“That’s why we say lacrosse is a lifestyle—it’s our medicine.” UAlbany junior and Great Danes attackman Miles Thompson doesn’t say this metaphorically. “If someone is sick,” he continues, “we play a game for them. We always have a spring game to start our season to bring good medicine for our people.”
There is only one way for this spiritual lifeblood to flow from the marrow of the wooden sticks used in medicine games back to the collective spirit of the Iroquois community—Miles’ community. The players must perform with the prescribed purpose. “Every time we’re on the field, we play for our creator,” says Ty Thompson, Miles’ cousin and fellow junior attackman for UAlbany.
Miles and Ty also play at the university with Miles’ brother Lyle, and the three Thompsons form the most dynamic scoring triumvirate in NCAA Division 1 lacrosse. “They’ve elevated our play. That’s what great players do,” says UAlbany head coach Scott Marr. The Thompsons apply relentless pressure on opposing defenses with an approach that relies equally on their polished skills and agile minds. “Their IQ is off the charts. They’re all eyes, and their brains process stuff quickly,” says Marr.
Lyle, a sophomore, is especially adept at using his feet and stick skills to draw extra defensive attention, and when he whips a pass to Ty or Miles, they capitalize with brutal efficiency. “A lot of times I throw passes to them that a lot of skilled players, top players in the league, wouldn’t catch,” says Lyle, not to mock those players’ abilities but rather to illustrate the Thompsons’ unique chemistry. In their season opener against perennial national powerhouse Syracuse University, Ty paced the scoring attack with five goals and Lyle orchestrated the offense with six assists. Miles provided the theater, burying the game-winning goal in double-overtime on his way to a hat trick. Lyle kept up his prolific scoring on Tuesday with five goals and three assists in a 15-9 win over ninth-ranked Massachusetts.
Their synergy has catalyzed the UAlbany offense. The Great Danes are racking up goals at the third highest clip in the nation, and after the season’s first four games, Lyle leads the country in scoring at 7.75 points per game. Each of the Thompsons has been named to the official watch list for the Tewaaraton Trophy, an award presented annually to the top player in the NCAA that is often referred to as the Heisman Trophy of lacrosse. Despite the numerous statistics, kinetic scoring play, and national accolades, the most unique thing about the Thompsons is not how they play the game, but why.
Miles and Lyle Thompson hail from the Onondaga Nation in Onondaga County, New York. Here Miles is called “Giaiahgwa” or “He Strikes the Sun,” and Lyle is called “Dayhausahnonday” or “Flying Out Way.” Ty, also called “Teiotekane” or “He Carries Fire,” is from Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory in northern New York that straddles the U.S.-Canada border.
For the Iroquois people, lacrosse is not merely a sport; it cannot be reduced to a barometer of athletic prowess. Rather, it is a ritual that has been woven into the fabric of Iroquois spirituality for centuries. The sacred nature of lacrosse engenders an unselfish ethos that defines the trio. “I just want to enjoy the game and play it for the Creator,” says Lyle. “Not so much do it for awards and set those kind of goals. I want to go out there and play hard for what the Creator made this game for and have fun with it.”
While some athletes find drilling their weaknesses during the off-season a tiresome sacrifice, the Thompsons embrace the chance to improve as an exciting part of their vocational development. “[The UAlbany team] have a word of the day, and I chose love,” says Lyle. “The more you love the game, the more you commit yourself to the game. I feel like that’s what I did. I love the game so much that I enjoyed working hard to be good. You absorb it, and it just becomes joyful to you.”
Lyle can date his passion for the sport back to some of his early memories, especially those of his first lacrosse stick. “I loved the thing. I used to sleep with it every night. It was kind of like a teddy bear to me,” he recalls.
Supportive family members help keep the Thompsons grounded and mindful of the traditional ways of the Iroquois. Lyle and Miles’ father, Jerome Sr., extols the virtues of the traditional Onondaga customs but still encourages his sons to achieve academic success at UAlbany. Traditionally for their culture, people did not leave the reservation to go to school, but their father recognized that the old culture must embrace new times. “He wants us to learn our ways, but he also wants us to be strict with school,” says Miles. “He thinks his job now is hard, and he doesn’t want us doing that.”
Ty also enjoys tremendous support from his family in Akwesesne. He estimates that around 100 family members and friends made the trip from his reservation to see him play against Syracuse. While tradition bars Iroquois women from so much as touching a wooden stick, lacrosse is still a vital part of the lives of the Thompson women. “Our girls support us,” says Miles. “My sister grew up not playing any sports just because she traveled with us and wanted to watch us play.”
One of the most profound familial influences on Miles and Lyle comes from the words of their great-grandfather, Leon Shenandoah, who served the Iroquois Nation as Tadadaho, the ultimate spiritual and political leadership post, from 1967 to 1996. His book, To Become a Human Being, outlines how man can achieve an enhanced consciousness by living the way Mother Earth intended him to. “He is a good motivation because nothing bothers him,” says Lyle. “Money and all that stuff doesn’t bother him. His thing is pretty much karma. You do good and good will come to you.
“I’ve changed a lot in the past year just from reading his books,” continues Lyle, who has also passed the works onto his coaches.
While the Thompsons show reverence for their heritage, (Lyle and Miles are easy to spot on the field because of their long, black braids that flow from under their helmets) they are equally focused on the future. They want to leverage their success as collegiate lacrosse stars to make a tangible difference on the lives of young Iroquois who are losing their way as poverty and substance abuse plague reservations across the state.
“The younger kids are getting into drugs and stuff like that, explains Miles. “We’re trying to make that different and get them into lacrosse. It’s a different lifestyle.”
“We have so much talent on the rez, but a lot of kids don’t really go to the next level of lacrosse,” adds Ty. “I think we’re kind of like mentors to get them to the next level. A lot of kids talk to us on Facebook, and we give them advice on how to be successful.”
All three Thompsons spend their summers working at lacrosse camps on the reservation where excited children swarm them, begging for their gear. Miles and Lyle follow in the footsteps of their brother Jeremy, a talented professional lacrosse player who has become a tireless ambassador for the game. “When we do camps with my brother, one of his main things is preaching to the kids to stay traditional, respect the game, and respect everything in life,” says Lyle.
As Mother Earth turns us away from the gloomy chill of winter and closer toward the sun, spring will come and bring the important contests of the season—the conference battles that will determine which teams get to play for NCAA championship glory and which teams will begin the pursuit of a fresh season a few heartbreaking weeks too soon. The Great Danes will desperately need big plays from their electric attackman, and Ty, Miles, and Lyle will be playing for so much: for their coaches and their teammates, for their school, for their families, for the kids on the rez who need to see them succeed so that they can see it in themselves.
Without a singular focus, crunch time could be overwhelming, but the three seem to stay centered. “My main thing is just to play for the Creator,” explains Lyle. “End of the game, when it comes down to it, that’s what I’m thinking of. I think of finishing this game for him, and let him enjoy this.” If you do good, good things happen.