The legend of Gaylord Powless — lacrosse savant

Lacrosse, in common with many indigenous inventions, has a creation story that nests legends within legends. 

On Wednesday, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame honoured a lacrosse legend in the modern sense — a player whose skills were legendary, and who was himself the son of a legendarily gifted player. We honour Gaylord Powless, the son of Ross Powless, lacrosse greats, both of them. The Powless family, of the Six Nations of the Grand River, have been famed lacrosse players for as long as anyone can tell.  There are 200 years of Powless family history at Six Nations. 

But Lacrosse, of course, is famously ancient — much older than any Hall of Fame, or for that matter, the country which celebrates one of its great athletes today.

So before we talk about Gaylord Powless the lacrosse player, we should back up just a little bit, and consider one of the many legends from the early days of lacrosse. We tell this story because Gaylord Powless would approve of it. He lived its morals every time he played. And we tell it because it is a Seneca legend, one of the six Iroquois Nations who give the Grand River reserve its name, and Powless his home.

Too angry a spirit

"The Strange Penalty Box" tells us about ancestors travelling to a beautiful rich land, of flowers, trees, fruit and plump animals for the hunting. The travellers meet people there who are playing lacrosse. One of the players is being far too rough: slashing, hacking, rude play. A spectator steps up and cautions this player that he is approaching the game in too angry a spirit. The advice is "one who is rejoicing in the pleasure of the game does not act this way."

The bad player ignores the warning, keeps at his angry and unpleasant game, and so the spectator comes out again, and picks him up by the legs and scruff of neck. He carries him off the field, and throws him straight through a thick tree trunk, so that he is stuck in the middle of it, with his head out one side, watching the game carry on without him, and his feet out the other - a strange penalty box indeed. The game continues without the mean player, and it becomes a great and joyous lacrosse session. After the game, the man pulls him back out of the tree and admonishes him to play nice.

Gaylord Powless lived that old Seneca story.

When he was very young, 12 or so, he was already an obviously gifted player. But at that age, he himself was a hothead. If he was insulted, which he certainly was in those racist days in the early 1960s, he would defend himself. He spent far too many minutes in penalty boxes. His father, Ross Powless was also a bad-tempered player early in his game. But Ross's lesson to his son was that even a rough, full-contact sport can be played fairly. Gaylord worked at this ideal, and in learning to control his anger, he got himself on a path to becoming one of the greatest players of all time.

Throughout his career, as player and coach, Gaylord Powless learned to ignore taunts, and absorb unfair hits. This was not because he wanted to become a saint. This was strategy. If Gaylord Powless could play clean when being fouled, the other team would get a penalty. His team would get a power play. And if Gaylord Powless' team, whether amateur or professional, was on the power play, then it was a sure bet the opposing goalie would be having a busy day.

Growing up in Six Nations of the Grand River, with Ross Powless as his father and coach, meant every day of young Gaylord's life was a master class in "Boxla" as the indoor game is often called. Ross Powless by then had won the Tom Longboat (winner of the 1907 Boston Marathon) award twice, honouring him as the best native athlete in the country. He was in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame by 1969.  When Gaylord joined him there in 1990, they became the only father and son players to do so. 

Impressed famed coach

At 16 years old, Gaylord's virtuosic play caught the attention of famed lacrosse coach Jim Bishop. It took a mountain of paper work and permission seeking before Bishop was allowed to draft so young a player, but at 16, Gaylord moved off reservation, alone, to play for the Oshawa Green Gaels.

Grade 11 was not on easy academic time for a boy obsessed with sport, but he took solace from a close friend and classmate there in Oshawa. A fellow named Bobby Orr. Gaylord's sister, Audrey Powless-Bomberry, remembers a time when Gaylord brought Orr back to the reserve for a big dinner event. Audrey served Orr that night. Her brother told her afterward that Orr said "she was pretty cute." If you were a teenage girl in Canada in 1967, that is probably about the best possible story to have up your sleeve.

Did we mention that Gaylord was the oldest of 14 Powless kids? Gaylord's mom, Wilma Bomberry was perhaps the unsung hero of his life. I am just going to say for the record, the Powlesses can tell stories.  Gaylord's slightly younger sister, Gail Powless-Ayres has a classic about those days. She says Gaylord always had the last word about who, among lacrosse players, she or her sisters could date (being Powlesses, they were going to have to be dating lacrosse players).

So Gail says, 50 years later, she is at an Oshawa sports hall of fame dinner, where 10 Oshawa Green Gael teammates were among those honouring her brother. Group photo time: the camera guy urges them all to scooch in closer for the shot … at which point a teammate from 1967 whispers, "Gaylord would have NEVER let us get this close to his sister."

A champion

Powless immediately led his Junior A lacrosse team to the national championship. And he did that four years in a row from 1963-67. He won the national skill and sportsmanship trophy while he did it, and the MVP awards. He set national records for scoring and assists and his career stats are all at the lacrosse halls of fame. Basically, he won every honour in the game. The numbers tell you Gaylord was great, but they don't reveal the extraordinary style of the man's play.

Bruce Todman suffered four years of "getting the snot kicked out of us" playing against Gaylord. But he also enjoyed another six years as a teammate. He said Powless was the most efficient player he ever encountered. 

"Most players get the ball and start running immediately. Gaylord? He would take two steps, see the floor, and he would have his next two moves mapped," says Todman. "He also knew that he would always draw two defenders, which would create an open man, and that would be Gaylord's pass … [with] the great athletes, it always looks like the play slows down for them. That was Gaylord. It all happened at his pace."

His sister Audrey says it was poetry watching him play. She says Gaylord would pass and pass and pass the ball until the moment came to change the game. She saw him once approaching a net and getting checked hard, which he hadn't quite seen coming. He got clobbered. But on his way down to the ground, he still had the reflex and coordination to fire a shot dead on target. Goal. That one made the papers.

Richard Powless saw his brother make a shot during the Oshawa years that still amazes him, 50 years later. Gaylord was running away from the goal, with his back to it. He had a defender on either shoulder. So the almost-predictable, reverse-over-the-shoulder shot was not an option. Instead, Gaylord rifled the ball straight back down between his own feet, where it caromed off the ground and buried top shelf in the net. Even the goalie had to admire that. Almost impossible.

Uncanny instincts

People say Powless' instincts for the game were uncanny. He was not the strongest player in the field, but he had the most unerring accuracy. He bent shots long before David Beckham. And he was never a goal hog. His teammates always said, if they could spot an opening on the floor, Gaylord would snap the ball into their stick's webbing the instant they found the opening. Chuck Miller is the chair of the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame. He knew Gaylord for at least 20 years. When he says a player is "crafty" you just know that is about the highest praise he can offer. The first thing he told me about Gaylord's play was that he was unbelievably crafty.

"He always got there the quickest way possible," Miller says. "He was really hard to check because he was so crafty."

Teammates called him crafty. Opponents had saltier terms for him. Even when they knew it was coming, Gaylord Powless had more unexpected and tricky moves than anyone could counter. Shots came from everywhere: up, down, backwards. His daughter Gaylene told me that playing tricks was one of the constant joys of her dad's life. He couldn't help himself.

"If you looked away at dinner, there would be a surprising hit of horseradish in your potatoes," Gaylene says. "He'd take me hunting, you know, I'm six or seven years old and I'd look away and he'd disappear.  I'd look everywhere and he'd be hidden … to see if I could find my own way out of the woods. 'I am trying to teach you a sense of direction,' he'd say, but I'm a child running around lost and he's laying in the weeds watching and laughing."

Some guy named Gordie

In 1968 Gaylord Powless turned pro. He joined the Detroit Olympians. You can tell something about an athlete by the company he keeps. Gaylord made a new pal while playing in Detroit: A guy by the name of Gordie Howe. Gaylord personally taught how how to play Lacrosse. Howe was a natural, according to Gaylord.

The finances of league lacrosse were precarious then. Teams folded with depressing frequency. Powless was forced to become nomadic. It wasn't a case of him quitting teams, so much as teams falling apart all around him. By 1977 he had played for squads in Montreal, Detroit, Syracuse, Rochester, Portland, Brantford, Brampton and Coquitlam, B.C. 

When the National Lacrosse League finally started up, he just did not care for it: too much razzle dazzle and loud music. Not enough focus on the game. Powless was always a wooden lacrosse stick man. They used metal and plastic sticks in the NLL. Powless called those sticks "tupperware." He liked the old school.

There is a perfect fleeting moment in the middle of Powless' fabled career. His brother Richard talks about a 1974 North American Indigenous Lacrosse Tournament held in Nanaimo, B.C. Six Nations fielded a team that happened to have the six Powless brothers on it. Ross Powless was the coach. As it happened, there were two shifts in which all six of them were playing at the same time, with their dad at the helm. They won the whole tournament, which is almost beside the point.

Lacrosse is no game for old men. At 30 years of age, Gaylord was so banged up that it was time to retire from professional play. He had started at 16. With the injuries he sustained, 14 years was enough. Gaylord Powless retired with exactly 1,000 career goals and assists.

The end of highly competitive play was not the end of lacrosse for Gaylord. He coached to the end of his life. Miller has nothing but praise for his coaching.

"He was always interested in making sure that everyone had a chance to play and that his teams were competitive. He was a real gentleman whenever I dealt with him. If any of his players got suspended or anything, he was mad at the player who got suspended, not at the committee that suspended him. He made sure players listened to him. If they did something wrong he explained exactly what it was."

"[He was] not an intimidating coach at all. He was soft spoken because he wanted to make sure his message got across. Yelling at kids? That doesn't make them listen any more. He always tried to teach discipline to his players. If you suck it up, we get the power play."

Lacrosse defined Powless family

Gaylene Powless confirms that lacrosse defined her family.

"I grew up in an arena. I still live there. There were sticks and balls everywhere in the home, and people constantly coming and going to ask dad what he thought about this or that aspect of league lacrosse. But the whole time, he was fully a family and close-friends man. He had a rich full life apart from lacrosse too."

Somewhere in the ancient past, when legends and certifiable history get muddled up, wagering became an important part of lacrosse. It tied the entire society into the sport. The items that were bet and bartered were usually hand crafted objects of great skill and beauty.  The losers would be able to make these objects again, and for the winners, the newly won items would help spread the knowledge of different manufacturing techniques. Everyone benefitted from that.

Perhaps better known to people across North America is that lacrosse was always a fierce game. In the Mohawk language, lacrosse is Tewaarathon – "the little brother of war." But it is helpful to understand that if lacrosse was an injurious game, as a war proxy it also saved a lot of lives. A lacrosse game could avert worse conflict. Lacrosse built ties and healed grudges between nations. Gaylord Powless was lacrosse personified.

We learn of Gaylord Powless's induction into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday. The date is not coincidentally, 88 days before the North American Indigenous Games in Toronto. The number 88 matters because that clause in the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations says:

"We call upon all levels of government to take action to ensure long-term Aboriginal athlete development and growth, and continued support for the North American Indigenous Games, including funding to host the games and for provincial and territorial team preparation and travel."

The Powless family has done more than any other to promote and nurture the game that is at the heart of Indigenous sport. And they have done so with extraordinary grace and humility. Gaylord's daughter Michelle Powless-Anderson still tears up with pride when she sees her father's No. 15 on her own son's jerseys. David Ross Anderson is 16 years old. He has had NCAA offers for his lacrosse game. He was just drafted to the London Knights of the OHL. Gaylord's granddaughter, Rachel Anderson just tried out for a lacrosse team for the very first time — an elite organization, and she made selects. Surprised her mom, but probably no one else, when she won the coach's award for hardest working, best sport. She's 12 years old.

We say that Gaylord Powless was a legendary player of a legendary sport. When his daughter Gaylene was young, that came as a surprise.

One last quick story: 

"I did not know he was a famous guy," says Gaylene. "I thought he was just a fisherman and hunter and the best cook I knew. The first time I knew dad was famous, we were getting groceries, and he pulled out his status card to get the tax taken off. A young guy behind us saw the name on the card and said 'You're Gaylord Powless! Oh My God! I am your biggest fan. I watched you play growing up. I wish I could have your autograph!'

"So, my dad was wearing a Brantford old timers lacrosse hat, and he asked the cashier for a marker, took his hat off, signed it and gave it to the guy, who was thrilled. Meantime, I am eight years old thinking, 'dad, you just gave your hat away!' I went home and told mum about it. And she said: 'Yeah. He is kind of a big deal.'"