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What does it take to play in Major League Lacrosse?

Members of the Atlanta Blaze discuss the difficulties of playing professional lacrosse.

Major League Lacrosse/Atlanta Blaze

NOTE: This article was first published on the Atlanta Blaze website and written by Carl Danbury. We have been given permission to republish the article by the Blaze organization, with a big thank you to Kellen Flatt, the team’s Director of Communications.

Professional lacrosse really isn’t much different than amateur golf. An athlete’s desire to compete to extend either a lax or an amateur golf career must outstrip the sacrifices endured to make the entire undertaking worthwhile. It’s called “paying the price,” a timeworn sports adage that simply means doing everything necessary to perform, despite the inconveniences, to keep playing the sport for which you have a passion.

Major League Lacrosse (MLL) has just nine teams with only 19 players eligible to “dress” each week for the 14 regular season games. For teams like the Atlanta Blaze, filling the roster with 19 talented players isn’t the problem, but getting them here for each game during the season can be. While the Blaze has some of the best lacrosse players in the world, few actually live in Atlanta year-round, which can make weekly travel logistics a nightmare for the player and the coaching staff. Only one player, Scott Ratliff, was based in Atlanta during the 2017 season, and only a few more are expected this season.

Frequent Fliers

Blaze all-star goalie Adam Ghitelman commutes from Salt Lake City, where he is currently an assistant coach for the University of Utah’s lacrosse program. Fearsome defender Callum Robinson, a 6-4, 245-pound chemistry major from Stevenson University (Md.) who grew up in Perth, Australia, commutes from Laurel, Md., where his days are spent as a project manager for Allied Geothermal Well Drilling.

The Blaze’s offensive attack is led by top scorer and future attorney Kevin Rice, who will be studying to pass the bar exam this summer after his May graduation from Wake Forest University School of Law. This season, Rice will commute to Atlanta from his boyhood home in Syracuse, N.Y.

“I am going to live at home, study for the bar exam there, and fly down for the games. It should be a little more relaxing this summer than last,” Rice said.

Last season, Rice interned at Kirkland & Ellis, a midtown Manhattan law firm. “I left Fridays after work, took a taxi to LaGuardia, and then got a flight down here. It was awful. Flights got cancelled four or five times. A few times I had to go back to my apartment for four of five hours and then go back to the airport for a 6 a.m. flight. It’s tough getting your legs under you coming in on a Saturday morning. I am looking forward to not having to do that this summer. But, that’s the price you pay to play,” Rice offered.

Elite Corps of Companions

There are countless examples of MLL players doing what is required to keep playing the game they love. Unlike some other professional sports, lacrosse stars don’t command six- or seven-figure annual salaries, and big-time endorsement deals are few and far between. While travel expenses and meals are paid for by the team, a player’s primary benefit isn’t financial, it’s congenial.

Ratliff, the Blaze’s premier long-stick midfielder is entering his sixth year as a professional since graduating from Loyola University (Md.) with a business degree. The All-American performer and member of the 2012 NCAA Division I Champion Greyhounds, said that fans would be surprised at how well professional athletes get along once the final horn sounds.

“It’s an entire group of like-minded people who have had, for the most part, a range of similar experiences in terms of coming up through high school and college,” Ratliff said. “You are drawn to other people who are sharing those experiences with you, and you become friends. With the amount of player movement there is [in the MLL], you end up playing with so many of them, that the guys on my team and other teams, I consider some of my best friends,” Ratliff said. “But, like any other athletic pursuit, that goes away rather quickly during the games. It’s competitive. It gets chippy. I’ve had some friendships tested against certain guys — but there is a lot of hanging out together after the games. It’s pretty common.”

For teams like Chesapeake (Annapolis, Md.), Boston and New York, which are based in regions where the best lacrosse players in the country traditionally are raised, attracting players who can find jobs and play in the MLL is seemingly easier. In time, when the Atlanta area produces more of the nation’s best like Ratliff — who played in the Atlanta Youth Lacrosse program at Murphey Candler Park in Brookhaven before starring at Walton High School in Marietta — more live-work-play opportunities for the elite players should result.

“Teams that have more players based in the area where the team is headquartered, have an advantage of knowing each other better and practicing more without the coaches during the week. It’s nice when you live in-market because you have access to the trainers, facilities and the fields,” Ratliff stated. “The way high school lacrosse has exploded here, there are more opportunities than ever to be full time in the business of lacrosse [teaching, coaching, and selling products]. It’s not oversaturated yet. It’s the second most popular sport in high schools these days as far as the numbers of kids trying out.”

In addition to playing for the Blaze, Ratliff coaches the varsity boys team at Greater Atlanta Christian School, Norcross, is an instructor with the LB3 Thunder, and also is vice president of Empowerhouse Leadership Consultancy.

The weekend schedule for all MLL teams is virtually identical. Once the players arrive in the cities where the game will be played, typically Friday night, a practice session of 90 minutes or so takes place. The next morning, the team has a walk-through, relaxation time, a team meal, and then it’s off to the stadium for the game. After the game, comes interaction and autograph signings with fans, before the day winds down where camaraderie among the players ensues. The following day, players return to their respective home bases. That’s not too different than other sports, except football, basketball, baseball and hockey players don’t sell insurance or trade stocks Monday morning.

Like other pro sports, lacrosse has a small number of extremely talented young men playing a game. The difference is the current earnings potential for the 170 MLL players is more equitable to that of a local musician with a strong legion of fans playing a gig every weekend.

Number of Athletes on Active Rosters for Games

League/Organizer Number of Active Players Per Team Number of Teams Total
League/Organizer Number of Active Players Per Team Number of Teams Total
MLL 19 9 171
NLL 20 9 180
NBA 13 30 390
MLS 18 23 414
NHL 20 31 620
MLB 25 30 750
NFL 46 32 1,472

The Commitment

If you’re being paid a six- or seven-figure salary, hitting the gym for a few hours every day to stay in the best possible physical shape is expected. If you’re working another job 10 hours a day, however, that dedication is respected.

For Rice, his commitment to staying in shape is a year-round endeavor. “It’s easier to maintain it, than it is to lose it and try to get it back. I wake up at 6 a.m. to work out. I try to go to bed early and just keep a routine,” Rice said. “Otherwise, you’ll lose your shape fast and injuries occur if you don’t keep it up.”

The fierce competition for the final four to five slots on every MLL roster means those that report in shape to training camp have an advantage on those who do not.

Blaze head coach Liam Banks, who played for five seasons in the MLL, said off-season preparation is the key to success. “They must come prepared and be ready to play. They have to man up and play their guy,” he said. “If you can’t play your guy, guess what, there are a lot of others who want your spot.”

Rice said the competition is really tough. “Everybody has to make sacrifices in terms of working out to stay in shape to play. You have to be committed to play,” he said.

Jack Bruckner, a rookie attacker from Duke Univ., likes to build up his shooting muscles by shooting three buckets of balls as often as he can. For cardio workouts, he either runs or hits the elliptical every day. Bruckner is enrolled in a one-year business program offered by Duke for liberal arts majors. He was picked up by the Dallas Rattlers upon graduation last year but didn’t dress for a game. The Blaze nabbed him in supplemental draft last fall, providing Bruckner a chance to play for Banks, who was a legend at Ward Melville H.S., the same school Bruckner attended on Long Island.

“Liam was, and still is, a legend. I realized that I didn’t want to hang up the cleats yet and to play for a guy that went to my high school, who was a beast, I couldn’t pass that up the chance,” Bruckner said.

After nearly a year without competition, Bruckner is chomping at the bit for some game action. “It’s absurd. I have found the smallest things to compete against people. Power walking, video games, you name it! I have missed the competition a lot,” Bruckner admitted.

Personal Responsibility

Spencer Ford understands firsthand what it’s like not to be able to compete at the highest level. The Blaze’s general manager and assistant coach was an All-American at Towson Univ., yet had a hard time finding a spot on an MLL roster.

“I could feed the ball and I had a lot of the confidence and arrogance that a lot of guys come out of college with,” Ford said. “In 2001, all of the best players in the sport were trying out for the then-Baltimore Bayhawks. The coach dressed me for a game against the Bridgeport Barrage in Connecticut. My family drove up to watch the game. Only 18 guys could dress then, and he played me for 30 seconds. I confronted him afterwards, and within days I was cut. I never got another chance.”

Coach John Tucker and the L.A. Riptide gave Ford a second chance in 2007. He responded by shattering the MLL single-season assist record, which still stands today, and played another six years in the league. “There are a lot of guys that are good enough to get a chance to play in our league, but don’t get the chance. I was a better ball player when I was 22 or 23, but as I got older, I was a smarter, more cerebral and a better ball player. When I broke the record, I was an adult,” Ford said.

“This is a personal responsibility league. There is no syllabus, no agenda and no meeting notes about the MLL,” he said.

The Blaze coaches and players open training camp March 30, and essentially will have two weekends prior to the start of the regular season to prepare and get to know one another.

“Those weekends are really important for a chance to practice live. It’s where you lay the foundation for the season, the style you are going to play and what kind of team you’re going to be,” Ratliff said. “Personnel changes do happen during the course of the season. College kids come in and guys who played in the NLL come in. Your game-one roster looks different than your game-14 roster.

“In terms of staying in shape and practicing, you are pretty much on your own. During the season, the team sends you game films or clips, we talk about things on the phone, and we try to do as much as we can to prepare. There is more preparation than meets the eye,” Ratliff said.

And for each of the 19 players who will dress for the games, the preparation and commitment to the cause will have already been made.

The Atlanta Blaze open the regular season Sunday April 22 against the Florida Launch at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State Univ. Season tickets and single-game tickets are available for sale, and begin at $12.