Jaxon, the logger-dude mascot for Portland's first-season pro indoor lacrosse franchise wears green for St. Patrick's Day at the Rose Garden. The White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand and Guns 'N Roses blast over the arena's sound system.
A cheesy announcer booms incessant commands for fans of the LumberJax to "MAKE SOME NOISE FOR THE BOYS!" Ironically, the music and PA drown out the enthusiastic crowd of about 5,500.
Despite this cacophonous circus, the fans seem focused on the actual game: a fast, violent, high-scoring battle on a stretch of green carpet where the Blazers' hardwood usually sits.
Two rows behind me, a boy—maybe 8 years old—screams "Brodie! Brodie! Brodie!" non-stop. The LumberJax may be playing only their fourth home game in the 11-team National Lacrosse League, but this kid already knows who he's obsessed with.
And Brodie Merrill, the team's 6-foot-4, 205-pound rookie and No. 1 draft choice from Orangeville, Ontario, does cut an imposing figure. The 24-year-old defenseman wields his lacrosse stick like a medieval war ax, mercilessly whacking Minnesota Swarm players in the arms, chest, head—whatever. When Merrill uncorks his only goal of the game, his rumbling end-to-end sprint jump-starts the crowd.
The 'Jax ultimately lose 14-12 to the Swarm. But the fledgling franchise hopes for a lot more of the same from Merrill in the near future. The marquee player on a roster of part-timers, Merrill is putting his Georgetown University marketing degree to work as a top ambassador for a sport most Portlanders know nothing about. He makes the league's $25,000 max and runs his own lacrosse camps.
So far, the 'Jax are drawing solid crowds. (Portland's average 8,067 fans per game lags behind the league average of 10,728 but tops the 5,000 the team projected before the season started, and the NLL's New York office says it's pleased.) Will they survive? A lot seems to ride on whether Merrill and his mates can convince Portland this alien, East Coast-rooted game is more substance than flash. I talked to Merrill about selling lacrosse, its blue-collar ethic and pain.
WW: You grew up playing back East. How different is it to play in front of fans who know nothing?
Brodie Merrill: It's one of the main reasons I wanted to come here. I've always been part of something established, but here I get to be part of something from the ground up.
I gotta confess—I couldn't follow the game at all for about the first half.
I think there are a lot of people like you. We've been trying to hit the grassroots—we get out to schools and hospitals and talk about the sport. Everyone's like, "Uh, what's that?" You pop in a video, toss the ball around a little, and they start to get it.
Is it weird to be on a team where just about everyone works day jobs and lives somewhere else?
I don't know how these guys do it. We've got one guy who's a cop in Toronto. We've got guys who work 60-hour weeks and then fly here from Ontario—and that is not an easy trip. We don't get compensated very much, y'know? We do this for the love of the game.
Which brings us to the contrast with the Blazers....
You don't like to speak negatively about another home team, but I do think fans want to make a connection with the players on some level. With us, it's not that hard, because we're totally normal guys.
So, when you're beating the hell out of someone with your stick—how bad does that hurt?
Well, it looks a lot more violent than it is. We're actually very well-protected. I guess that's easy for me to say, since I'm usually dishing it out, not taking it. And there are definitely some gaps in the padding where you can get skin.
Not to mention the body-checking. It looks like you'd need rivets in your neck to survive.
I read some stat that said lacrosse actually has the lowest injury rate of any major sport. We've all been playing long enough. We know the proper mechanics of hitting and getting hit.