The Long Island Lizards are co-owned by Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who played lacrosse at Syracuse. (Jon Kalish/Only A Game)

The Long Island Lizards are co-owned by legendary football player Jim Brown, who was also a lacrosse star at Syracuse University. (Jon Kalish/Only A Game)

By Jon Kalish

Jim Brown is considered by many to be the greatest player to grace the gridiron, but he was also an All-American lacrosse player in college. As a senior, Brown led undefeated Syracuse University to a national championship in 1957, scoring 43 goals in 10 games.

Brown has frequently expressed his love of lacrosse. And so, when the opportunity arose to buy a stake in the Long Island Lizards, he jumped at it. “My lacrosse background is very dear to me, I played it, I loved it,” he said. “And I would like to be part of its growth.”

Participation in lacrosse at the grassroots level has grown in recent years, and more people are watching the game, too, thanks to the broadcast and streaming of collegiate and pro lacrosse games.

But the sport still doesn’t generate the kind of revenue to pay players enough to make the game their sole source of income. Brian Langtry plays attack for the Lizards when he’s not teaching humanities at a middle school for gifted students in Colorado. He also coaches a high school lacrosse team and runs lacrosse camps and clinics when he’s not stalking the goal in Major League Lacrosse.

“I wouldn’t say attendance is great, at all'” Langtry said. “And every year I’m, like, ‘I wonder how long it will be around?’ But it just keeps ticking. Lacrosse guys are pretty tight. We all just want to win. We’re all here for the same thing. You know, nobody’s getting rich playing this sport. That’s not why we do it.”

Lizards coach Joe Spallina, who led the Adelphi University women’s lacrosse squad to three consecutive Division II national championships before signing on as head coach with the Lizards, is optimistic about the team’s long-term prospects.

“It’s a young team that’s pretty consistent and solid across the board,” Spallina said. “I don’t think we have any glaring weaknesses. And I think their confidence is booming and I think it’s a confidence-based game.”

But it’s not a game that pays enough for players to get by without doing something that supplements their player salaries. Jim Lodice of Moriches, N.Y. sat in the stands with his two sons at a recent Lizards game. He said pro lacrosse players who are involved in camps and clinics are having a big impact on the kids.

“You have pros who coach all these camps,” Lodice said. “Some of them even coach high school. So, these guys coaching the kids makes it such a big deal for the kids to learn, and it makes it exciting for them to learn, so they listen to them more than a parent coach.”

Lodice helps coach a team of second graders who are learning the game. When they get older, they’ll no doubt be playing a more physical game. The bruising physical contact in lacrosse was part of the appeal of the game to the great Jim Brown, but so was the role speed plays in the sport.

“I was a midfielder,” Brown said. “I was a center. I had the face-off. I could learn tricks. I could physically knock a person down legitimately. I could play defense and offense. As a midfielder, you get a chance to use your flat-out speed. I love speed. And a lot of times you can’t use it in certain sports the way you can in lacrosse.”

The action in lacrosse may unfold with lightning speed in front of the goal, but the growth of the sport into mainstream athletics has been a long, slow slog. The NFL may be hugely popular today, but Brown noted that it took years for football to gain acceptance by the American public.

“Football didn’t become popular right away either,” he said. “And a lot of people forgot that the stands didn’t have a lot of people in them. Football had to go through a long growth period. And lacrosse, of course, is a foreign game to a lot of people. So, it’s not surprising to me that it’s taken this long to become popular. I’m just happy that I’m at a time in my life where I can participate as a small owner and have some impact on these young players who are playing.”