Close your eyes and picture it, this curious moment, framed like something out of a film. A couple of hale lads on a sunny afternoon in the fall of ’48, the golden light of early autumn casting shadows on the grass outside Curtis Hall. Two freshmen tossing a ball—nothing unusual there. Only it’s not a football, not even a game of catch with a hardball and gloves.
They’re using … sticks?
“We drew a crowd,” Dick Bonesteel ’52 says, chuckling at a memory six decades old. “Most of them had never seen a lacrosse stick.”
Dick “Bones” Bonesteel and John “Dad” McCarter ’52 were Ohio boys, but they might as well have been three-eyed aliens for the looks they got that day. Four years of high school in New England explained it. Bonesteel and McCarter spent their prep years at the Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, and when they came home before heading off for college, they brought with them an invasive species: this sport with a funny name, something like hockey with an airborne component, or rugby with sticks.
Most of a lifetime has passed, and lacrosse at Denison long ago matured into a fixture—one of the best small-school programs in the nation. But 60 years after the university adopted it as a varsity sport, it’s worth remembering the game’s unlikely origins on campus: a university that wasn’t interested, and a group of players (and coaches) who weren’t entirely sure what they were doing, but stuck with it anyway.
Enthusiasm trumped inexperience for the eight players Bonesteel and McCarter recruited for the first Denison lacrosse squad, a neophyte gang that dubbed itself the Granville Lacrosse Club (GLC) when the administration denied it official affiliation with the Big Red. It proved a minor obstacle, as did the initial lack of a full roster when they took the field against Kenyon for their debut match in the spring of ’49. “We had no goalie,” Bonesteel recalls. “We had to borrow one from Kenyon.”
The April 14, 1950, edition of The Denisonian advertised the return of the GLC that spring as “merely a group of interested men who gather together to play nearby colleges in informal lacrosse matches.” The media coverage confers a level of legitimacy on the second-year program—even if it was only three paragraphs on page 6. Ohio State and Oberlin joined Kenyon on the schedule that spring, with home matches played on the Granville High School football field. Most of the ’49 squad was back, and there were a half dozen or so newcomers, including a freshman who had taken the same prep school route that Bonesteel and McCarter had.
Springfield, Ohio native Edward “Bud” Miller ’54 arrived at DU in the fall of 1950, and if he didn’t miss the frigid winters from his time at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, he was happy to find at least one reminder of New England: lacrosse. Miller was among those who straddled the transition from the unaffiliated GLC to an official Denison varsity sport in 1953—a year too late for Bonesteel and McCarter to take part. But their legacy had legs, even if it still lacked success in the record books. Even now, Miller remembers much about Denison’s lacrosse debut.
“They asked Ken Meyer to be the coach,” Miller says of the war hero and former Big Red star quarterback who went on to a long career coaching college and pro football. At the time, Meyer ’50 was a DU football assistant who, Miller says, “didn’t know anything about lacrosse and would freely admit it. Before the season he sat me down and said, 'Tell me all you know.’”
Miller remembers being one of just two players on that ’53 squad with any real playing experience, and it showed. The record book reveals that Denison’s first official lacrosse team went 0-7, with two losses apiece to Kenyon, Oberlin, and Ohio State, and one more to the Cleveland Lacrosse Club. The following year, Meyer handed over the reins to Rix Yard, who went a combined 1-14 in his first two seasons, the only win a 6-5 victory over Ohio State in the opening game of 1955.
Of course, Yard would figure it out. He coached 10 seasons in all, and his teams’ records improved every year, culminating with marks of 10-1 and 12-0 in ’62 and ’63. Miller’s great regret from his Denison days was that he “only had one year to play for Rix.” Bill Mason ’57, a co-captain and MVP of Denison’s ’57 squad, remembers Yard’s knack for finding lacrosse talent in other sports’ leftovers.
Mason was playing basketball at Denison but readily admits he was far from a star player. “I was the only junior playing junior varsity at Denison in 1956,” Mason says. “Dr. Yard saw me and said, 'You’re not going to play a lot of basketball here, but I’ll make one heck of a lacrosse player out of you.’”
Mason ended up as Yard’s assistant in 1958 and filled in as head coach for one season—DU went 11-1 under his guidance in ’65—before making way for Tommy Thomsen, who established the Big Red among the nation’s elite. Thomsen’s teams went 255-97 over his quarter century in charge, leaving a foundation that current coach Mike Caravana and, for a brief stint in the 2000s, Matt McGinnis, have carried on. Coming into the 2013 season, DU’s all-time record stood at 562-241-3.
By any and every measure, Big Red lacrosse has come a long way, and it’s difficult now to imagine the sport’s stuttering birth on campus—difficult unless you were there, of course. Bonesteel is happy that there are still a few half-hidden reminders. “Somewhere in the old athletic complex, there was a hallway with pictures on both sides of the walls,” he says. “Way down at the far end, there was a group picture of the Granville Lacrosse Club, the 10 guys who made up the team my freshman year. We stand out like a sore thumb. We’re the only guys standing there with lacrosse sticks.”