Quint: When Vail Was King

Published Monday July 6th, 2020

By Quint Kessenich

If you play in the Vail Lacrosse Shootout long enough, you'll see it all.

I've had teammates disappear, wreck their bikes and bodies barreling down the mountain, with road rash too severe to suit up and play. I've seen teammates scorched by sun, covered with blisters and unable to move. I've seen a few arrested for public drunkeness, and booted off the roster. I've seen many overindulge and render themselves worthless on the field. I've seen altitude sickness, food poisoning, cotton mouth, cramps and dehydration that makes cowards of us all. I've heard hammies pop like guitar strings. I've played amongst the worst officiating ever. Like the TV show, "The Crocodile Hunter," the perils of participation are plenty. Those who behaved moderately, they faired well. That's the lingering lesson.

Vail is snow-covered peaks, big skies, aspen petals fluttering in the breeze, a scorching sun, thin dry air, the sound of whistles, distant cheering, endless Dave Mathews songs on the PA, the smells of sunscreen, icy hot and teen spirit. It's sunglasses, bikini tops, a pole goal, morning coffee on the deck with a view, ice tub sessions in the Gore Creek, Nick's power hour, breakfast at Wimbledon, white water rafting and beers in the jacuzzi. It's making new friends from across the country, fireworks and striking out at the Red Lion. It's stinging corners with liquid smoke, the walk of shame, throwing a BTB into the creek, grilling stream-side, smiles, hugs and high-fives.


(Images from archived Vail Lacrosse Shootout programs.)

However, there was no Vail Lacrosse Shootout this July Fourth weekend.

The festival started in Aspen in 1973 and was founded by Flip Naumburg and Jim Soran. After making its permanent move to Vail in 1979, the tournament blossomed.

Before the MLL Summer Showcase in 2000 and long before the PLL, Vail attracted the top post-collegiate talent in the world. All the stars played Vail. Teams like the Mount Washington Tavern, Philadelphia MAB Paints, the Greene Turtle, NYAC, FCA and Team Toyota threw money at the event, trying to build dream squads. Their lineups equate favorably to a pro roster. Team USA and Canada used this tournament as a stepping stone before the World Championships. Vail was king.

College undergrads rarely made the trek. The trip was too expensive and most weren't good enough to crack a lineup. Plus, their fake IDs didn't work on Bridge Street. Northeasterners like Gerry Byrne realized that they weren't on Hempstead Turnpike anymore.

"Seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time is seared into my memory," Byrne says. "For Long Islanders, Hunter or the Catskills were our definition of a “mountain.” The Rockies were something you saw in National Geographic Magazine. Driving into Vail Pass was a near religious experience and drew me back at least 10 times to play.”

Byrne would spend his free time biking the “back bowls” with his brother Steve while playing in both the Open and Masters Divisions.

I played in Vail maybe six times — I don't remember. My first taste was in 1990 after graduation, when I arrived with $200 in my pocket for the week. And like a hummingbird, I've returned every summer. I came for the lacrosse and come back for the hiking, biking, food, scenery, Fourth of July parade, golf, trail runs and serene mountain air.

I miss talking with Flip — always fascinating and a real-life Yoda. And I do remember the wonderful treatment people like Ted Bauer, Bill Packo, Ralph Davy and Jay Pivec provided. Thank you. They built the brotherhood.

Bill Daye played goalie for MAB, winning the title in 1993, a year that it snowed on July Fourth. "The camaraderie off the field is the essence of Vail. You compete during the day and enjoy the evening with not just your teammates, but opponents, as well."

"Playing on those MAB teams were awesome," Byrne says. "Tom Bruder, the CEO of MAB Paints, would bus the team to the Country Club of the Rockies the night before the championship for surf and turf. That was a big deal, a long way from Beefsteak Charlie’s."

The fellowship extends to families.

"The Class of 1991 Brown Lacrosse parents showed up in Vail," Lars Tiffany says. "The Bears went undefeated (13-0) during the regular season (1991) and entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed. Upset in the Quarterfinals by Maryland, the senior players were not the only ones in shock their season and careers were over. Unable to attend the Final Four together, many of the parents made a pact to join their sons out in Vail in July."

The tournament format favors those who keep winning. Losing meant you'd be slotted into an 8:00 a.m. face-off. These early games have been deleted from all records to protect the innocent. They often became a travesty of a mockery of a sham. Winning meant that you would play at noon or two the next afternoon, which gave the athletes time to sleep, visit the hot tub, rehydrate and develop a game plan.

The tournament was the first to utilize a shot clock, had television coverage and now has an economic impact for the town of Vail worth $3.3 million dollars annually. It draws more than 13,000 lacrosse players ages 17-70, plus coaches, tournament staff, officials and fans from the entire country — 100 teams across eight men's and women's divisions compete each summer.

"When you’re young, it’s about winning," said Byrne. "You're there for rivalries, ego, status and stature. When you get older and go with the wife and kids, it’s about the beauty of the place and the community of lacrosse intersecting."

This summer, Vail is a ghost town. Nobody wants to fly. The gondola opened on July 1, except they aren't hauling bikes and the kids activities on top of the mountain are closed. Ford Field isn't lined. The rugrats, lax bros and gimpy grandmasters will have to wait. There is no spiritual gathering.

Let's hope the pandemic pause is merely a blip on the Vail timeline.