Jeff Pearlman

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Mark Millon

#181
One of the greatest lacrosse players in United States history talks up the game he loves, explains how he knew the Duke lax rape allegations were false—and begs obnoxious sports parents to go far, far away. POSTED November 19, 2014

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This is my son Emmett. He’s 8-years old.

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He is wearing pajamas in this photograph. He also happens to be standing in front of the oldest poster to grace his room—one depicting lacrosse star Mark Millon.

The image exists on Emmett’s wall for a strange reason: Five or six years ago, when we still lived in New Rochelle, our neighbors—three elderly men, one middle-aged woman—relocated to San Diego. They left tons of things behind, and after nearly everything was sold we walked through, wondering what remained. There was weird stuff. An autographed script from Martin Sheen. A big African drum. A rolled-up poster, signed by Mark Millon.

Emmett was young, but he liked the image. So we hung it, then took it town and hung it again when we relocated to California. It’s a bit tattered and worn, yet also loved.

Here’s the weird thing: Neither my son nor I knew much about Millon. We’re not big lacrosse fans, and certainly not followers of the pro game. That’s why, a few weeks ago, I said to Emmett, “I’m gonna try making Mark Millon a Quaz …” To which he replied, “What’s a Quaz?”

Ah, kids.

Anyhow, today’s 181st Quaz is a dandy. Millon isn’t merely a dude from a poster. No, he’s one of the all-time greats of the sport; a UMass product and Lacrosse Hall of Famer who has earned every honor imaginable. Now 43, he devotes much of his time to teaching the game via his camps and clinics. You can also follow him on Twitter here.

Mark Millon, you’re no longer the dude on the poster. You’ve been elevated to Quazhood …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Mark, I attended the University of Delaware when the men’s lacrosse team was very strong—and I fell for the game. The speed. The physicality. The skill. So I wonder why more Americans haven’t fallen for it? I mean, lacrosse is insanely exciting, yet it remains sorta fringe, the pro leagues draw meh crowds. Why is this? And can you picture a day when professional lacrosse is right up there with the Major Leagues and NBA and NFL and NHL?

MARK MILLON: Jeff, lacrosse is an absolutely incredible game to play and watch but there are a few issues that I feel slow its growth.

Folks talk about how much it’s “growing.” Yeah, it is but it’s growing from something tiny into something just very small. Over the past five years, though, while the participation numbers are not off the reservation, the TV coverage growth is exponential and I feel that gives lacrosse its best chance ever to really kick into gear. However—and it’s a significant however—there are still huge barriers to that happening. The first is the cost to play. You cannot pick up the game for less than $225-to-$250, and that’s for the barebones low-end equipment. Every player needs a helmet, gloves, stick, arm protection and shoulder pads. So you can’t chance watch it on TV and say, “I’m gonna try that sport!”

Next, while it looks cool on TV, which, again, I think can fuel growth, the average person who has never seen it has a hard time following it. Seeing the ball, knowing about all the substitutions, etc … etc … makes it somewhat complicated. The final piece is adequate coaching. Lacrosse is actually pretty technical and there aren’t enough qualified coaches or former players throughout the country and world to teach people how to play the right way.

One more thing: when you first pick up a stick it’s not easy so you cant get instant gratification like you might get kicking a soccer ball or shooting a basketball.

For all those reasons I really don’t see lacrosse ever being up with the mainstream big four sports. I would love to see it but I don’t envision it happening. I feel like we will continue to see growth in participation but I see fairly slow growth in the pro leagues.

Millon (No. 9) alongside teammate John DeTommaso after Team USA captured the 1998 World Championship.

Millon (No. 9) alongside teammate John DeTommaso after Team USA captured the 1998 World Championship.

J.P.: In 2007 you retired as the all-time leading scorer in MLL history. Then, in 2013 (at age 42) you returned to join the Rochester Rattlers. Why? And how hard was it to get back into the sport at that age? What were the toughest physical struggles? And was it worth it?

M.M.: When I retired in 2007 I was working two jobs. I was a full-time sales manager at Warrior and I was running my camp business with 2,000 kids coming through. I had been the two-time offensive MVP of the MLL, was the MVP of the league in 2005, won a championship, played nine years in the NLL (National Lacrosse League), was an All-Pro, won a championship, played on two USA teams, was the MVP of the World Games. I really felt like I had done it all. My off-field preparation was suffering and I really wasn’t playing with passion. So I walked away.

But I always felt I sort of walked away the wrong way, sort of the opposite of Derek Jeter’s “walk away.” And it was definitely not because I couldn’t play.

Fast forward to 2013. I knew I could do it, I knew with 100-percent certainty that if I got in shape I could play. I also have two young boys who could now share in the experience in a real and understandable level. So the combination of knowing I could play, the ability to leave the right way, and for my kids to share in it and see the training it takes to compete at that that level … it was really enticing.  Was it tough? Oh, yeah, it was really tough but it felt good to work as hard as I did. I re-hired my strength and conditioning coach, did a lot of shooting and dodging on my own and even did that crazy-ass Insanity workout. I felt incredible. I went to my first training camp and a former teammate from my prime in Boston, who was a future Hall of Famer as well as the captain of 2014 Team USA, told me, “You look 100 percent exactly the way you did in 2005.”

Most people think I am completely delusional with what I will say next, but, well, I just ended up in the wrong place to succeed. It was a combination of about three or four things but it was just the wrong place and I feel with all my heart that if I went to the right place and the right fit it would have been an incredible ending. I played in three games and had one goal and three assists—far from what I was looking for.

But was it worth it? Hell, yeah. Regardless of what anyone thought, I was so goddamn close. It failed, but all you want to do is have a chance. Right?

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J.P.: I know you’re from Long Island, I know you played at UMass, but … why lacrosse? Like, how did you first discover the game? When did you truly start to love it? What about lacrosse did it for you? And when did you first realize, “Damn, I’m REALLY good at this?”

M.M.: I grew up in Huntington, N.Y. and in my youth I was really all about baseball. I played on all the elite teams through the age of 13 but practices were just so boring for me. I was a sports junkie, though, always playing deck hockey, pickup football, baseketball, etc. I honestly didn’t know that much about lacrosse. My dad was a school teacher at Syosset High School, and the lacrosse coach said to him one day, “Hey, I know you have two young sons. You should have them try lacrosse.” So we did. My bro and I went to a camp when I was nine but I really wasn’t hooked. It was hard and I was killing it in baseball so I just messed with the stick on the side for a few years and continued to play baseball.

In middle school I played on the team and was pretty good and really from there I was hooked and started to develop a real passion to play and practice. I think what really hooked me was the speed, the scoring and just how much fun I had playing. I got really good in high school, played on the most elite team there was (Empire State Team—Long Island) but it really wasn’t until my sophomore year at UMass where I was like, “Wow, I actually think I can do anything out here on the field I want. I can dodge, play off ball, score, pass.” I guess that;s when I started to realize that I was pretty damn good.

J.P.: I think winning—and the emphasis we place on winning—is sorta bullshit. I don’t see why losing is so awful, so long as you tried, had fun, learned a few things. The majority of people seem to disagree. How about you? And why?

M.M.: I swear I am the most competitive person in the world (I know everyone says that), but the emphasis on winning is a total effing joke. It’s really, really bad in the world of youth lacrosse. The way I coach my kids teams is, “Guys, I am going to develop the shit out of you, you are going to play the game so that you have a real chance to be good and if we win or lose so be it.” I want my kids to play like a mini-college team and move the ball around. I want everyone to participate. There are so many idiots out there that just want to win. They give the ball to the biggest kid and he bulls around and scores, but the offense looks like total shit. Yet the parents are stoked. Parents all over the country completely undervalue development and instruction and just want to win.

Where does this come from? Is it because every pro athlete says that all they want to do is win championships? Did it trickle down? Is it because we say NFL quarterbacks, regardless of stats, are nothing until they win? I have no idea. But, in my mind, if you compete as hard as you can, have a blast and get better, well, that is pretty damn important.

J.P.: Do you feel like anyone can develop lax skills? Like, can we take some kid who’s a so-so athlete, work with him on lacrosse and make something? Or do you need kids with speed, with size, with agility?

M.M.: Nah, it’s like anything else. Not everyone can be good at lacrosse or develop great skill. One thing that’s unique in lacrosse is it’s really not about the speed, size or agility. If you look at lacrosse right now, Paul Rabil is the best player in the game. He is 6-foot-3 and big and fast, but one of the best college players is a kid at Duke who is 5-foot-8. The Thompson kids from Albany aren’t crazy big and strong.

What lacrosse does take is good eye-hand coordination combined with massive amounts of practice. The skills, especially offensive skills, are really technical. You can take a so-so athlete, speed-wise, with amazing eye-hand coordination and find a spot on the field for him.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your lacrosse career? Lowest?

M.M.: The best was being named to my first USA team. It was truly my dream from when I first got passionate about lacrosse in seventh grade. I had the poster on my wall with a USA player on it and always wanted to wear that jersey.

The worst was my senior year in high school. I had a great year, I was a 100 percent lock to be a high school All-American—which I really coveted. I talked to my coach that day and he could not have been more confident for me. He called me on the way home from the meeting and was literally in tears. “Mark,” he said, “I do not have any idea how this just happened, but you didn’t make it.” I was upset but it really drove me.

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J.P.: Back in 2006 lacrosse was all over the news because of the whole Duke lacrosse scandal. It seemed, in a way, to offer up this image of lacrosse players as privileged, arrogant, indifferent assholes. I’m wondering, at the time, what you thought of the goings-on. Were you concerned? Hurt? Defensive? All? Neither?

M.M.: Being a lacrosse player, working in the industry, running camps, I was a total 100-percent lacrosse expert. From the second the news started to break I knew with 100-percent certainty it was bullshit. I knew a bunch of educated young men … boys brought up in New Jersey, Connecticut … and there was no way they would gang rape a woman. Would they do a ton of other questionable, dumb stuff? Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But not that. I knew the truth would come out eventually. The amazing thing is what it has done at Duke. That program is by far the best in lacrosse right now and it all started at the start of the scandal. Crazy stuff. Karma? Nah. Probably just a great coach.

J.P.: What does it feel like to start getting old as an athlete? Are you aware of it happening? Does it sneak up on you one day? When did you first notice some slippage? And how did you deal with it? The inevitability?

M.M.: I will be totally honest. I have no idea. I am either so naive, stupid—or I just didn’t perceptively feel it happening. Maybe toward the end of my career, when I was not putting up the numbers and I was blaming it on lack of preparation, but was it age? I don’t know because I really wasn’t preparing properly. I know this is crazy but even today, at age 43, when my stick is in my hands at a clinic, my shooting feels exactly the same. I guess, though, one thing you do feel for sure—and I did feel it 2013—is your body can’t rebound as fast and the tendency to strain muscles increases.

I guess that’s why guys use so much growth hormone and testosterone.

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J.P.: I’d love to hear the story of your absolute most painful injury. What happened? What was the pain like?

M.M.: Unfortunately I really don’t have a great injury story. For a smaller guy who played a really slashing, speed-oriented, attacking style, I have no idea why I was so lucky. I did break my fifth metatarsal in 1997m which required a screw and it hurt like a son of a bitch. But that isn’t really exciting. I also needed surgery to fix a torn lower abdominal muscle and it hurt. But not that bad.

J.P.: I fear death. I do. The inevitability. Like it’s just waiting there, and it’s gonna happen. I’m guessing you don’t feel that way. How do you avoid the thoughts? It haunts me.

M.M.: Of course I do because I like life so much and not being able to do it any more or share it with my kids would surely suck. But I try not to think about it much. I block it out because I generally don’t have a lot of control of the matter.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARK MILLON:

• We take you, age 24 or 25, and give you a year to train as an NFL wide receiver, then get you a training camp invite. What could you have done?: I could have been Wes Welker. Not necessarily the straight speed but the change of direction and quickness would have allowed me to make plays. I would have loved the opportunity

•  Rank in order (favorite to least): Anthony DiMarzo, ice skating, Real Housewives of Atlanta, Marcus Camby, Roosevelt Field Mall, Paul Molitor, ant farms, black licorice: This feels like a baseline concussion test or something. Camby, Molitor, Roosevelt Field Mall, ice skating, Real Housewives, Anthony DiMarzo, black licorice, ant farms.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Oh, yeah. During my years playing in the NLL we used to travel on these Dash 8 prop planes in the middle of winter. Sometimes they would drop what felt like 2,000 feet and I would tell my teammate next to me, “I honestly thought we were going down.”

• One question you would ask Suzanne Somers were she here right now?: What was it like acting like a complete idiot on Three’s Company?

• Five reasons one should make Long Island his/her next vacation destination?: OK, this might not be five reasons but here goes. On a July day you can sit on the nicest beach in the world from 9 am until 2 pm. Jump in the car and go watch the greatest sports franchise in the world (Yankees), then go hit a world-class restaurant. After dinner go down to the Meatpacking District, party till 5:30 am, head back east and you can fall asleep on the nicest beach in the world.

• The world needs to know—what was it like playing alongside Dan Radebaugh?: Words that come to mind—intense, loyal, fundamental, angry, fun.

• What’s the all-time best psychup song before a sporting event?: It’s an oldie—The Cult’s Fire Woman. On a side note, I saw them live at Nassau Coliseum in like 1985 and it took two days for my ears to come back on line.

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Eli Manning? What’s the result?: While Eli looks like a 5-year-old schoolboy who lost his puppy, he is still 6-foot-4 and tough. I out-quick him for a while but TKO in the 10th. I lose.

• How many Mark Millon sex tapes are out there on the underground market?: I hope none.

• Would you rather drink a full cup of Tom Marechek’s spit or sing the national anthem at the next Philadelphia Eagles’ home game?: That is just a nasty visual. Would anyone not take the National Anthem option there?

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life