By Doug Gorman
Anyone driving past M.D. Roberts Middle School in Jonesboro on a Thursday afternoon this spring is likely to see a group of youngsters playing a strange game.
It has all the elements of soccer and hockey, and since the participants wear shoulder pads and helmets, they look a little bit like they could be preparing to play in a Pop Warner football game.
That's where the similarities stop.
These young men are playing lacrosse?a game that's been around in some form for centuries, but is still a mystery to many in Georgia.
Lacrosse is played on a large field, where players attempt to use a pocketed stick to throw a hard-rubber ball into a goal.
Each team consists of 10 players, including a goalie.
Hand-eye coordination is one of the most important aspects of the game, as players must catch and throw the ball as they work their way down field.
Native Americans are credited with developing lacrosse, not so much as a sport, but as a matter of self defense during times of war.
It eventually grew into the game it is today. The sport is especially popular in Canada and in parts of the United States.
It's just now beginning to catch on here in the south.
Nigel Augustin has spent the past two years introducing the game to youngsters in the Southern Crescent.
"I love this sport," he said. "Ever since I first saw it, I knew I wanted to be involved."
However, it's been an up-hill battle for Augustin, who was bitten by the lacrosse bug when he was attending college in upstate New York.
Still, Augustin has found enough interest he now coaches a 12-and-under boys' team.
There is a catch. Since Augustin's team only has six members from this area, they have merged with a team from Tucker.
The two squads practice separately and only come together as a team on game days?which are on Saturday. The unorthodox practice schedule hasn't hurt the team as it's already won a couple of games.
There is no home-field advantage for members from the Southern Crescent since all the games are played on the northside of town.
That hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the dedicated team members or their parents.
Richard Holmes played the game in high school, but never intended to introduce the sport to his son Michael, since he assumed it didn't exist in Georgia.
"I was already to sign my son up for baseball when I saw Nigel was trying to get a league started," Richard Holmes said. "I was thrilled."
Lacrosse has been popular in the northern part of the United States for years. It's a sanctioned sport by the NCAA for both men and women, and there's even a professional league for men.
It's also been played at the high school level for years in many parts of the country.
However, it wasn't until transplanted northerners began settling in Atlanta that leagues began to form in Georgia.
Now, the sport is very popular on the north side of Atlanta. The Georgia High School Association even recongnizes the sport at the high school level, but there are still only a handful of teams.
Augustin is hoping for a lacrosse explosion on the southside.
"I think once people discover this sport, they will fall in love with it," he said. "It took soccer awhile to enjoy its tremendous growth, so there's always hope."
Eric Newell had never played lacrosse before joining the team, but as a hockey player he picked up lacrosse quickly.
"It is very similar to hockey," he said. "There is a lot of contact involved in both."
Ian Wright read about lacrosse in a book on Native American customs and played it at a summer camp in Maine.
When he returned to Georgia, he told his mother he wanted to join a lacrosse league.
That was about the time Augustin was starting his lacrosse program two years ago.
"It's an exhilarating sport," said Wright, an articulate youngster from Henry County.
"I love the contact, and just everything about this game."
Michael Holmes is glad his father introduced him to the game.
"It's a fun sport," he said.
"There is a lot of contact."
Kendall Augustin, the son of the coach, has played football and basketball, but has shown a real affinity for lacrosse too.
"I love the speed of the game," he said.
Although lacrosse is considered a contact sport, the coach says youth leagues emphasize other aspects of the game.
Richard Holmes agreed.
"At this level players concentrate more on stick handling and other fundamentals of the game," Holmes said. "Contract is downplayed, although it is part of the game."
Like with most contact sports, players are well protected. Shoulder and arms pads are worn, as well as a helmet with a caged visor to protect the face.
Goalies also wear a chest protector.
Those who see the game for the first time often come away impressed by the speed.
"It's called the fastest game on two feet," said Richard Holmes.
Although like any sport, playing lacrosse can get expensive, Augustin has worked a deal to keep the coast under $150.
That includes a stick and some other equipment.
He is also looking for players to join his boys' 12-and-under team.
Anyone interested in learning more about the program or sport, can go by M.D. Roberts Middle School located on Walt Stephens Road in Jonesboro on Thursday afternoons.
The team usually begins practice at 5 p.m.
"I just want to see this program grow," Augustine said. "It's a really fun sport."