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Sean Kirst: In Bandits showdown in Georgia, lessons bigger than the score

For Jerome Thompson Sr., the 14-hour drive from upstate New York to Duluth, Ga., will easily be worth it. He and his wife Deloris intend to be there Saturday when the Georgia Swarm host the Buffalo Bandits in a game of sweeping importance in the National Lacrosse League.

Both teams have lost only twice all season. The winner will remain in close pursuit of Toronto for the eastern division title.

“I really love watching them,” Jerome Sr. said, referring to three sons – Lyle, Miles and Jerome Jr. – who play for the Swarm. A fourth, Jeremy, plays for the Saskatchewan Rush. That sky-high level of family skill has built its own legend within professional lacrosse, where Lyle's 27 goals for the season lead the league, nine ahead of the two guys tied for second, Buffalo's Thomas Hoggarth and Georgia's Randy Staats.

Yet for all the meaning of this showdown with the Bandits, what happens in the hours before the game has equal power for Jerome Sr. and his family.

Jerome Sr. is a Mohawk and his children are Onondagas, of the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations of the Iroquois. The Thompson brothers wear their hair in long braids, a statement of identity and belief that began when they were children. They were raised in the longhouse tradition at Onondaga, traditional capital of the Six Nations. They have achieved such success that the four sons have their own line of gear and run youth camps under the umbrella of Thompson Brothers Lacrosse.

Last month, the Swarm was playing in Philadelphia when public address announcer Shawny Hill – reacting as Lyle sprinted down the field – called on the homestanding Wings to “snip the ponytail” at the Wells Fargo Arena. The remarks triggered a burst of something ugly. Lyle heard a couple of fans near the Georgia bench screaming for the Wings to “scalp” him and cut off his braid.

Jerome Sr. and Deloris were at the game. While Jerome Sr. said that kind of taunting is far more common than many realize toward native players, hearing the words over the PA made it difficult for anyone to casually brush it off. The NLL is a league where virtually every team, including Buffalo, has a deep native presence and history.

After speaking with his sons, Jerome Sr. said, “I saw the pain in their faces.”

Lyle, now of the Six Nations territory in southern Ontario, quickly tweeted about the incident. “I know Philly takes pride in their ruthless fans but I didn’t know it was like that,” he wrote, touching off an emotional reaction around the league. Hill, the announcer, apologized and was later fired by the team. Lyle soon posted a long digital essay, recalling years of trying to ignore insults and ignorance.

“I’ve experienced this before, and I’ve always just let it go, forget about it, tell myself that’s not a big deal, that’s the way I’ve handled it," he wrote. "But I’ve decided this is my chance to use my platform and let everyone know how I truly feel.”

Deloris and Jerome Thompson Sr. are very proud of their five children for respecting Native American traditions. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

He has spent his life attempting to be “patient and respectful,” he wrote, and the braid is a statement "that exemplified pride." He wrote of his concern about native children “who are coming up behind,” and he vowed to try even harder to break down walls, to hope people who embrace lacrosse – a game of native origins – will see the backwards logic of taunting native players on all levels for their braids and their traditions.

Saturday, before the game against Buffalo, all seven native members of the Swarm – including LeRoy Halftown and Zed Williams of the nearby Seneca Nation – will take part in a native heritage night at Georgia’s arena. It is an annual event intended to broaden understanding – the Bandits will have their own version when Georgia visits Buffalo next month – and this year’s gatherings take on elevated importance.

Deloris and Jerome Sr. will be there Saturday to support their sons. To Jerome Sr. and his wife, the respect the four brothers and their sister Crystal show for their lessons and traditions is made clear by their response to what happened in Philadelphia.

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Jerome Sr., a grandfather and a retired ironworker, grew up in a house with parents who spoke fluent Mohawk. He began wearing his own hair long in middle school once he started going to the longhouse, the traditional heart of Six Nations spiritual and community life. Even as a child, Jerome Sr. said, he felt a longing, “the need to be involved.”

He found his answer in the stories and reflections of clan mothers and other elders. “It brought light to a lot of things,” Jerome Sr. said. He began to see how the larger world could overwhelm you with “a lot of clutter, a lot of confusion.” He felt the threat from what Jerome Sr. calls “the mind changers,” the drugs and alcohol that claimed too many friends or relatives, a collective loss that helped clarify his own direction.

From the elders he learned the value of being “positive in all things,” of the peace that comes from following a path that keeps you whole. After meeting Deloris, he made a vow to raise his own children with the most important lesson of them all.

What he took from the longhouse, Jerome Sr. said, “is how to be a better human being.”

As part of those teachings, his boys wore their hair long and braided, from early childhood. While that was a rule of the house, Jerome Sr. told them they could cut it at 25, if they chose. You see their answer. He kept them away from the intensity of organized leagues when they were small, choosing instead to play the game with them each night in the backyard, trying to share lacrosse as what the elders say it was from the beginning:

A means of expression, of elation, of thanksgiving.

Silver Creek High School graduate Zed Williams, a member of the Seneca Nation, also plays for the Georgia Swarm. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Jerome Sr. and Deloris watched in disbelief as their sons became some of the most celebrated players in the lacrosse world, but the father, even now, has a confession: Despite traveling with the brothers to so many grand arenas, he misses the days when they were little, when it was only his children and a makeshift goal in the evening quiet of their yard.

“I always say the greatest gift you can give them is time,” Jerome Sr. said.

Decades later, it seems clear they heard their father. Jerome Sr. taught them lacrosse as a “medicine game,” and played at its highest form it showcases the elements he sees at the heart of true community. In all his years in lacrosse, he does not believe he was ever in a fight. To Jerome Sr., you want your children to seek both strength and control within themselves, to shape their own lives into stories that might guide those who come next.

All of that, he said, is what he found in the longhouse.

All of that intertwines with every strand of those long braids.

In conversation, Jerome Sr. shows no anger, only sadness, about Philadelphia. He has heard all the same words in too many other places. Blinded by “clutter,” people mock what they fail to understand, and he feels a father’s pride in the reaction of his sons.

“I was told a certain way," he said. "You have to be willing to learn, and they always listened.”

He likes to think others might pay the same kind of attention in Georgia, both when his sons describe what shaped them, and then when they play the game.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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