Torch gets passed to Jamieson

Cody Jamieson. Photo by Graig Abel/NLL

How much of a sure thing is Cody Jamieson? On Wednesday night, Gary Gait, the greatest player in the history of professional lacrosse, showed up in Toronto, handed Jamieson his storied No. 22 jersey, and drove back to Syracuse, N.Y. On the way home, Gait called it quits to his playing career.

The torch had officially been passed.

They call Jamieson many things these days, all of them complimentary. The next great lacrosse pro. The pride of the Six Nations community in southern Ontario. The future of the game. Boxing used to look for the Great White Hope; Jamieson is touted as the first aboriginal superstar of the modern era. He’s expected to become one of the game’s all-time great scorers, mentioned in the same breath as Gait, John Grant and John Tavares. Only 23, Jamieson has been outperforming the world’s best lacrosse players on the amateur stage for years.

It would have been easy for Jamieson to make the jump to the pro game early because he fit all the stereotypes: big family, struggled with school, great at lacrosse. He was selected by the Rochester Knighthawks with the first overall pick in the National Lacrosse League entry draft on Wednesday; his talent level is so high that he would have gone No. 1 if he’d decided to enter the NLL draft when he was 18.

But for years, while the native community looked up to him and the league eagerly anticipated his arrival, Jamieson kept them waiting. Jamieson’s had to fight off overwhelmingly large expectations for four years while he chased a goal that was simple, yet perhaps loftier – and arguably more important: to become the first member of his family to graduate from college.

He’s heralded as the next great professional lacrosse player, and a representative of the aboriginal community that is sometimes defined by the sport. But he’s also the latest in a new breed of Six Nations athletes who are serious, dedicated and committed to capitalizing on their opportunities. So pro lacrosse waited, while Jamieson fought stereotypes, history and bureaucracy to get his degree.

He’s taking it one step further. Jamieson is in his last semester at Syracuse University, where Paul and Gary Gait established themselves as Canada’s first lacrosse superstars. He’ll graduate in December with a degree in communications, the second time he’ll walk out of a post-secondary institution with a piece of paper in has hand. It’s not hard to see which accomplishment he cherishes more: finishing school or getting drafted.

It’s special to do it on my own terms, after getting both my degrees,” Jamieson said. “I’m the first person in my whole family. Getting my degree is really important, and I did it my way.”

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Jamieson’s way wasn’t the route most easily taken. Heavily recruited in high school by U.S. college coaches, Jamieson struggled to get his grades up to par. He wanted to go to Syracuse University, but was academically ineligible. So he enrolled at Onondaga Community College, located not far from his university of choice, to better his marks. While at the community college, he was the National Junior College Athletic Association’s leading scorer, and was the MVP in leading the Lazers to two national championships.

But when it came time to transfer to Syracuse for his final two years of eligibility, Jamieson hit a roadblock: he had to get approval for the credits he earned at Onondaga in order to be eligible to play in the NCAA. That process ended up taking almost a year; in the meantime, the whispers began that he should stop chasing that degree and taken his considerable talent to the pro game.

Jamieson didn’t appreciate the rumblings; he saw them as a reflection on his heritage, and on his commitment.

“It’s a stereotypical thing, thinking that would happen,” he said. “It downgraded my character.”

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The common thread that runs through Jamieson’s story is his uncle, Curt Styres. A successful businessman from Six Nations, Styres is committed to family, his community and lacrosse. In 2002, he became a part-owner of the Six Nations Jr. A Arrows; in 2004 he helped build the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena, a one-of-a-kind lacrosse-specific arena. That year, Six Nations kicked off a renewal of its athletics programs that drove players to be more than teenage sports stars.

Players began practising year-round, and were encouraged to take what the game offered. As a result, all of the community teams began improving with multiple appearances in national championships at every level. At the same time, players realized there were opportunities to combine athletics and education. In 2004, only two local players were on NCAA scholarships; now, Styres said, half the players on the Arrows have moved on to university. It’s a heady list of accomplishments for a community with 20,000 residents.

“It changed the way we thought about lacrosse,” Jamieson said of Styres’ programs. “We started thinking about it the whole year, showing us we can have fun and work hard. Hard work beats talent; in our dressing room we said, ‘Talent and hard work beat talent.’ ”

“I think the program we’ve implemented has taken off into different directions,” Styres said. “The bottom line is what we taught the kids: work hard for what you want, what you see and where you want to go. We didn’t re-invent the wheel, we just put the tools there. It’s still up to those people to take those tools and use them.”

Few people embraced those tools like Jamieson. Delby Powless, another former NLL No. 1 draft pick, plays with Jamieson during the summer months with the Six Nations Chiefs senior team. Powless believes Jamieson is the first of a new breed of player coming out of Six Nations.

“He’s a different kind of player than most Six Nations guys are,” Powless said. “They’re not usually as physically gifted as him. He has a stronger lower body, and he’s faster. That’s something that’s rare when it comes to Six Nations players. But he still possesses those great stick skills. One thing that really sets him apart from other guys from Six Nations is he does everything at top speed.”

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It was late in 2009 before Jamieson finally got NCAA approval to start playing for the Orangemen. His first game was a road game against the University of Massachusetts in the penultimate regular-season game for Syracuse. Jamieson’s between-the-legs goal in the semi-final game against Johns Hopkins found its way onto YouTube.

“I was so pumped up the first game I got to travel to UMass,” he said. “The whole bus ride down, I was smiling.”

It was one stop on a highly enjoyable journey that season for Jamieson and Syracuse’s lacrosse program. It ended on Memorial Day weekend in front of 41,000 fans, when Jamieson capped a late-game comeback by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime against Cornell to give the Orangemen the NCAA title.

“It worked out to the best in the end,” he said.

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Powless knows the personal burden of being highly touted in a community where lacrosse is woven into the fabric of society. Powless was selected by the NLL Buffalo Bandits in 2005; he played five full seasons before being released a game into the 2010 season.

“I think it definitely helps having family surrounding you, (although) that pressure adds to it,” Powless said of his community’s passion for lacrosse. “The pressure and the people watching you isn’t always a positive.”

Jamieson thinks he’s ready to face that homegrown pressure. It’s a challenge that permeates almost every part of life in Six Nations; how to succeed in the outside world while staying true to your roots.

The Kawenni:io Gaweni:yo school holds year-round activities like language workshops and longhouse dance classes designed to teach pupils about the traditional way of life. This year, it will begin teaching lacrosse to students for two hours a day.

“Playing lacrosse for us is everything,” Jamieson said on the eve of the draft. “We look at it in a different way, even when we pick up a stick. For us, lacrosse is just more than it is for everyone else. It’s the things lacrosse has taught us. It’s taught me to control my attitude, to be humble, to adjust my attitude towards others.”

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Jamieson’s entry into professional lacrosse on Wednesday couldn’t have been more dramatic. After his name was called out as the first overall selection, he was greeted on stage by Gary Gait, the greatest player to grace the NLL. Gait came out of retirement to join the Knighthawks two years ago; Jamieson is likely to take his place on the roster. And when Gait gave Jamieson the jersey with the No. 22 on it – the same number Gait wore his entire career, and the number that both wore at Syracuse – it was like Wayne Gretzky greeting Taylor Hall at the NHL entry draft and handing him a jersey with No. 99 stitched on the back.

“When I saw him coming up, I was surprised,” Jamieson said. “Any time he’s even in the same room as you, you get taken aback. It definitely made the day more memorable.”

While the presence of Gary Gait made for good spectacle, Jamieson took away something more significant.

“I think this means more to the Six Nations community than it does to the rest of the lacrosse world,” he said of Six Nations’ history of top draft picks (Jamieson is the fourth No. 1 pick from Six Nations in the 22-year history of the league). “We pride ourselves on what the Creator gave us. He gave us lacrosse and we’re sharing it with the world.

“Having that many No. 1 picks for such a small community shows how much the game means to us.”