UAlbany lacrosse coach, former player bring game to pipeline protesters

From left, Scott Marr, Lyle Thompson and Bill O'Brien are shown Tuesday at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Thompson is a former UAlbany men's lacrosse star, while Marr is the program's head coach.From left, Scott Marr, Lyle Thompson and Bill O'Brien are shown Tuesday at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Thompson is a former UAlbany men's lacrosse star, while Marr is the program's head coach.

By Michael Kelly

After roughly 27 hours of driving, University at Albany men’s lacrosse coach Scott Marr and his former player Lyle Thompson early Monday evening reached the scene of the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D.

Walking around the camps set up within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Marr said the situation was unlike anything he’d previously seen.

“It was surreal. When we were over there, it was pretty calm. We got there around 5, 6 o’clock,” Marr said Tuesday. “People were eating dinner and stuff like that. They were camping. It’s a little village, really. … But it’s surreal [because] you’re walking around on sacred Native land, and then across the river you see bulldozers and huge mounds of dirt. You can just feel that people are hunkered down. They’re not willing to give in.”

From left, Bill O'Brien, Lyle Thompson and Scott Marr are shown Tuesday in front of a post with signs from the various tribes stationed at the  Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Thompson is a former UAlbany men's lacrosse star, while Marr is the program's head coach.

From left, Bill O’Brien, Lyle Thompson and Scott Marr are shown Tuesday in front of a post with signs from the various tribes stationed at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Thompson is a former UAlbany men’s lacrosse star, while Marr is the program’s head coach.

Marr and Thompson — an Onondaga Nation member who now lives on the Six Nations reservation in Canada — began their trek to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation early Sunday morning with Thompson’s wife, three children and friend Bill O’Brien. They did not stay overnight on the site — they opted for a nearby hotel because of Thompson’s young children — but used part of their time Monday night on scene to recruit players for “medicine” games of lacrosse, meant to offer fun and healing.

“Lacrosse is a Native American game,” said Thompson, who perhaps played the sport better than anyone at the college level during a career at UAlbany in which he shared the 2014 Tewaaraton Award with his brother Miles and won it solo as a senior in 2015. “Throughout the different tribes across the country, they play some form of lacrosse.”

Marr said: “So Lyle [was] trying to bring that game to the forefront to show that’s part of their culture.”

Thompson brought with him 20 wooden sticks, and his group ended up organizing a pack of three games Tuesday afternoon. Some people who participated knew of Thompson’s stellar history with the game and had some familiarity with playing the sport, while others listened closely as Thompson offered a tutorial about the sport before some quick drills and the start of the games.

Demonstrators protest against the continued construction efforts of the Dakota Access pipeline, on Market Street outside the offices of the Army Corps of Engineers in San Francisco on Nov. 15. The company behind the pipeline, situated near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, is racing to finish the $3.7 billion project as thousands of protesters are vowing to stop it.

Demonstrators protest against the continued construction efforts of the Dakota Access pipeline, on Market Street outside the offices of the Army Corps of Engineers in San Francisco on Nov. 15. The company behind the pipeline, situated near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, is racing to finish the $3.7 billion project as thousands of protesters are vowing to stop it.

“People just showed up, grabbed a stick, and we split the teams up and played,” Thompson said. “To me, it was just about playing the game and having fun.”

Some of that was needed. The conflict over the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline has lasted for months, as Energy Transfer Partners, a Dallas-based company, attempts to finish construction of the 1,170-mile project. Native Americans, environmental activists and others have said that the pipeline, which would carry oil from North Dakota to Illinois, threatens the local water supply and would also harm sacred Native American grounds.

Interactions between law enforcement authorities and protesters hit a low point Sunday night, when water hoses were used to subdue protesters despite below-freezing temperatures. That night, a local sheriff’s department characterized the demonstration as an “ongoing riot,” releasing photos that it said showed protesters “setting fires and using aggressive tactics” while trying to dismantle a police barricade on Backwater Bridge, which has for months been the site of a protest against the pipeline. Meanwhile, Dallas Goldtooth — a spokesman for the Indigenous Environmental Network — said in an interview Monday that the Oceti Sakowin medical team, which had been working in tandem with medics from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, had reported that nearly 200 people were injured and 12 people were hospitalized for head injuries. One protester went into cardiac arrest and was revived by the medic team, he said.

Thompson said he kept positive as he made the trip to North Dakota. What he encountered there, he said, was peaceful.

“They’re coming together as people there to show support and that they’re all on the same mission,” Thompson said.

UAlbany athletic director Mark Benson said the university was aware Marr, UAlbany’s coach since the 2001 season, had made the trip to North Dakota.

People are shown after playing in lacrosse games Tuesday on the grounds of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Former UAlbany men's lacrosse star Lyle Thompson (center, kneeling) and current UAlbany men's lacrosse head coach Scott Marr (fourth from left) helped to organize the games.

People are shown after playing in lacrosse games Tuesday on the grounds of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Former UAlbany men’s lacrosse star Lyle Thompson (center, kneeling) and current UAlbany men’s lacrosse head coach Scott Marr (fourth from left) helped to organize the games.

“We respect an individual’s rights to support their causes and spend their time doing that,” Benson said.

Marr has coached more than a dozen Native American players in the past several seasons, and said he’s expecting eight Native American players to be on his 2017 roster. He said there’s “no question” that experience played a role in his decision to head to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

“[But] my connection [to being there] is really with the [sport of lacrosse],” said Marr, who said a clinic he helped put on in Green Bay during the early 1990s for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin sparked his interest in the sport’s history. “I’ve been involved with the game since I was a little kid, and when I got older I got more interested in the history of the game and where it came from.”

Marr and Thompson ended up on the same team for Tuesday’s games of lacrosse. The coach and his former player each assisted on one goal for each other during the action, Marr said.

“He [also] had a couple more goals,” Marr said with a laugh about Thompson.

Shortly after the games concluded, Marr, Thompson and their group began to head back home. They expect to make it back to New York late tonight.

“I think our mission was accomplished,” Thompson said of the trip.

Marr agreed with that.

“It was definitely a moving experience to be a part of it,” said Marr, who lives in Clifton Park. “It was really special to be involved.”

Reach Gazette sportswriter Michael Kelly at 395-3109, mkelly@dailygazette.net or@ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

Material from The New York Times was included in this story.