."
Being in the third and fifth grade, respectively, Ryan and Casey were the first kids in town to have sticks, but had no one to play with but each other. Drawing on a fierce fraternal competition and the ingrained familial work ethic, they began playing various one on one and wall ball games till they couldn't lift their arms. "We used to throw the ball off a wall, through a tree, behind the back, any sort of trick you could think of. We would just go out and play and compete with each other. All these 'wall ball' drills that they have kids do now, we were doing, except we were just playing around."
After a year or so, enough kids in town had seen Ryan and Casey playing and wanted to join in. Soon impromptu games began appearing around the yards of Carthage and a team was formed to compete with kids from around the area. As Ryan recalls, he, Casey and younger brother Mikey, who all shared a room in their family's modest home, rarely went anywhere without stick in hand, and it soon showed on the field. "Casey had a bet with my mom where he would get a piece of beef jerky for every goal he scored," said Powell, "and I knew we were getting good when my Mom couldn't afford to buy all the jerky that Casey was earning."
It wasn't long before Casey began gaining notice from all of the lacrosse powerhouses. The suitors list was long, though it was never much in doubt where he would go. Entering Syracuse in 1994 on a full scholarship, Casey began the procession of Powells that lasted until 2004. Following his older brother there two years later, Ryan came in forging an identity for himself relative to Casey's almost mythical status. Relying more on sheer will and determination than subtle slick moves or lightning quickness, Ryan tied Casey's school scoring record in the 2000 championship game.
Looking back on the remarkable ride now, Ryan sometimes can't believe the amazing places lacrosse has taken him. Beyond the education, the jobs, and the jet setting, all he has to do is take a step outside his lakeside abode to see what lacrosse has done for him. Fortunately, it's not something he forgets to do.
As the sun begins to break through the clouds, Powell repeatedly tosses a tennis ball into the lake for his dog to retrieve it. "My parents are very proud of me and my brothers", said Powell in between throws, "not just because of what lacrosse gave to us, but because we did it through hard work and being good to other people. It's always been important that we stay good role models for kids." Spend any time with Ryan and you'll see that task comes effortlessly.
When asked what it's like going back home now, if things have changed, he responds with a bit of a laugh. "Nah, it's still the same. It's great and all, though I still get some comments like 'Hey there big time, you too good for us now?' or 'You've been out of the state?', which throws me off a little bit. But for the most part, it's still home." And Carthage is proud to claim the family, "It's sort of cool," said Ryan, "there's now a sign going into town saying 'Home of the Three Powell Brothers'."
After the burgers are finished and plates cleaned up we start making plans to head into the trendy Northwest neighborhood of Portland. There are great pubs aplenty in the city, and Ryan, his fiance Marlee and I are all more than eager to check them out. The sun is bright and the weather is warm. What better time to explore the new hometown?
Having spent a bit of time with Ryan, I realize few things bring a change in his upbeat and jovial demeanor other than discussing the business of lacrosse. Ironic as it is, considering his well-being is due to the business workings of the game, there is a genuine sentiment of doing right for the game as much as doing right by the game. "There are a lot of people looking to make money from the game these days," said Powell, "but few looking to give anything back."
Such is the paradox of being involved with a burgeoning sport such as lacrosse, especially in a lacrosse hot spot such as Portland. Many financial opportunities are there as new players with parents' deep pockets in tow eagerly snatch up gear, videos, shirts and whatever else they can find. But there is also a responsibility amongst those involved to not be craven gold diggers, looking to sell whatever and wherever they can to whomever they can. In the new frontier of lacrosse where previous generations' knowledge of the game is severely limited, it is financially tempting.
Powell makes plenty from the game these days, not NBA plenty, but plenty enough to live comfortably on a lake in a nice section of Portland. Powell's entire income comes from lacrosse, whether it is from the NLL, the MLL, the Brine Lacrosse Company whom he reps for and is sponsored by, or from the Powell Brother's Lacrosse Camps he and his brothers run. Yet, for as much as he is able to make from the sport, his modest upbringing in the heartiest of lacrosse heartlands betrays any ambition to grab at all costs the financial rewards of being a lacrosse 'name'.
"I still remember the time when Ryan was driving through a random neighborhood up here," said Marlee over a beer at McMenamins Tavern and Pool, "and he saw a kid messing around with a stick in his front yard. Without thinking, he pulled over, grabbed a stick from his car and started playing catch with the kid."
While I was thinking of how Hallmark-ingly sweet that was, Marlee reminded me of the actual reality of it all. "Sure it's sweet and all, but think about it. Some random guy driving through the neighborhood stops and starts playing catch with a random kid in his front yard. The parents probably thought Ryan was trying to kidnap him."
"Yeah, I probably should have thought about that," said a chuckling Powell, "but it was sort of cool to see a kid playing lacrosse out here. I just felt like giving him a few pointers." As novel as it is, it is also speaks to the relative anonymity Powell enjoys compared to home. "Here, nobody knows who I am. There really is no 'Oh wow, you're Ryan Powell' anymore. Now it's 'What's lacrosse?' again."
Considering the recent turn to player-centric marketing of lacrosse, the days of anonymity may be numbered. The current Brine campaign heavily plays on the three Powell brothers, as well as the rest of Team Brine, individual strengths in an effort to brand them as stars. Team Brine somewhat emulates lacrosse gear giant Warrior's Players Club which somewhat emulates surf and skate companies' promotions of non-team sports stars. Mention the connection between Warrior and Brine to Ryan however, and he bristles. "Brine cares about the players," said Powell. "I don't know what to think of Warrior", he adds, holding back a bit.
Much of the tension regarding Powell's attitude towards Warrior stems from the much speculated fallout between Ryan and Casey and the Warrior Lacrosse Company, whom Ryan says dismissed he and his brother without so much as a phone call. A Warrior rep was contacted, but couldn't be reached for comment.
"It was ridiculous," said Powell, "Casey practically WAS Warrior and they just let us go without any sort of heads up." Though he was also financially disrupted from the contract being terminated, much of Ryan's ire is traced to the dumping of his older brother. "From the get go Casey was the company, promoting, working, developing gear, being an ambassador of the brand. Then, just like that (in the fall of 2004), they sent us a letter stating that we were done. Our phones were turned off, cards canceled, everything, without any heads up. Not even a phone call to say thanks for the service."
Though rumors floated that the contract was terminated due to dealings with a Powell affiliated lacrosse camp and Harrow shafts, Ryan said that couldn't be the case. "My brother and I contracted the Powell name to the Offense/Defense Lacrosse Camp, and they contracted with Harrow Shafts. That was their deal, and I can't imagine that being the reason for the dismissal." He doesn't know for certain, however, as communication between Powell and Warrior has been nil since the contract termination.
After the fallout from Warrior, the Powell's' contract ended with the Offense/Defense Lacrosse Camps. In the span of a few months, from the fall of 2004 to the spring of 2005, Ryan's key sources of lacrosse revenue were cut off. Though he and Casey both happily landed on their feet with Brine, with whom Ryan says "I could not be happier", and started the Powell Brothers Lacrosse Company with Casey and Mikey, the lessons he learned from the ordeal had been invaluable. "There are a lot of people out there looking to use you and make money off of you, without any regard for the game. I now have a better idea of who to trust and who to look out for."
As we head out from McMenamins and say our goodbyes, the sun is still out, and the weather has the typical Northwest crisp chill to it. With the defeat of Minnesota the night before, Portland clinched the Western Conference and had locked up a first round home playoff game. The town, still buzzing from the energy of the team, has lacrosse fever. Days later, the crowd of 11 thousand would return for the team's first playoff game, a heartbreaking loss to Arizona. But the great crowds and the Cinderella season bode well for the Jax and Powell who seems to like it in Portland, searching for a home to buy and planning a life there with Marlee.
"I could definitely see myself setting up here, starting a family, and helping to spread the game," said Ryan as we wandered toward their car. "With the streets and the rivers and weather, Portland reminds me of home a bit."
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