October 15, 2018
Lexi Echelman (GSAS ’19)
Lacrosse at New York University was established in 1878, when the relationship between sports and college life as we know it today was a relatively uncommon phenomenon. Albert Warren Ferris, a class of 1878 medical student and lacrosse player, reflected in his 1922 essay “Inception of La Crosse at N.Y.U” that
“The College Idea was a modest affair. Absolute essentials of today’s college life were not even imagined in the dreams of the undergraduate. His demands were fewer, his appreciation of himself was less expansive. With small libraries and limited apparatus he achieved: for his prime aims were self-development and the acquirement of education. He was eager to toil and cared more to burn the midnight oil than to consume the midday meal."
According to Ferris, students at that time were almost exclusively focused on their education, as opposed to social or athletic pursuits. While student life did exist in the form of literary debate societies, none of these satisfied Ferris’ need for “muscular activities.” It was this need that led to the establishment of the Athletic Association of the Class of ’78 by senior Louis C. Whiton. Early “field meets” were held at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, according to Ferris’ article. Then, a monumental change happened to the NYU’s Athletic Association; the class of 1878 had a chance to play a team comprised of Indigenous Peoples from Canada (who Ferris referred to as Caughnawaugha Indians). The Canadian businessman Erastmus Wiman (who Ferris spells as “Wyman”) brought these lacrosse players to New York to play exhibition games at the original Madison Square Garden (then known as Gilmore’s Garden) against local amateur teams. He also secured a Canadian coach for the newly formed NYU team. The NYU team was one of three clubs that participated in the tournament, despite playing fewer than a dozen games previously.
Adorned with violet bands on the neck and sleeves of their jerseys, NYU played the Canadian team during their second sojourn to New York. The NYU team lost, but nonetheless, lacrosse had become firmly established at the University.
Indeed, there was growing interest in athletics at New York University in the late nineteenth century. The May 1885 University Quarterly was one of the many publications advocating for different pedagogical theories than those favoring intelligence alone. Writers like the athlete Frank N. Zabriskie argued that a complete education requires critical thinking, practicality, astute moral habits, and well-intentioned motives. The focus was on a well-rounded education, and this was what student athletes argued in the May 1885 University Quarterly when they demanded a gymnasium for the university: “The co-operation of the Faculty is counted on in this matter [of acquiring a gymnasium], as it is needless to remind them that ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’” The Athletic Association, however, would not attain their own gymnasium until the opening of the University Heights campus in the Bronx and the establishment of Ohio Field there in 1891.
Despite the lack of a gym, the New York University lacrosse team continued to thrive. The July 1881 edition of the University Quarterly reported that the lacrosse team traveled to Baltimore to play teams from Columbia University, Staten Island, Canada, and more. After these skirmishes, the team opened up a “subscription list” in order to procure funds for more of their games. The team was entirely dependent upon funds from the student body and alumni. These funds allowed the team to secure spaces to play and travel to out-of-town competitions.
Lacrosse in the nineteenth century had a ten-year lifespan, which was impressive for a sport that was entirely student run and organized. Not much is said for the end of lacrosse at NYU; a writer from The University in 1887 only notes that “the enthusiasm of men who were willing to undergo personal sacrifice for the sake of the Lacrosse team has cooled.” Perhaps the flame of lacrosse went away, but the enthusiasm for creating a college life and activities for New York University students was an enduring legacy of the lacrosse team. It is something that can be felt in the sports teams that play today.