Right off the coast of California on the island of Catalina, where trade winds blow, buffalo actually roam and people flock by boat to the city of Avalon, Freedom Joe is belting out our National Anthem on a dusty field. His voice resonates. No music, nor instrument nor microphones accompany him, and the crowd's attempt to hum along is pedestrian at best. Yet despite it's off pitch tune, they're rapt with attention- this conglomeration of island locals and Orange County families over for the day. Two boys' lacrosse teams line either side of Joe. Helmets off to the side, hands clenched over hearts, staring off at the flag on the hill, preparing to go at each other with reckless abandon. Aside from a slight breeze blowing all that is heard is Joe. The crowd stares at this character and local legend, belting out the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, waiting for the moment when they can join in.
Finally his crescendo arrives and the crowd explodes in delight. The teams follow suit feeding off the fans and families, who in turn feed off the team. Its 80 degrees on a mid May Saturday and many have goose bumps. Helmets are put back on and the teams are ready. The crowd waits in anticipation, eager to cheer on the boys with the funny sticks chasing after a bouncing ball. Families are grilling, little kids are running, grandmas and grandpas mingle with moms and dads as more and more locals pull up to the field and join in. It's a carnival of sorts and everyone's invited. Just be sure to thank Dave Zeller on the way out.
"When we go overtown to play the O(range) C(ounty) teams, Dave just pays for everything and tells us to pay him back whenever." Miguel Leyva, Catalina's goal keeper and unofficial ambassador is explaining how the team functions. I try to listen and take notes, all the while digging in to a fine breakfast burrito from his dads' restaurant, Peet's Café. It is two and a half hours to game time and while I should be making it up to the field for warm ups I feel it necessary to take in the local flavor, and local food.
"Dave started this ten months ago," continues Miguel, "and just bought us all the sticks and gear and stuff and said pay him back when you can. Dave's really cool." Miguel, like nearly all of the players on the Catalina Island Lacrosse Club, had never seen the sport prior to Zeller's introduction. Predominately Hispanic, the members of the team had a much greater affinity for soccer than for lacrosse- a point Leyva tells me about as were eating.
"Most of us grew up playing soccer together on the island", said Leyva, "and you'll see it come out sometimes. When the balls on the ground the guys will just start kicking it to each other." I take this down, interest piqued by the thought of an all Hispanic lacrosse club coming together on a California island because a guy named Dave decided it'd be a wonderful idea. Miguel heeds no mind to this idea and keeps going. He is tapped in now, the sport is in his blood and he can't wait to tell me of his on field escapades.
"Man, in over 10 games so far I've had three shutouts and only been scored on 25 times," continues Miguel. "Three weeks ago the team from Great Oaks came over- and they're like the best team in the league- and this guy ripped a shot. I dropped to my knees and snatched the shot up top- it was awesome."
As Miguel keeps going, getting more and more excited about the game, the sport, the world of lacrosse, a few locals come by, holler about today's game and give him some props. A few handshakes, back slaps and fist pounds later Miguel explains to me what they were saying. My Spanish isn't too hot and most of the locals, like the team, are originally from Mexico. When I ask Miguel about the team, being mostly Mexican in a predominately white sport, he responds again that most of the boys grew up playing together on the island. Then proceeds to ask if he told me about the D-man on the team who had a stick break over his leg. He's on a roll again, but I have to cut him off. Game time is approaching and he and I both need to get to the field.
"Be sure to watch me," he hollers, "tell me how I do." No worries, I tell him, I'm looking forward to it.
"On Fridays instead of practice they have yoga with assistant coach John Moffert and sometimes they'll read a poem. Dave likes to focus on the kids getting structure." Kathleen Zeller tells me this as we're standing on the sideline. Freedom Joe just finished singing and is walking off to hang in the shade. She and Dave's two twins, Trevor and Kellen play on the team. Though now separated, she and Dave remain close. On an island in the Pacific with no cars, no bridges nor tunnels and one small town, there is no other option.
"Dave was fighting for the team to become part of the school," Kathleen explains as we watch the boys push the ball around the field. "He purchased the gear on his own credit card just to get it started." But when he approached the school about the team being added to the sports list, the high school said no. The boys' grades weren't high enough.
Faced with this challenge of some kids needing to boost their grades, Dave naturally decided to start a mentor program for the boys on the team. The kids doing well would help the other kids and everyone would have a mandatory study session during practice time.
Kathleen and I watch on as the Orange County team, eager to avenge an earlier 9-0 defeat and bolstered by 3 new players from the football team, take an early lead. The game is what is to be expected of teams of first year lacrosse players. Lots of hits, lots of groundballs, lots of chaos, and lots of parents cheering like crazy and marveled and bewildered at how violent it all seems.
"Every game Dave bankrolls almost the whole thing," Kathleen tells me. "People help out and make donations when they can but a lot of these kids parents can't be here. They're busy working in the hotels and the restaurants." I take a look and notice she's right. A big portion of the crowd is Orange County in origin, over for the day to enjoy Catalina's sun and surf. The locals that are here cheer on their squad, each parent or adult knowing each kid on the Catalina team.
"This community is so tight," says Catalina local Kathleen Vojkovich-Bombard. "All these (local) kids have known each other since they were in Pre School." Vojkovich-Bombard's son Allan is a third generation islander and like every other player on the team, new to Lacrosse. "Dave has done a wonderful job for the kids who have never seen the sport, and working the sport into the community." As she continues, telling me about Dave's after school study program and the respect he teaches the kids off of the field, the visiting Orange County team scores another goal. Not a groan or complaint is heard on the sideline, only some positive support for the team.
The support seems to pay off. A smidgen of clock ticks away before Adrian Romo makes a nice play for Catalina, ultimately leading to the team's first goal. His mother Gracie beams, even though she had never seen the sport before and doesn't really know what's going on. No matter, Adrian loves it, and she loves the mentoring program that Dave set up for the kids. "I wish all the coaches would do it," she says.
As the play on the field goes on, ping ponging back and forth like a track meet with sticks, I meander my way down to the sideline barbeque where Dave's wife Eileen Zeller is alternately cheering like crazy and manning the grill. A table is set up selling Catalina Lacrosse t-shirts and a few more locals and visiting Orange County folk have arrived, filling up the sideline with lawn chairs and tables. Eileen quickly hands me a sausage before waving the tongs towards the field, cheering for the boys.
Halftime comes but I have to catch the next ferry back to Los Angeles, unfortunately before the end of the game. I quickly say my thank you's to Dave, assistant coach John Moffert and the assorted locals before running off to the boat. "A lot of these kids (on the team) were on the fence," said Moffert right before I left for the ferry, "they could have gone either way. Lacrosse is definitely helping them."
As reluctant as I am to leave the island lacrosse festival, life back home necessitates my return. I promise Dave to call in the near future and I wish him and the kids luck, both on the field and off.
A month passes before I speak to Dave again. We're both hounded by work and fail to set aside the time to chat. In the absence of conversation, questions keep floating in my head. What is it that makes Dave Zellers spend his hard earned money to fund an entire kid's lacrosse team? What did lacrosse do for him? Where did he play? It seems perversely too good to be true, this laid back, ultra friendly islander dropping the cash and providing some structure for a couple potential trouble makers, just for…… what, exactly? Perhaps the city of Angels has got me too jaded to see it, perhaps the smog and crowds and wanna be movie stars, wanna be agents and wanna be wanna be's have blocked out the pure good that people are capable of doing.
We finally speak on the phone again and I realize right away that there is no ulterior Dave. And the process of forming the club wasn't all that complicated. Dave, who never played in college, started his love affair with Lacrosse while playing in the post collegiate league in Seattle. Struck by the fluidity, gracefulness, and the fast paced, hard hitting action, he wanted his sons to be able to play. So he bought a few sticks and started tossing the ball around with them. When their friends saw them playing, they took interest and soon wanted to join in even though many had never heard of or seen the sport before. Since many of the kids couldn't afford the gear, Dave found his Visa card, thought 'What the heck?', and put six thousand dollars of new lacrosse equipment on his monthly statement "just to get things going."
Six grand for a new hobby seems a bit steep, so I press him a bit. There has got to be something else, something bigger, something that makes you feel so good that it almost doesn't seem genuine- it's almost too obvious to me. All the kids whose parents can't afford the sticks, the gear, the travel; who are on the edge, in need of structure, in need of a 'big brother', in need of the helping hand- surely that played a part, right?
Most certainly it did, said Dave. There was a 50-50 split when he started up the team, 50% because of how cool lacrosse was and how he wanted his sons to play, and 50% because it was good for the community. There is not a whole lot for kids to do on this island and a lot of the kids have parents who are so busy working at the hotels and restaurants to support the family that they can't monitor their activity at every turn. Lacrosse, continued Dave, was an outlet. If he could give the kids something, a vehicle for success and motivation and that vehicle came with a lacrosse stick, then hey, why not?
I finish writing this down and continue to speak with Dave for a while longer. Admittedly I keep looking for something else, a bit of the self serving ego you sometimes find in people who are most generous. There is none of that here. Not with Dave. Even the visiting teams feel the Zeller grace and goodness. He hosts a barbeque for everyone after the games. If they travel all the way over here and bring families and friends just to play us, said Dave, at least I can send them away with some food.
We finally hang up the phone after talking for a bit more. Dave is going to have the whole team go to a Riptide game 'overtown' he tells me, and is planning a few clinics for the summer and fall. I ask him to let me know when so I can come over and help, hoping to get some of the good vibes coming from the island. He said he'll let me know and asks if I know some women's laxers. Evidently the girls in town kept asking him when he was going to start a team for them, so he figured 'Hey, why not?'.
E-Lacrosse, LMAO, CrosseTown, Stick Science, StickTech, Laxicon, Surf the Game & Save the Dive are trademarks of Tonabricks. Tonabricks copyright, 1997-2008