Warrior’s Game: Epic 24-Hour Lacrosse Showdown Raises Millions for Veterans
The warriors begin going through the motions, as they’ve done so many times before: donning helmets and buckling chinstraps, stretching their sturdy legs and arms, the familiar stink of caked sweat in their nostrils. Some take a final sip of water and recheck their equipment. Taking the field, they separate into two teams: Team Brave dressed in tiger stripe camouflage, in honor of the special operations soldiers who wore it during the Vietnam War, and Team Free in desert “chocolate chip” camouflage, a nod to the Americans who served in the Gulf War.
And so commences the 10th annual Shootout for Soldiers — a 24-hour lacrosse game played to connect veterans with their communities and to raise money in support of veteran charities. Founded in 2012 by students at The Boys’ Latin School of Maryland, the tradition was born out of the simple desire to better support America’s veterans.
“This foundation was started by high school students who didn’t serve in the military,” Alexis Brandolini, the organization’s director of strategy, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “But they wanted to do more than simply post something on social media on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.” This year’s event has raised over $500,000.
Since its inception, Shootout for Soldiers has raised over $5.5 million for American veterans and has expanded to seven states, where 24 hours of nonstop lacrosse are played each summer. Each 24-hour event consists of 24 back-to-back one-hour lacrosse games.
Last year, Team RWB — a larger veterans nonprofit organization — acquired Shootout for Soldiers with the goal of helping it grow. At first glance, lacrosse may seem like an unusual way of connecting communities with veterans, but in fact “the fastest game on two feet” was designed with warriors in mind.
Lacrosse is the oldest sport in North America, dating back to the 12th century when Native Americans strung the first lacrosse sticks. Those first games served a greater purpose than mere entertainment and competition. Native American warriors played lacrosse to train their bodies for war, and as a means of healing their minds and spirits after battle. But more often, lacrosse was a means of peacekeeping, played as an alternative to actual combat.
But the sport looked a little different back then. There were no protective helmets or shoulder pads. Playing fields lacked clear boundaries and sticks were made of wood, rather than plastic and titanium alloys. In the southeastern United States, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole warriors played with two, shorter sticks and a stone ball. Near the Great Lakes, members of the Ojibwe, Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Miami, Winnebago, and Santee Dakota tribes played with a single stick made of white ash topped with a small, circular head.
Meanwhile, in the northeastern US and Canada, the Haudenosaunee — more commonly known by the French name Iroquois, which includes people from the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations — played a version of the game that most closely resembled modern lacrosse. To this day, the Haudenosaunee continue to dominate the sport, fielding an internationally recognized team and producing top-tier players like Tehoka Nanticoke, Lyle Thompson, and Jeremy Thompson, who all currently play in the Premier Lacrosse League.
Known by many names over the years — tewaaraton, dehontshigwa’es, kalahse, baaga’adowewin, netapeskwama, epaskome, kabucha, and others — lacrosse still fosters strong ties between athletes and warriors, and nowhere is that more clear than during Shootout for Soldiers.
Lined up for the pregame playing of the national anthem are veterans of every branch of the US military (aside from the Space Force). Tattoos, T-shirts, and helmet decals reveal former branches and units of the men preparing to play what the Choctaw called Ishtaboli, or “little brother of war.” But for all the interservice rivalries, there is no animosity among the warriors preparing to face off on the turf at USA Lacrosse Headquarters’ Tierney Field in Baltimore.
“It’s awesome to be able to bring all the services together for a good cause,” said Will Dabolt, a former cryptologic technician in the US Navy. “Lacrosse is originally a medicine game, and that’s exactly what we’re doing here. Playing this game is a kind of medicine for these warriors.”
The first whistle blows, and the crowd cheers as veterans of all ages begin fighting for the ball. The teams are evenly matched, with players of all skill levels. After a few changes of possession, a man in the tiger-striped uniform of Team Brave bulldozes through Team Free’s defense, shoots, and scores. A section of the stands erupts. The scorer, Josh Buzzard, who served in the Air National Guard as a KC-130 crew chief, is being cheered by the entire Davis and Elkins College men’s lacrosse team, which he now coaches.
Buzzard has played in Shootout for Soldiers before, but this year he brought his team with the hope that it would remind them of the sacrifices service members make and the warrior origins of lacrosse.
“It gives the team some perspective,” said Buzzard. “It’s easy to have days when you think ‘oh, class sucked today’ or ‘practice sucked today,’ but to come out here is a great way to remind them what this game of lacrosse is really all about.”
The veterans’ game continues, with emphasis on camaraderie and having fun, rather than winning. There are none of the hockey-style brawls you might see in box lacrosse or the hard hits one can expect to see when watching college or professional lacrosse. When the final whistle blows, players of both teams come together for congratulatory hugs and high-fives, then pose for pictures. None of them seem to care about the final score.
One player, Jeremy Hirata, a Marine Corps veteran who fought in Fallujah and Ramadi, explains the lengths he goes each year not to miss the event. Even last year, when he was living in Guam where his wife was stationed with the Marine Corps, Hirata managed to make it to two of the games. “It’s the unique atmosphere that brings me back each year,” he said. “It’s always a good time and a great way to connect veterans with their communities. Regardless of branch or background, there’s a real brotherhood out here.”
Kicking off the event the night before were teams from Kelly Post: the nation’s oldest youth lacrosse program, named after a naval aviator who was killed during the Battle of Midway. Although they wore tiger stripe and chocolate chip camo for the game, the Kelly Post players usually play in shorts sporting a Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat: the aircraft Kelly was flying when he was killed. Those direct links between lacrosse and the military run deeper than uniforms, with many standout players taking the lessons learned on the lacrosse field into military service — men like Tyler Campbell and Thomas Truxton, who were both hall-of-fame lacrosse players killed in action during World War II.
The “little brother of war” continues to attract service members. Ben Harrow — a former Green Beret — played in the veterans game in 2016, despite losing both of his legs to an IED four years earlier. Harrow walked onto the field that day on prosthetic legs, marking the first time he’d played the game since he was a member of West Point’s Division I men’s team.
“It was rewarding to know that I can still play a game that meant so much to me,” he told Coffee or Die. “I had so many fond memories of just playing in college and high school. It was really cool to be able to step back on the field and play, especially with one of my best friends, Eric Mineo.”
Mineo, who now serves as the executive director for Shootout for Soldiers, played with Harrow at West Point. The two athletes both went on to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan as Army infantry officers and later as special operations soldiers — Harrow with 7th Special Forces Group and Mineo with 1st Ranger Battalion.
“Getting back into it was really important to me, in terms of mentally and physically recovering,” said Harrow. “It made me feel like I was back to normal. Obviously, it’s a new normal, but it helped me tremendously. It reminded me I could still do it, that it was still me.”