The phrase "love of the game" gets tossed about in easy, capricious fashion. We say the child who dedicates countless hours to an athletic endeavor possesses "love of the game." The coach who applies nearly all his time to his team demonstrates "love of the game." Even the vicarious exercise of spending nine hours eyeballing the television on an NFL Sunday has been filed under "love of the game."
But if the meaning is distilled to its essence, none of those acts of themselves would fit the apt definition. In its purest sense "love of game" must be selfless and devoid of financial motivations. Its fruits aren't measured in wins and losses or personal achievement but shared knowledge. Few would meet the standard personified through Ed Van Tine, who died over the weekend 68 years into a life committed to the growth of Western New York lacrosse.
Van Tine lived his last two weeks in a room at the VA Hospital as cancer took the life inadvertently spared on the war fields of Vietnam. The enemy would have finished him off if it hadn't presumed him already dead in the ambush that killed, as it turned out, seven of the eight members in the 3rd Marines Force Reconnaissance team. Doctors operated some 17 hours to put him back together.
"Somebody said to me then, 'You must have a calling because you shouldn't have made it,' " Van Tine recalled in an interview almost 10 years ago. "I caught nine rounds and I went from 6-foot-1 to 5-10 and from 205 to 105 pounds in three hours. That's a helluva diet. All the doctors said to me, 'You shouldn't be here. You must have something that you have to do.' "
What he did is settle in Hamburg with his wife, Sue, and start a family that extends far beyond their son Craig and daughter Kim to almost anybody who has picked up a lacrosse stick or watched a Bandits game. He became, depending on who's doing the talking, "The Pied Piper of Western New York lacrosse," "The Facebook of Western New York lacrosse," "The Guru," "The Godfather."
"It's in the thousands or tens of thousands of people that have followed him," said Jerry Severino, the lacrosse coach at Hamburg.
Van Tine was a multi-sport star at Norwich High School southeast of Syracuse but he didn't play lacrosse. He learned the game as a recreation administration major at SUNY-Cortland, which was then a Division III powerhouse. He arrived here to find lacrosse limited to Native Americans and a scarce few area schools. So he started a recreational and a varsity program in Hamburg and became the catalyst behind the sport's steady growth and its journey into the local mainstream.
He attracted kids of all ages to the game and facilitated their equipment orders -- "Humongous orders," Craig said -- before local supply stores came into existence. Their Hamburg backyard became known as "Camp Van Tine." In the early days of the late '70s, he'd make call after call and tell the interested to meet him at Hamburg Town Hall. If they had enough for a team they'd pack up, traveling to Gowanda, to Rochester, to wherever they could find a game.
"To me he's the Facebook of lacrosse," said Jeff Polisoto, who played for Van Tine at Hamburg and Canisius College. "He was the Facebook before there was any technology. What he did with lacrosse was he connected us all through the sport. To this day, all my best friends, guys who were in my wedding, guys who are godparents to my kids, are all guys who I played lacrosse with. I can't even come close to imagining what my life would be like today if it wasn't for Ed and the sport of lacrosse. And I'm sure the same goes for just about everybody else he's touched."
One can only wonder how Hamburg might have dominated had Van Tine hoarded his knowledge, safeguarded his passion beneath his omnipresent bucket hat. Instead, he availed himself to players everywhere, to rival coaches, and brought them up to speed. He started the Great Summer Shootout on the Nike Base in Hamburg and grew the tournament from one field to 15.
"When I started coaching in '82 as a first-year coach at Orchard Park, I called him up because I kept hearing his name," Severino said. "And I said, 'I understand you're the guru of lacrosse in Western New York.' He said 'I don't know about that.' I told him I put my lacrosse stick down 16 years ago after high school and I need some help. So he invited me out to the Nike base and that's where it began. And it was just lesson after lesson after lesson.
"He said, 'OK, you want to learn. Tell me how to teach a ground-ball drill.'
"I said that I would just tell that kid, 'Go get that ball. Go on.' "
"And he shook his head and said, 'No, no, no, no, no. You got to tell a kid to bend over and to get as low as he can and to get his knuckles down on the ground and to keep his back hand low and scoop through and bring it up to your face and protect it and run through the ball.' I said, 'Oh, I get it.' And that was Lesson No. 1."
Van Tine started teams at St. Francis High School, at Canisius College, at Buffalo State, at Hamburg High School. There was no limit to his outreach, no sense that his job was ever complete. It was only as his health declined the last few years that he left the game in the hands of all those he had taught, the branches of his coaching tree sprawled throughout Western New York.
"It was all selfless because he wasn't looking for recognition," said Canisius College coach Randy Mearns. "It was, 'This is a great game and I want to kind of spread the joy and spirit of this game called lacrosse.'
"For him to start way back in the '70s and then ever so gently build it, you look at it today. I walk through my neighborhood and kids have lacrosse sticks and that kid's got a lacrosse net, and that kid's got a lacrosse net. You go into the park and kids are playing lacrosse. And it just wasn't that way. For one man to kind of be that foundation and introduce it to where it's exploded is just a testament to Ed."
Mearns' team at Canisius College will wear helmet stickers in Van Tine's honor this season. At Hamburg, every game will be dedicated to his memory.
"I think many of the districts in the area are going to be thinking that way also," Severino said. "There are just so many people that are forever indebted to him."
It turned out the doctors were right when they patched together the man who would receive two Purple Hearts. Ed Van Tine did have a calling. There was something he had to do. And he did it all for the love of the game.