May 8, 2014

For Thompsons, It's Faith, Family and Lacrosse

Lyle Thompson might be the best of Albany’s hypnotizing trio, but you can’t have one without the others 

From left to right: Albany's dazzling attack trio of Miles, Lyle and Ty Thompson. The Great Danes head to Baltimore to face third-seeded Loyola on Saturday in an NCAA tournament first-round game. (Greg Wall)

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the February 2014 edition of Lacrosse Magazine highlighting Lyle Thompson as NCAA Division I men's Preseason Player of the Year as part of our special 54-page college preview section. It is updated below to reflect information from the current season. Don’t get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 415,000-plus members today to start your subscription.

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

It seems appropriate to start this story about Lyle Thompson with him at a dinner table surrounded by family.

So there was Lacrosse Magazine’s 2014 Preseason Player of the Year and Tewaaraton Award front-runner, on a mid-November Monday night, sitting at a circular, eight-person banquet hall table at a charity event in Latham, N.Y., a short drive north of Albany. In his arms, the college junior held his 7-month-old daughter, Mercy. She stood on his lap and they looked at each other face-to-face. To their right sat Thompson’s 2-year-old daughter, Layielle, eating chicken wings handed to her by Thompson’s older brother, Miles. You know Miles, the one who runs alongside Lyle the best attack line in college lacrosse right now and maybe ever.

On the far side of the group opposite Lyle, their cousin, Ty, ate dessert after disposing wing bones on a plastic plate in the middle of the table. It was a fitting arrangement. The right side is where the lefty finisher sets up shop when Albany has the ball on offense.

Some call it chemistry, the way the Thompsons riffed off one another to combine for more points (254) than most teams in 2013. The way Lyle and Miles were able to each eclipse the 100-point mark this year. They call it family.

This space is about an individual honor for Lyle Thompson, whose 50 goals and 63 assists left him two points shy of setting the NCAA Division I men’s single-season record in 2013, a mark of 114 he tied this year — just last Saturday against UMBC — and likely will break in the Great Danes’ first-round NCAA tournament game Saturday against Loyola. He probably would have moved past the number last season had he not missed a game for Mercy’s birth. Last year he was the first Native American finalist for the Native American-inspired Tewaaraton Award. The five finalists for this year’s award will be named Thursday.

But one Thompson’s success cannot be referenced without talking about the others. The trio came to Albany as a package deal. Miles and Ty are seniors, and Miles too is a legitimate Tewaaraton contender. Lyle, whom Ty said has always been the best of them, is a junior. They are members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Expectations at the start of the season were high, both within the team and around college lacrosse, for a spectacular four months.

*** 

Back inside the Century House in Latham in November, team members wore gold jerseys with purple numbers over collared shirts and posed in the corner of a crowded, wedding reception-style room for a picture with Jay Honsinger, the father of 10-year-old JP, who has been diagnosed with childhood Alzheimer’s. The disease leads to uncurable neurological problems.

The event, a fundraiser for JP, featured a silent auction of memorabilia from teams like the Yankees and Giants. The Honsinger family lives in nearby Clifton Park, N.Y., and Albany lacrosse is one of JP’s favorite teams. One of his wishes was to meet the Thompsons, which he did at a practice in the fall. He wanted to join the Great Danes for as many home games as possible this spring.

On this night, JP’s family felt the event would be too overwhelming for him. Lyle and Miles Thompson flanked the father in the middle of the photo.

When they returned to the table, someone asked Lyle, “Where’s mom?” His girlfriend, Amanda Longboat, lives with him and Miles in an off-campus house. She helps with the kids as all three balance their time and resources. Lyle and Amanda started dating four years ago. She’s originally from Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, about a four-hour drive west from the Onondaga Nation where Lyle and Miles grew up. (Ty is from the Mohawk Nation.)

“She has the night off,” Lyle said with a smile.

***

Earlier that day, Albany had practice. For a mid-November afternoon in Albany, the weather was divine — 61 degrees with clear blue skies. The Great Danes coaching staff, led by Scott Marr, decided to take advantage of it, playing full field for about 60 minutes. The lowering, late-afternoon sun shone so bright that the goalies on the east end of the field struggled to see the shots coming at them.

The Thompsons just happened to have their backs to the light. Defending them just got more difficult. A cross-handed catch and pass by Lyle around the crease had one Albany mimicking the maneuver for teammates on the sideline.

“Did you see that?” he asked.


ABC's World News Tonight featured the Thompsons as their Persons of the Week last Friday.

The Thompsons’ stick skills, vision and field sense are uncanny. It’s been this way for a while.

“That’s a lot of the backyard game and box lacrosse,” Lyle said, referring to 2-on-2 contests he had with his three older brothers, Jerome, Jeremy and Miles. “If I’m going to pass to them, I have so much confidence in them to catch it. It doesn’t even have to be a good pass. If a defender’s stick is in the way, I can throw it down here and they’re going to catch it. Miles and I have always done that; put it in a spot where you wouldn’t expect it. A defender is expecting you to catch up high, but a lot times he will tell me to throw it low. Same thing with Ty. A lot of times, I get credit for creating, but I just throw it there and he makes the amazing catch and puts it in the net.”

Lyle and Miles’ parents — Jerome Thompson Sr., a Mohawk, and Deloris Thompson, an Onondaga — have five children. In addition to the four boys, there’s one girl, Crystal. Lyle and Miles spent parts of their high school career in Onondaga near Syracuse and the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation on the northern border between New York and Canada. They played two seasons at Salmon River (N.Y.) High while helping to care for an ailing grandmother before moving back to Onondaga and starring at LaFayette (N.Y) High.

At the urging of their father and in following the paths of their older brothers, Lyle and Miles decided to play lacrosse in college. Jeremy and Jerome Jr. both played at Onondaga Community College, a junior college juggernaut. Jeremy went on to play two seasons at Syracuse as an All-American midfielder and now plays professionally for Major League Lacrosse’s Florida Launch and the National Lacrosse League’s Edmonton Rush.

Many expected Lyle and Miles, along with cousin Ty, to follow suit at Syracuse. Instead, in the fall of 2009, all three chose to play for Albany.

“I was the first one recruited by them,” said Ty, who led the Great Danes with 54 goals in 2013 and has 36 goals and 12 assists this season. “When I committed, these guys got on board. We wanted to start something new. Instead of all young Native Americans wanting to go to Syracuse all the time, come to Albany. We wanted to make the NCAA tournament; we did that last year. This year the national championship is our goal.”

“That was our dream,” Miles said. “We decided we were going to go to college together. We looked at our older brothers. They played so well together. Their pick-and-roll game, nobody really stopped it. That’s what me and Lyle’s goal was.”

The Thompsons were inseparable, their bond as solid as concrete. Marr cited a game last season in which Miles suffered a concussion. It was a windy day, he was disoriented and while being helped off the field he repeatedly screamed, “Where’s Lyle?” When Miles was a freshman and Lyle was still in high school, he went home every weekend to visit him.

“You would think they’re twins by the way they interact with each other,” Marr said. “You’ve never seen brothers as close like best friends as you have with these two. I never realized how strong their bond was.”

Even in an injury-shortened season, Miles had 43 goals and 30 assists in 12 games. His 6.08 points per game were just off Lyle’s national-best 6.64. This year, Miles has made his own name on the national scene. He leads the nation in goals per game with 4.63 and is within striking distance of the Division I single-season goals record of 82 by Yale midfielder Jon Reese in 1990. Miles has 74 goals in 16 games, and is also second nationally in points per game (6.75), only behind Lyle (7.13). There’s business to finish, but even in the preseason, Miles was already anticipating next year, when he’s finished playing and Lyle remains at Albany. Miles wants to be a part of Lyle’s senior year. Marr said he would welcome Miles back as an undergraduate assistant coach as he finishes up school.

“He likes to help out,” Lyle said. “He’s there to help out with the kids. We’re not going to live apart. We do the same thing. We stay out of the party life. We’re always together.”

*** 

This interview originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription!

For years, Marr and the Thompsons have been plotting to return Albany to this place of national prominence, building toward this season. The Great Danes haven’t been this good since 2007, when Frank Resetarits and Merrick Thomson led them to a 15-3 record and an NCAA quarterfinal appearance.

When the Thompson trio committed, they knew Albany was on its way back. It became even clearer when Lyle joined Miles and Ty on attack last season after playing his rookie season at midfield.

The Thompsons wanted to forge their own path, for themselves and future Native American lacrosse players. Some traditional families are reluctant to allow their children off the reservation. They fear they will forget their culture and values and won’t come back.

Jeremy Thompson proved that wasn’t the case. He’s back on the reservation, learning and speaking the Onondaga language, participating in traditional longhouse ceremonies and also working as a Nike lacrosse representative.

“He’s a big role model on our reservation, and not only because of lacrosse,” Lyle said. “Onondaga is a sovereign nation. A big thing is leaders, and he’s really into our religion. I’m a pretty religious person and traditional, too.”

Perhaps the most visible symbols of that faith are the long, braided ponytails worn by Jeremy, Miles and Lyle Thompson.

“My dad had long hair. His dad had long hair. In a way, the long hair is part of our mother and how we are connected to Mother Earth and how we give thanks to everything that lives here on Earth,” Jeremy Thompson said in an interview for the June 2013 edition of Lacrosse Magazine. “It’s a connection, like the umbilical cord, to our mother. When my mother passes away, I’ll cut my hair down in honor of her.”

That sense of filial piety has left an impression on the younger Thompson brothers.

“I plan on doing the same thing. I plan on going back and helping them,” Lyle said. “We’ve kind of lost our language in a way, and I want to learn the language and teach the kids what’s going on with our history.”

“Our kids want to go to college but most of them don’t [do it]. That’s what me and Lyle are trying to do,” Miles said. “We’re trying to show them that we can go to college and go back to our ways.”

Ty, who is from Akwesasne Mohawk, said he would like to be a social worker and coach at his old high school, Salmon River. All three say they’ve stressed the importance of schoolwork whenever asked for advice, such as explaining the existence of the NCAA clearinghouse and that good performance as early as ninth grade is critical to get into college.

Lyle is scheduled to graduate from Albany in four years. Miles and Ty, who were both drafted by Major League Lacrosse's Rochester Rattlers in January, might require an additional semester or two, but not graduating is not an option.

"There were a lot of doubters when they first got out of high school that they would even get in a four-year college, let alone be able to stay and do the schoolwork," Marr said. "They've pretty much silenced that because they are all on track to graduate in a four- to five-year period."

*** 

So yes, this story that started at a dinner table surrounded by family is about Lyle Thompson, Lacrosse Magazine’s Preseason Player of the Year and a favorite to win the prestigious Tewaaraton Award. If he keeps scoring at his 2013 and 2014 pace, Thompson eventually could challenge the NCAA Division I career scoring record set just last year by Cornell’s Rob Pannell. Thompson has 265 career points, 90 shy of breaking Pannell’s mark of 354 set in 2013, although Lyle won't be running alongside Miles and Ty as a senior.

It’s impossible to acknowledge Thompson’s individual accolades without including his brother and cousin — and the rest of the Great Danes hoping to make history.

Syracuse native Derrick Eccles, Thompson’s freshman year roommate at Albany, said Lyle was pretty shy that first year. They talked in their dorm, but Lyle wasn’t one to start a conversation in the locker room.

It’s different now, Eccles said. Recently, the subject of Indian mascots in sports, like the Redskins and Chiefs, came up in a small group. Teammates kept seeing pundits and so-called experts on television talking about the topic, but none of them looked quite like the Native American teammates they knew.

“We asked them how they felt,” Eccles said. “They were open about it.”

Miles, for one, used to sleep in a bed adorned in a Washington Redskins blanket, but removed it after his older brother Jerome “enlightened me on what the real meaning of a ‘redskin’ is and how it affects our people. I am no longer a Redskins fan, but I still am a fan of RGIII,” Miles said. The purple-and-white Six Nations flag hangs in his window.

“What they say about the Creator’s Game, you really appreciate it around them,” Albany assistant coach Eric Wolf said.

That may be the best honor of all.


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