Home » team of experts » Youth Sports Heroes: Sticks for Soldiers Lacrosse (Fairfield, CT) and Patriots Challenge Cup Hockey (Pittsburgh, PA)

Youth Sports Heroes: Sticks for Soldiers Lacrosse (Fairfield, CT) and Patriots Challenge Cup Hockey (Pittsburgh, PA)

In the early morning hours of Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009, U.S. Army Specialist Brendan Marrocco and three fellow soldiers were driving in a convoy back to base in northern Iraq when a powerful roadside bomb destroyed their armored vehicle. One soldier was killed, another was wounded, and a third was unharmed. The gravely wounded 22-year-old Marrocco was not expected to survive.

Against all odds, Brendan Marrocco became the first veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to return home as a quadruple amputee. The blast also left him with a severed left carotid artery; a broken nose, left eye socket and facial bones; lost teeth; neck and facial burns; a pierced left eardrum; and loss of 80% of his blood. "Any one of his injuries was life threatening," an Army trauma surgeon told the New York Times. "It's a miracle."

Marrocco's recovery began with immediate emergency care and surgery in a trauma hospital in Iraq before he was airlifted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Within three days of the explosion, he was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for intensive rehabilitation, physical therapy, and more than a dozen further surgeries.

Sticks for Soldiers Lacrosse Tournament

While his son remained at Walter Reed, Alex Marrocco began a fundraising drive to build him a fully adaptive home in his native Staten Island, New York. The cost would approach a million dollars. Sticks for Soldiers

Enter Sticks for Soldiers, a grass roots organization of players, parents and coaches whose four previous annual high school lacrosse tournaments in Fairfield, Connecticut had raised $44,000 to help wounded U.S. troops. The first tournament supported Strikeouts for Troops, which San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito founded to lift the spirits and morale of wounded troops during treatment at military hospitals nationwide. The next three tournaments supported the Wounded Warrior Project, which supports soldiers injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.

On Thanksgiving weekend in 2010, the fifth annual Sticks for Soldiers Lacrosse Classic hosted by coach Chris Parisi's Fairfield Ludlowe High School Falcons supported the Brendan Marrocco Road to Recovery Trust, which would build the new Staten Island home and later support other wounded veterans. "That could be one of my boys," tournament founder Mike Voucas said about Marrocco. "We have to do something."

More than 300 athletes from 24 high school lacrosse teams competed in the 2010 tournament, and organizers turned away other teams for lack of room. The tournament featured hard-fought games but had no brackets, no standings and no champion because, as event chairman Jim Tommins says, "the real winners are the soldiers we honor and assist." Besides devoting each team's $400 registration fee to the Trust, players and their families raised more than $60,000 with independent projects, T-shirt sales, silent auctions, sales of souvenir wrist bands carrying Brendan Marrocco's name, and private and corporate donations secured by a legion of volunteers.

By June 11, 2011, Brendan Marrocco -- who had played sports, but not lacrosse -- moved into his specially equipped new home built for him by volunteer New York City firefighters. "The fact that it was a young soldier not much older than a lot of these boys really resonated with everyone," said Voucas afterwards, who was honored last year as Connecticut Lacrosse's Man-of-the-Year.

The sixth annual tournament will take place later this month, on November 27. About 30 boys and girls teams will play for three soldiers identified by Marrocco - Liam Dwyer of Litchfield, Connecticut, a 30-year-old Marine wounded in Afghanistan; Joshua Budd of Cheshire, Connecticut, a 19-year-old Army private first class wounded in Afghanistan; and Joe Wilkinson, a 32-year-old Air Force Tech Sergeant wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.  (For more information about the tournament, click here)

Patriots Challenge Cup Hockey Tournament

The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts arose from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, one of the darkest days in our nation's recent history. Nearly 3000 Americans lost their lives that day in New York City, suburban Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania. In 2011, national resolve and emotional wounds remained as Americans sought ways to remember on the tenth anniversary.

Three pee wee major (U13) youth hockey teams remembered 9-11 with the first annual Patriots Challenge Cup fundraising tournament featuring a team from each of the areas attacked - the New Jersey Rockets, Team Maryland, and the Pittsburgh Hornets. The Cup was donated by the family of the Rockets' pee wee forward Jack Mascali, whose Uncle Joe was a New York City firefighter who died on a lifesaving mission at the World Trade Center after the first plane struck the towers.

Parents, coaches and players on the three teams - led by the Rockets' Arnie Mascali, the Hornets' Hugh Hachmeister and Maryland's Jeff Greene - cooperated to plan the tournament, which included community service projects. Team Maryland's project supported Fisher House, which helps military families in need; the Rockets and the Hornets each prepared care packages for soldiers in Afghanistan, accompanied by personal notes written by the players which the soldiers promptly answered with emails of their own.

The Rockets' 12-year-old Jack Mascali found the tournament "a great way to honor America, and to give back to those who give for us every day." "When I created the care package," he says, "I thought about the sacrifice the soldiers make for us every day, and when our team played the games, we played to honor those soldiers."

The National Hockey League, the New Jersey Devils, the New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals donated hockey memorabilia for the tournament's silent auction. After a weekend of competition at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center in Pittsburgh, the Hornets defeated the Rockets to win the Challenge Cup on September 11, 2011. Even more important, the players and their parents and coaches had raised $15,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Organizers look forward to next year's tournament, which will involve more teams and a second age group. This time, the games will be played at a National Hockey League arena - the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils.

The lesson of these stories: Tournaments with a purpose

Nowadays youth-league teams sometimes play nearly as many tournament games as regular-season games. Sponsors conduct pre-season tournaments, holiday tournaments when school is not in session, and post-season tournaments that help keep teams together a bit longer. Some players also participate in "showcase tournaments," and some teams qualify for post-season championships based on the league standings.

Tournaments are something special. Overnighters enhance team camaraderie, games may expose players to a higher caliber of competition, and memories reward players for a season of hard work. In older age groups, tournaments may even enable players to perform in front of collegiate coaches.

At any age level, however, tournaments can also provide special opportunities for parents and coaches to teach the players lifelong lessons about civic responsibility. Tournament organizers and participating teams can select and support a worthy charity with a portion of the registration fees, a share of concessions and souvenir revenues, independent fundraising projects by participating teams, and perhaps private and corporate donations if the charity holds public visibility. Because tournaments generate revenue for local hotels and restaurants, for example, organizers can seek donations from businesses that the organizers encourage participants' families to patronize. Local newspapers and broadcast media can pitch in with publicity.

Perhaps the tournament will not raise the amounts raised by the Sticks for Soldiers Lacrosse Classic or the Patriots Challenge Cup Hockey Tournament. Whether large or small, however, the charitable donation matters because, as Helen Keller said, "I cannot do everything, but still I can do something." When parents and coaches talk with their players about civic responsibility and guide their efforts, the outcome is a win-win for the teams and the community alike, even before anyone turns on the scoreboard.

The charitable collaboration by teams' parents, players and coaches did not dampen the spirited competition that marked the Connecticut or Pittsburgh games, and indeed may have enhanced it. "The Sticks for Soldiers tournament," said Fairfield Ludlowe senior George Voucas, "gave us a new perspective about what is actually going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what the soldiers have been going through."

"All the players, families and fans in attendance," agreed the New Jersey Rockets afterwards, "commented on the difference in the atmosphere and energy surrounding the event - many said it was unlike any other tournament they had ever attended." No wonder. Like the Sticks for Soldiers Lacrosse Classic, the Patriots Challenge Cup was a youth sports tournament energized by a purpose that transcended youth sports.

Sources: Matt Kinnear, Lacrosse Community Raises $60,000 for Iraq Vet Brendan Marrocco, Who Lost Both Arms and Legs to a Bomb, http://insidelacrosse.com/news/2010/12/23/lacrosse-community-raises-6000... Lizette Alvarez, Spirit Intact, Soldier Reclaims His Life, N.Y. Times, July 2, 2010; The Brendan Marrocco Road to Recovery Trust, http://www.brendanmarrocco.org/Road_To_Recovery/Welcome.html; Henrick Karoliszyn & Christina Boyle, Handicapped Hero Gets New State-of-the-Art Home After Losing Limbs in Army, N.Y. Daily News, June 12, 2011; Patriot Challenge Tournament Remembers September 11th in a Special Way, http://tier1.njrockets.com/news/110914-patriots-challenge-recap.shtml; Hornet's 99 Team Patriot Weekend a Success, http://pittsburghhornets.pucksystems2.com/; Youth Tournament Honors 9/11 Hero, http://tmhc.goalline.ca/news2.php?news_id=441190; Mike Scandura, Youth Tournament Honors 9/11 Hero, http://usahockey.com/Template_Usahockey.aspx?NAV=PL_01_20&id=307268

Posted November 1, 2011