On this Sunday in May, the U.S. Olympic men's field hockey team—don't say it—is playing the New York City-based Islanders at John Adams High in Queens. John Adams may be in an unfortunate neighborhood—the main entrance to the field is a hole in the fence—but the school is fortunate enough to have an artificial-turf field. Because the Olympic field hockey matches will be played on rugs, and because John Adams isn't far from Kennedy Airport, this is the Olympic team's last stop before it heads for two months of competition in Europe.
About 60 spectators are seated in the rickety bleachers, and carefully seated at that, so as to avoid the occasional shard of broken glass. Smoke from the burning rubber of a neighborhood drag race gets in their eyes.
And now and then the game must be stopped because the hockey field—usually it serves as a soccer or football field—is also right field of an adjacent baseball diamond on which St. Anthony's Parish CYO team is practicing. Eventually the Olympic coach, whose name, no kidding, is Gavin Featherstone, strides over to the baseball practice and asks the players if they wouldn't mind making sure no more balls interrupt the field hockey game. Some jawing ensues. Then Featherstone walks away, and the baseball practice swings around toward left. "I appealed to their sense of reason," explains Featherstone, who turns out to be more stone than feather. "That didn't seem to work, so I used my industrial language, and told them if another ball came over onto the field, we'd come over there with our sticks."
Artie, a coach of the St. Anthony's baseball team, tells his side of the story. "What are we s'posed to do, roll over and play dead just 'cause they're the Olympic field hockey team? Hey, if they'da put a big sign up saying, 'Olympic Team Here Today,' we wouldn'ta come. But ya know how hard it is to get a field around here ever since they tore up the fields over on Lefferts? My kids are in school during the week. The coaches work. What are we s'posed to do?"
July 17, 1984
As the incident at John Adams indicates, there aren't many folks chanting "USA! USA!" for the Olympic men's field hockey team. In fact, its very existence remains a mystery to most Americans. As Joe, a bellhop at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, told John Greer, President of the Field Hockey Association of America, "I didn't even know the guys had a team."
Yes, the guys have a team.
No, they do not have to wear skirts.
Yes, they are any good.
No, none of them is named Muffy.
Contrary to what might be expected, men's field hockey in the U.S. has a long, if not exactly rich, history. American men have competed in the Olympics in field hockey four times: in 1932, 1936, 1948 and 1956. They even won a bronze medal in the '32 Games in Los Angeles although, if you must know, there were only three nations participating in the sport that year.
This year the U.S. men got into the Olympic competition through a hole in the fence—the host country is entitled to enter a team in every sport. Given the obscurity of men's field hockey in America, the U.S. team should be a laughingstock—unlike the American women's team, which has a good shot at the bronze. "Three years ago, men's field hockey in this country was a joke," says Featherstone. But since taking over in 1982, he has raised the U.S. team's stock from laughing to smirking to surprising.
There won't be any Miracle on Artificial Turf at the L.A. Games, but recently America lost to the world's best team, Australia, by the relatively narrow scores of 8-2 and 4-2, and to the No. 3-rated nation, Holland, 2-0 and 2-0. The Dutch were so frustrated, in fact, that several of them were given yellow cards, usually a temporary suspension for unsportsmanlike behavior.
The U.S. team is really an extraordinary bunch, made up of players with a wide range of ages, nationalities and backgrounds. Of the two goalies, for instance, one is a Jewish street hockey player, the other a black belt in karate who was so impressive as an aerobics instructor in a studio owned by the team doctor that the doctor asked him to come out for the squad. Three of the players are 17 years old, two are 32 and another is a father of four. The team includes a Harvard physics major, a break dancer, preppies and rednecks. The players' parents come from Trinidad, Pakistan, India, Puerto Rico, West Germany and Great Britain, but only three members of the team were born outside the U.S. Some of their names are almost magical: Nigel Traverso, Trevor Fernandes, Morgan Stebbins, Mohammed Barakat, Rawle Cox and Manzar Iqbal. Featherstone is only 31 and will be one of the youngest U.S. coaches at the Olympic Games.
No wonder the team is a well-kept secret. After all, there are only about 2,000 male field hockey players in the U.S., and they are concentrated in places like Ventura County, Calif.; Philadelphia; northern New Jersey; Orlando, Fla.; and the prep-pie spawning grounds in Westchester County, N.Y. and along Connecticut's Gold Coast. Field hockey in the U.S. is basically the province of high school girls and college women. That's why the men hear time and time again, "I didn't know the guys had a team."
In the rest of the world, field hockey is the No. 2 male team sport, in number of participants, behind soccer. Hockey is treated so seriously in India that after a team from the subcontinent finished seventh in the 1976 Olympics, the goalie for the Indian team, Ashok Dewan, returned home to find that his house had been stoned. And they say Philadelphia is a tough place to play.
The origins of field hockey have been traced to the ancient Egyptians. The sport is depicted in a drawing done more than 4,000 years ago on a tomb at Beni Hasan in the Nile Valley. No, the players weren't wearing knee socks. Persians, Greeks and Romans passed on some variation of the game. South American Indians played something like it, probably with the heads of their enemies. A 600-year-old window in Canterbury Cathedral shows a small boy hitting a ball with a crooked stick. The game has gone by a variety of names—pele-mele, hawkie, shinnops and doddorts—before hockey, which is probably derived from the word hocquet, Old French for a shepherd's crook.
Field hockey players are devoted. In March of 1966, Francis Edward Darcus, a 75-year-old tobacco planter from Blantyre, Malawi, was buried with his stick in his coffin because, as he used to say, "My field hockey stick and I will never be parted."
Field hockey players are tough. In 1964, Padam Singh, a Sikh army engineer working deep in the Himalayas, was jumped by a tiger late in the evening. In the ensuing battle, Singh beat the tiger to death with his field hockey stick.
Field hockey players are poetic. The following lines are from a poem entitled Welcome To Hockey, written by Anonymous in 1901:
When sticks fly up and crack thin heads,
When knees are getting crocky,
When stricken thousands seek their beds-
What game is there like Hockey?
Field hockey players are sometimes famous. King Constantine of Greece was once one of the best in his country, and the former President of Nigeria, Yakubu Gowon, was quite a player. Former Secretary of the Navy (1974-77), J. William Middendorf II, was in a bully (face-off) or two. And what better representative could the sport have than the late Boris Karloff, who played hockey as a youth and loved to watch it in his autumn years.
Whether or not Featherstone is starting a trend toward field hockey, it helps to know something about the sport, the rules of which are identical for men and women. It's a little like lacrosse, a little like ice hockey and a lot like soccer. There are 11 players on a side, two goals 100 yards apart, two 35-minute halves and very limited substitution. The sticks are made of mulberry wood, flat on one side, rounded on the other, and a player can use only the flat side to hit the ball, which is the size of a baseball. Like a baseball, it's cork and twine inside and covered with white leather, but if given your preference, choose a baseball to be hit with. A well-struck hockey ball travels 120 mph.
There are some basic rules. The man with the ball can never turn his back to his defender. The defender must play the ball and not the man. Goals can only be made from within the scoring semicircle in front of the net, which is half the width of a soccer goal. Actually, field hockey is quite easy to follow, fun to watch and good for you, too.
The game came to the U.S. in 1901, thanks to Constance M.K. Applebee, a British physical education teacher who taught it to women at Mount Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley. Although men's field hockey was included in the Olympics in 1908, U.S. men paid it no mind until the late '20s. During those years John Greer's father, Henry, whose wife had coached the sport in England, organized strictly social games in the Rye, N.Y. area. Then, with 1932 and a chance to field a team in the first Los Angeles Olympics approaching, players on the Atlantic seaboard began training in earnest.
Two of them were David McMullin and Junie Sheaffer of Philadelphia, and both of these natty gentlemen recently came out to see the 1984 squad play an exhibition match in their city, at Temple University.
"I learned hockey by playing something called shinny at The Episcopal Academy here," said McMullin, 76, who serves as a consultant for the John Wanamaker department store. "Now, that was a damn rough game. We'd play it in an enclosed courtyard with sticks and a ball about the size of a squash ball. Went through a pair of sneakers a week."
Sheaffer, 79, a retired insurance salesman, recalled, "Henry Greer came down with a team from New York to play an exhibition game in the Atlantic City Auditorium, and wouldn't you know, our team—we had a bunch of lacrosse players from Baltimore with us—won 1-0. That's when we decided we were going to try to go to L.A."
Sheaffer, McMullin and Greer were all on the 1932 U.S. team. In its first match of the Games, it lost to Japan 9-2. And then the U.S. had to face India, which hadn't been scored on in the 1928 Olympics. McMullin thinks it was Sheaffer who scored the only U.S. goal, although other accounts had a forward named Boddington doing the honors. Sheaffer doesn't remember who scored, although he does recall that Boddington once got to the floor of the Grand Canyon by going hand-over-hand down a water pipe.
"Of course, the Indians then proceeded to score 19 goals on us," said McMullin, "and we lost 24-1." That left the U.S. with the bronze medal and a few friendships with the Indians. "They were kind enough to share their skills with us," said Sheaffer.
McMullin and Sheaffer roomed together at the Berlin Olympics in '36. The most memorable part of those Games, at which the Americans lost all four matches they played in a field of 11 teams, was sailing to Germany on the same ship with Charles MacArthur and Helen Hayes.
Both McMullin and Sheaffer professed amazement at the skill of the latest U.S. team, which was beating an area club 10-0 on this particular afternoon at Temple. "I haven't seen the game since '36," said Sheaffer, "but this is nothing like the way we played it. I wonder what the hell we were doing."
American men's field hockey didn't exactly go into hibernation for the next 40 years, but it was confined to the country club sets in New York and Philadelphia. About the only noise a man made in the sport came in 1979 when James Bean, a senior at Mt. View High in Thorndike, Maine, went out for the girl's field hockey team. Bean voluntarily wore a kilt so as not to seem too out of place. About 10 years ago, a few clubs started up in Ventura County, and nowadays, if you wander the streets of towns like Moorpark, Simi Valley and Ventura during the spring, you'll see kids carrying hockey sticks and pads, not bats and gloves.
Two years ago, Featherstone arrived from England to take over the U.S. men's field hockey program. "Gavin came recommended to me by a player from England I had played against," says Allan Woods, the genial general secretary of the FHAA. "We brought him over for an interview and a try-out, we liked what we saw, and now he's made us into a contending team on an international level."
Featherstone is quite well known in British field hockey circles for his play as a defender on Britain's World Cup squad in 1978, but an auto accident wrecked his knee, cutting short his playing career. He has been kidded by his English field hockey colleagues about coaching the Americans. But ironically, Britain only qualified this year as a substitute for the boycotting Soviet team.
Featherstone has brought to the U.S. squad a rigorous training schedule and total indoctrination in the fundamentals of the game. He's also visiting schools constantly, carrying on a one-man crusade for field hockey. "These chaps had never even heard of Dhyan Chand," says Featherstone. Imagine. (Dhyan Chand of India was the Babe Ruth of field hockey, truly a Sultan of Swat.)
In the spring the U.S. team was using the facilities at Moorpark College, north of Los Angeles, and playing its games at East Los Angeles College, the Olympic venue. In a typical week, the players would run the obstacle course designed by Featherstone on Monday, lift weights on Tuesday, run up and down sand dunes on Wednesday—"I like to give my players an appreciation of coastal scenery," says Featherstone wryly—watch films on Thursday, and practice and play exhibitions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Featherstone yells just like a genuine American coach, although the words aren't quite the same. Here he is, during a scrimmage at East L.A. College: "Wake it up a bit, you look as if you're just going through the motions...it's slack and it's sloppy...attack and attack and attack...it's too individual...great hockey, good play...break, speed, don't carry the bleeding ball...scruffy."
The U.S. team, made up of 16 players and four alternates, was selected at trials in California in January. The players who made it came to field hockey for a variety of reasons. Some grew up playing the sport, others took it up on a dare, some found it quite by accident. There are many stories on the U.S. team, and here are just a few:
Bob Stiles, like most people, didn't know men's field hockey existed until the spring of 1983. He had played ice hockey back home in Chicago, but he was more interested in the martial arts. Stiles, 24, fell into the job teaching aerobic exercises, and it was his quickness and flexibility that made the team doctor think he would make an ideal goalie. Stiles turned out to be a quick study and made the Pan Am squad last summer.
"If you'd told me a year ago I'd be in the Olympics, I would've thought you were crazy," says Stiles. It's very disconcerting for opponents to see Stiles go through his karate exercises before a game and then stand and kick the 7-foot-high crossbar with one foot while the other is on the ground.
The other goalie, Randy Lipscher, 23, used to play with the Fair Lawn, N.J. Flyers, a locally competitive street hockey team. He discovered field hockey as an exchange student in Chile, and when he returned to the U.S., he joined the North Jersey Hockey Club, which plays in Peapack-Gladstone. On the national squad's Eastern swing this spring, Lipscher came back to his old stomping grounds as the goalie in the Olympic team's 5-1 victory in Paterson, N.J. over a squad from the Northeast Field Hockey Association.
Featherstone has a pair of players he refers to as Frank and Jesse James, Ken Barrett, 21, and Brian Spencer, 22. Both are from Southern California and took up field hockey as an offshoot of roller hockey. Spencer, a forward, is pugnacious and is forever getting into trouble, which makes him one of Featherstone's favorites. "He gets opponents so mad at him that they start paying too much attention to him and not enough to the other players," says Featherstone.
The oldest player on the team, at 32, is Fernandes, a forward. When he was younger, he played for the Indian national team. But he moved to the U.S., studied energy and technology at the University of Washington and gave up competitive field hockey for 10 years. "This team has come so far so fast. A year ago nobody thought much of U.S. hockey," says Fernandes, America's best stickhandler. "But already we're sending waves through Europe and Asia."
Drew Stone, 24, was an ice hockey player at The Taft School in Watertown, Conn. and upon graduation he went to London on a fellowship. He saw a notice for hockey practice at Dulwich College and mistakenly showed up with his ice hockey stick. But he tried it out and took to his new game, and when he went to Harvard, he captained the club there. He has taken a leave of absence from the graduate physics program at Harvard to play on the Olympic team. A defender, and at 6'3" and 190 pounds the biggest U.S. player, Stone has the hardest shot and the most patrician look of anyone on the team.
Barakat and Alvin Pagan, both 17, come from the same junior program in Ventura County. Except for his name, Barakat is the quintessential all-American boy. He's the quarterback of his high school football team and a star on the basketball team. "I used to play soccer on the fields next to the field hockey guys, and I really thought they were a bunch of wimps," says Barakat, a midfielder. "A guy came to school to try to get us to sign up for field hockey, and I really didn't have much interest. But my friends all signed up, and since I had nobody to play with anymore, I decided to join them." Barakat's high school coaches are a little upset that they lost one of their best players to field hockey. Pagan, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, has budding talent, both as a field hockey forward and as a break dancer. He's an alternate on the team.
In summer of '83 Scotty Gregg, 30, sold his house in Allentown, Pa., quit his job as dairy manager at the local Acme Market and took his wife, Anita, a former goalie, to Ventura to pursue his Olympic dream. "The jokes about field hockey being a woman's game don't bother me. I'm traveling and seeing the world," says Gregg, a defender. Actually, Gregg did think the game was for women when he ran cross-country at Whitehall (Pa.) High. He used to tease the girls until they challenged the runners to a game and beat them. Gregg was hooked.
The captain of the U.S. team, Iqbal, 25, a midfielder, is the son of a Pakistani international player and a German mother. He was born in London, grew up in Livermore, Calif. and went to Cal, where he talked Morgan Stebbins, 24, another member of the U.S. squad and the son of a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, into trying field hockey. Stebbins is now an artful defender. The vice-captain, defender Dave McMichael, 23, is from the Philadelphia area and learned field hockey from his brother, Bob, who was on the 1975 Pan Am team. One of the better U.S. players is midfielder Michael Kraus, 26, who is an American citizen, although he lives in Frankfort, West Germany (his mother is American, his father German).
One of Featherstone's big selling points when he visits schools is, "Play field hockey and see the world." Well, the players have seen the world—and Paterson, N.J., too. During a spiel Featherstone gave to some students at Manhattan's Immaculata High School on the day the U.S. team took off for Europe, he said, "Mohammed Barakat has been to all the wonders of the world, the Pyramids, the Colosseum, the Houses of Parliament, and now he's going to the Olympics, all at the age of 17. And he's done it because of field hockey. It's possible for you to get there very quickly."
One Sunday in early April, the players got to rub elbows with a few celebrities at a benefit for the hockey team. The occasion was an ice hockey game between the U.S. field hockey team and the Hollywood Stars at the Pickwick Arena in Burbank, Calif. There was nobody of Cary Grant's magnitude, mind you, on the Stars, but they did include Michael Keaton, star of Mr. Mom; Alan Thicke, who promised the players seats and an introduction on his late-night show; and Jerry Houser, whose memorable portrayal of Killer Carlson in Slap Shot will live forever in cinema history. "Just to be able to meet Killer Carlson makes all the work and the personal sacrifices worthwhile," said Stone.
"Do they have to wear socks with those little pompons on them?" asked Bobby Kelton, a stand-up comic who plays on the Stars. Kelton, who appears on The Tonight Show every once in a while and even gets to sit on the couch, immediately went to work on a routine about the field hockey team: "There are some crucial differences between ice hockey and field hockey. In ice hockey, you get two minutes for slashing. In field hockey, you get two minutes for pulling the other player's hair. In ice hockey, the fans yell, 'Charge!' In field hockey, the players go to Bloomingdale's and yell, 'Charge!' In ice hockey, the players lose their teeth. In field hockey, they break their nails. Instead of the national anthem before games, they play Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
"The men don't mind playing a girl's sport. What they object to are the Daisy razors and the Secret deodorant sticks in the locker room. That and the lavender sneakers."
Go ahead. Make fun of them now. Someday St. Anthony's CYO might just have a boys' field hockey team.