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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Veterans Day tribute to Hall of Fame inductee George Tracy

The one thing most Hall of Fame inductees have in common is that they understand that the individual accolade they are receiving reflects upon and also celebrates their teams. Even the referees that are inducted thank those who worked the field with them, knowing that the game of lacrosse, even the officiating of it cannot be done at the highest level without a team effort. Certainly the game cannot be played at the championship level without a solid team, full of sacrifice and role playing. Each of the inductees usually sees themselves as a metaphor of sorts -- a representative from that team effort. In the case of George Tracy, a recent inductee for his play at the Naval Academy in 1961, '62 and '63 -- all national-championship efforts and All-American seasons for Tracy -- he emphatically declared that his award was for the whole team, many in attendance Saturday night at the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame ceremonies at the Grand Lodge in Hunt Valley, Md.

When George "Trace" Tracy was a kid, he attended Loyola High School in Baltimore. Loyola had no lacrosse team then, but Tracy still had a lacrosse stick. The stresses of school and a kid's life were wiped away daily with two hours or so of wall-ball drills, so while not playing officially, he was honing his skills with the stick. He would eventually join the Baltimore Lacrosse Club and then the Maryland Lacrosse Club, mostly populated with post-collegiate players. He was not as big or strong as his teammates or opponents, but he held his own. He broke his leg playing hockey and missed a year but otherwise, he could be found hitchhiking (at the time, it was a common occurrence) to practices and games for the clubs. He was a midfielder - all of his heroes were middies and playing attack was not even an option as far as he was concerned.

Tracy's grades were good and he landed at Johns Hopkins, where he played a little as a midfielder. This was his first play with a consistent team, but Hopkins was academically and financially challenging and he left after the year. He knew he had to work harder on academics and he could overcome that obstacle, but his family was burdened by the tuition and he did not like that. He attempted to get an appointment to the Naval Academy.

Tracy was very disappointed when he did not do well enough on the entrance exams to get a full appointment to the academy. He really had to make a decision about where he would take his life from there. He knew he wanted to do two things: play lacrosse at Naval Academy and serve in the Navy. He didn't want to be an enlisted man "scraping paint off of the ship's decks," but he took the chance of exactly that happening when he enlisted with the hopes of taking the entrance exam for the Naval Academy Preparatory School.

Tracy was very happy to pass those tests and the year at the prep school was important to his development. The coach, Cecil Perkins, was a wonderful coach but coached many sports and was not a master of lacrosse. Perkins relied on the kids to help each other and while Tracy received some good help from others, he also helped his teammates hone their stick skills and offensive game. He had picked up quite a bit from his cousins, the famous Corrigan lacrosse family in Baltimore and from people like Bob Scott at Hopkins.

At Navy Prep, he started becoming the leader he would eventually prove to be while also becoming pretty savvy on the field. They had a great season and he did well academically. The staff at Navy Prep prepared the kids specifically for the tests they would have to take to get into the service academies and Tracy was far more prepared when he tested again for an appointment to Navy. If he had been unsuccessful in this bid, he says he would have landed at Loyola College on a scholarship because of his improved grades. "I left everything on the field, academically," George remembers. Having enlisted, he would have been a Navy ROTC candidate even at Loyola, but he passed his tests and received an appointment to the academy. His dream was starting to come together. He had confidence and a solid work ethic heading into the next stage: his plebe year.

Tracy was a middie for the Navy plebe team. In those days, no plebe (freshman) played on the varsity squad. He had a great plebe season while watching the 1960 varsity class win the championship. It was the beginning of the "Decade of Domination," when Navy won or shared eight consecutive USILA national titles from 1960-67. When he moved up to varsity as a sophomore, he was switched to attack by the coach, Hall of Famer Willis Bilderback and offensive assistant Dick Corrigan, Tracy's Hall of Fame presenter Saturday.

"I didn't care where they put me as long as I was on the field," he said. "I'd have played goalie." His Navy coaches "got us to discover ourselves and produce on the field," Tracy said. "'Bildy' was a mild-mannered man, but had a fire burning in him."

Buster Phipps and Dick Corrigan, the assistant coaches, were each experts in their areas. The staff was very a close group and very passionate. They cared for the kids and Tracy remembers these years fondly. Of course, they were also championship seasons. Corrigan and Phipps had been stars at the University of Maryland. Corrigan, also Tracy's first cousin, had been a great attackman and even won a championship at Maryland in 1955. He went off to do a stint in the Army between his starring years at Maryland, returning for his senior year, when he won the Turnbull award (1958) and scored an incredible nine goals against Navy. As a coach at Navy, Corrigan was part of four national championships in five years. Tracy was proud to play for his cousin and to this day looks to him for inspiration and leadership.

Tracy's game on attack at Navy was unique and dominating. He scored despite being covered. He laid out defensemen. He liked the real hard cut. He'd carry the 'D' man in one direction, then drive back across their body and shoot. He played with both hands when most did not, especially defensemen. His stick skills were second to none and his conditioning was unmatched. Though not in the varsity boxing program, he developed a boxing workout routine. He punched a light bag and skipped rope obsessively. He'd sneak into the squash courts with teammates and they'd vigorously throw games of catch in there. "In the sessions at the squash courts, the ball couldn't get away from you. You'd either develop stick skills or go to the infirmary, Tracy remembers.

Those three teams from 1961-63 were champions. During those years, Navy amassed a 27-4 (.871) record and swept powerhouses Johns Hopkins, Virginia, Maryland and Princeton. Tracy was selected by his teammates as captain in 1963 and scored 3 goals in the North-South Senior All-Star Game. He was awarded the Stuart Oxnard Miller Memorial Lacrosse Cup as the team's MVP. He has been inducted into the USNA Athletic and US Lacrosse Greater Baltimore Chapter halls of fame, as well.

I asked Tracy if the kids on the team in 1963 could see the war building and if they were nervous about their eventual inclusion. He said that the plebe year was so tough and built such discipline and confidence that, other than the rigorous academics, they were not intimidated by much at that age and time in their lives. The first year at Navy is designed to break down each young man so that they can be part of a team that can fight a war unselfishly and effectively. And physically, they were prepared for anything. Boxing and wrestling was a part of every student's life at Navy and as a lacrosse player, wind sprints before and after practice were always accompanied by a three-mile run to Hospital Point and back before practice's end.

Because of this physical conditioning and youthful naiveté and exuberance, the team wasn't afraid of going off to war. Most considered the inevitability of going to war as just part of their commitment to the Navy and their country. Tracy says they were young and full of adventure and "frankly not smart enough to be scared."

The class of '63 went their separate ways. George shipped out to California and was getting his ship ready to go to Vietnam when he began playing in the burgeoning California club league for the Temple City Chiefs. The Chiefs were formed by a Canadian, Al Saviano. Serving on a Destroyer from 1963 until '66 and then as an executive officer of a landing ship tank, leading up to 90 men, Tracy's assignments had him in and out of ports in California, where he continued to play when he could. These clubs were really the start of lacrosse in the west. Teammates Tommy Mitchell and Karl Ripplemeyer both promoted lacrosse for years in California and are, even now, growing the game in Las Vegas. Brian Lantier, a 1965 Navy grad, settled in northern California and started clubs there. They even started a north-south California game, played by some of the college game's biggest star alumnae, many from the service academies, but also businessmen who had moved west for various reasons. They once played a demonstration game at halftime of a Rams football game. In total, Tracy played for 15 years on the club level in five different states and was also a member of The Collegians, the 1962 Maryland Box Lacrosse Champions on the televised box lacrosse league in Maryland.

Yesterday, while speaking with Tracy, who was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal (three stars) and the National Defense Service Medal, he made it clear that his induction is a representation of the success of all of his teammates and teams at Navy. But he also said that, on this Veterans Day, so aptly near to the date of his induction, some others, who left those championship teams of the 1960s to enter the Vietnam War immediately, and did not come back are also deserve recognition. They represent the boys who chose and still choose service academies over the party life at most colleges, with duty in their hearts, especially at a time of war.

Two of these men were Donald MacLaughlin and Jack Prudhomme. They played lacrosse with Tracy and were heroic on the field, but they will be remembered primarily, unfortunately, for their sacrifice to our nation. The national Midfielder of the Year award is named after MacLaughlin. Both served during the Vietnam War, like all of those 1960s Navy lacrosse players did in some way, but these two did not return.

On Dec. 22, 1965, an A4C airplane piloted by Lieutenant John D. Prudhomme flew from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise with one hundred aircrafts to attack a thermal power plant in Uong Bi, Vietnam, which is located fifteen miles north-northeast of the city of Haiphong. The mission was successful, destroying the plant. But Prudhomme's plane was hit by enemy fire and crashed. Prudhomme was considered to have been killed in the crash. He is listed among the missing because his remains were not recovered.

Eleven days later on Jan. 2, 1966, the USS Enterprise launched a number of missions in support of Allied forces south of the demilitarized zone. LTJG Don MacLaughlin was flying in A4C as well. The mission was directed against a storage site near Duc Pho, Quang Ngai Province. Conditions were poor with low clouds and fog. At some point radio contact with MacLaughlin was lost. The wreckage of MacLaughlin's plane was found on a nearby mountainside, but efforts to recover MacLaughlin's body were unsuccessful due to enemy presence.

Both of these men not only represent those kids at Navy past and present that serve, but all of those who served and sacrificed from among our lacrosse ranks, whether they went to West Point or the Citadel, VMI or the Coast Guard Academy, the Air Force Academy or the Johns Hopkins ROTC program. On Veterans Day, all lacrosse players should think of these men (and now women, too) and others who have paid a considerable price, one way or the other, for our freedom and continued prosperity.

And, of course, they are joined in their sacrifice by many who never played the game. Tracy's brother-in-law, his wife's brother, 2nd Lieutenant Lloyd Chisholm Runnels, USMC, never lived to see a lacrosse game or celebrate the wonderful occasion of Tracy's Hall of Fame induction. He died in Vietnam the day before Thanksgiving in 1967. "He was a special guy," Tracy said.

George Tracy enjoys the Native American history and tradition of the game, like any true fan. After serving in a war and reflecting on that experience, he has a special appreciation for the game's origins of preparation for war but also as an alternative to war used by the early Iroquois to settle disputes between groups. Lacrosse is George Tracy's game for so many reasons. And lacrosse is most honored to have had men like George Tracy, Dick Corrigan, Don MacLaughlin and Jack Prudhomme play the game at the highest levels. On this Veterans Day we honor them all like we did George Tracy Saturday night.

November 11, 2008
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