Upended by Albany's Native American Stars
The Albany lacrosse coaches stared at a small projector screen,
searching for the black streak of a three-foot-long ponytail swooping
toward the goal.
They were watching Lyle Thompson, an Onondaga Indian from upstate
New York, who has become a Wayne Gretzky-like figure in collegiate
lacrosse. Last year, his sophomore season, Thompson finished one
point short of tying the N.C.A.A. single-season record with 113
points on 50 goals and 63 assists in 17 games while leading SUNY
Albany into the postseason for the first time since 2007.
He is a strong contender for this year's Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse's
Heisman Trophy, which has never gone to a Native American. If he
does not win, it could easily go to his older brother, Miles, who
scored 43 goals in 12 games for Albany last season. And if Miles
does not win, their cousin and teammate, Ty, has a chance.
The Thompsons, who grew up on a reservation in upstate New York,
are more than exceptional athletes thriving in the sport of their
ancestors, a sport that is still endowed with deeply spiritual significance
to Native Americans. They are trailblazers who have upended the
athletic world and reservation life, and their success has ignited
a scramble for Native American recruits at lacrosse programs across
Thompsons made a decision that seems unexceptional to outsiders
they chose to attend Albany, which is part of the state university
system, instead of Syracuse. But to Native Americans, that decision
was fraught with meaning.
Syracuse, the regional powerhouse that has won 10 N.C.A.A. championships,
has long seemed the only way off the reservation for young Native
Americans aiming for Division I. Other universities rarely recruited
on reservations because they knew the players would choose Syracuse.
But the Thompsons have effectively cracked the door to the reservations.
"The distance between Albany and Syracuse, at the time that
they did it, can't be measured in geographical miles," said Bill
Tierney, the lacrosse coach at the University of Denver. "It was
a giant-leap-for-mankind sort of thing."
Change has come quickly. Zed Williams of the Cattaraugus Reservation
in New York enrolled this fall at the University of Virginia, and
Zach Miller of the Allegany Indian Reservation in New York enrolled
at the University of Denver. Frank Brown, an attackman who is also
from the Allegany reservation, enrolled last year at Hobart and
William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
Casey Vock, a writer for Inside Lacrosse magazine, pointed to
the Thompsons as the catalysts, and said he believed more colleges
would successfully recruit Native Americans.
The Thompsons chose Albany because they said Syracuse was taking
them for granted, and because they were eager to open a new door.
"We wanted to do something different," said Miles Thompson,
23. "We knew all of the big-time natives were already going to Syracuse.
We wanted to try to make a difference on our own."
far this season, which began last month, they have accounted for
65 of the team's 110 points through four games. They have 41 of
68 goals, and only one other player has more than five. All three
Thompsons grew up on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in upstate
New York. When Lyle and Miles Thompson were about 7, the family
moved south to the Onondaga Reservation, 11 miles from Syracuse.
Their father, Jerome Thompson Sr., played indoor box lacrosse
for the Iroquois Lacrosse Association. He trained his four sons
with wooden sticks and a wooden box, about two-feet wide, with a
round hole in the middle barely bigger than the ball itself. That
was their net.
"Everybody told me that my kids were going to be behind because
I didn't let them play in organized leagues," Jerome Thompson Sr.
said. "I just let them talk. As a parent, I felt that I could put
more hours into them."
Albany has no meaningful connection to Native American athletes,
certainly not compared with Syracuse, which can trace its history
with Indian athletes back to Oren Lyons in the 1950s and has had
at least one Native American player on its roster for more than
But Albany has embraced the Thompsons. Their coach, Scott Marr,
said the playmaking among the three bordered on telepathy, and he
often describes them as being "closer than twins." They have special
calls for each other in Mohawk, and when Miles yells Lyle's Indian
name "Deyhaus!" something special often happens. On
March 1, Miles and Lyle Thompson combined for 12 goals, more than
Harvard's entire team, in a 14-8 win.
The three Thompsons live in a house off-campus, where their
lives revolve around family, lacrosse and schoolwork.
They take pride in abstaining from drinking, smoking or chewing
tobacco the primary vices, they said, that weigh on their
communities back home.
One recent afternoon, Lyle Thompson, 21, took out a rattle made
from the shell of a snapping turtle he had caught while golfing
with his oldest brother, Jeremy. He uses the rattle to make music,
part of the way he stays connected with Indian culture. Learning
the Onondaga language is another.
one of the most important things to me is our language," Lyle Thompson
said. "And our songs."
While most people might not appreciate the differences between
Albany and Syracuse, for Native Americans, it would be hard to overstate
the boldness of the Thompsons' choice. They grew up with Syracuse's
orange T-shirts and sweatshirts and attended games at the Carrier
Dome, where Indians like Brett Bucktooth, Cody Jamieson and Sid
Smith starred. Their older brother, Jeremy, played two seasons for
Syracuse. They almost certainly could have played there as well.
But after Lyle Thompson's breakout state title game his sophomore
year, in which he scored five goals, he became a highly prized recruit.
And the Thompsons made it no secret: Wherever Miles went, Lyle would
go, too. "Schools were looking at me because they wanted him," Miles
As they were being recruited, though, the brothers began to
feel like Syracuse was taking their allegiance for granted. "Syracuse
honestly didn't recruit both of us too hard," Lyle Thompson said.
"I think they just expected us to go there."
Through a spokesman, Syracuse Coach John Desko declined to comment.
Ty Thompson, 23, committed to Albany in the summer of 2009.
His cousins soon followed.
"They've led by example to a point where you see the younger
kids talking about where they want to go," said Vock, of Inside
Lacrosse magazine. Last season, Albany defeated Syracuse for the
first time. Miles Thompson scored the winning goal in double overtime.
For this season's rematch on Feb. 16, Jerome Thompson Sr. estimated
that 400 people from the Onondaga and neighboring reservations were
among the 6,484 at the Carrier Dome.
Albany did not win this time, but stood toe to toe with the
top-ranked Orange in a 17-16 overtime loss. Ty Thompson scored five
goals, and Lyle Thompson had five assists.
"Because of the way they play, being all native and being on
the same team, it's something special for us as native people,"
Thompson Sr. said. "To come and build this program for other kids,
to just come and step right on the field, it's hard to do that."