By Stuart Zaas | 5/31/11 4:26 PM
Some things are bigger than the game.
With athletes and coaches under pressure to deliver wins at all costs, at times the bigger picture can be forgotten. The night of May 21 in Boston proved to be an opportunity to revisit priorities and remember the sacrifices that the United States Armed Forces make to defend our freedom. It was only fitting that on Military Appreciation Night in Boston’s Harvard Stadium, an Army Man stole the show – and the game.
An easy decision
At halftime, the coaches gathered and came to a unanimous decision. Regardless of score or situation, 1st Lt. Adam Fullerton would defend the net for the fourth quarter.
Who better to trust with defending the goal than a man who in just one week will be defending the entire country? With Fullerton scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan the first week of June, this would be his final opportunity to play in the MLL during the 2011 season.
“Some things are bigger than lacrosse games,” said Outlaws Head Coach Tom Slate. “I just felt this was his last opportunity to play lacrosse with us this season, and with him going over and defending our country, it was an easy decision for us.”
It would be easy to insert the backup goalie if the starter were struggling, or if the game’s outcome had already been decided. Neither of those were the case Saturday night, as All-Star goalie Jesse Schwartzman was having a career game, turning aside 12-of-19 shots (.632 pct.), while also scooping up a team-best five ground balls through the first three quarters. After the Outlaws pulled ahead early, the Cannons put together a run and closed to within two goals and had all the momentum behind them entering the final frame.
With the victory up for grabs, Slate elected to pull the hot hand in favor of a very cold one. Fullerton was as surprised as the 8,317 fans in attendance, the television audience and even his own teammates, who were not aware of the plan.
“I had no clue. It was a complete shock to me,” Fullerton said. “Jesse was actually the first one to say something. I went up to give him a handshake after the third quarter and he said, ‘You going in?’ I said, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘No, we talked and you’re going to play the fourth quarter. He went up to the coaches and they were like, ‘Yeah, Fullerton, you’re in.’”
The pressure of preserving a two-goal lead late in a lacrosse game is nothing for Fullerton. In a few short weeks, he will be in Afghanistan working as a fire support officer, protecting the lives of American troops.
“I’ll be dealing with the planning and coordinating of weapons like mortars and artillery,” Fullerton explained. “We’re shooting that into the air and there will be a good number of U.S. helicopters and jets flying overhead. It takes a lot of coordination to make sure we can do that safely and I play a big part in integrating all those systems into the air so that we can use them all at one time and not interfere with each other.”
Crossing paths again, albeit briefly
As a senior at Army, Fullerton co-captained the Black Knights with current Outlaws teammate and 1st Lt., Justin Bokmeyer. Fullerton backstopped the team’s defense, holding opponents to just 7.29 goals per game while Bokmeyer paced the offense with 24 goals.
After college, their paths diverged in opposite directions. Bokmeyer was drafted by San Francisco, however when the team folded he returned to West Point as a graduate assistant with the lacrosse team. Fullerton was selected by the Rochester Rattlers, where he appeared in two games as a rookie before joining the Outlaws in 2009.
After a stint at artillery school, Bokmeyer departed for a one-year tour of duty in Iraq. There, he tried to keep his stick skills sharp by playing wall ball on the base in his spare time.
Upon returning to the United States this past March, Bokmeyer joined the Outlaws, who drafted the midfielder in the 2010 MLL Supplemental Draft.
“A big thanks to (general manager) Brian Reese for giving me a chance to play again,” Bokmeyer said. “Being in Iraq for a year, and not playing competitively for two years now because of military obligations doesn’t put me in as good of a position as other players who get to play year-round. But, I am so excited to compete and get on the field again.”
Saturday in Boston, the team called upon Bokmeyer to make his MLL debut and he responded with his first career goal and a forced turnover that led to another score.
“Maybe one of the biggest plays of the game wasn’t even his goal, it was down when he was on defense and he stepped out and deflected a pass intended for Paul Rabil,” Slate said. “It was a huge play where if Rabil gets it, he probably scores. Justin went down and stuck on him on defense, and then we got the ball and went the other way with it.”
Bokmeyer and Fullerton are both based in Fort Carson, but they are only reunited for a short period of time as Fullerton will be deploying to Afghanistan next week. Together, the 2008 U.S. Military Academy graduates make the hour-plus trek up to Denver for Outlaws commitments – when their schedules permit.
Despite being drafted by the Outlaws with the 28th overall pick in the 2008 MLL Draft, Fullerton never thought he would be able to play professional lacrosse.
“I always thought it would be something awesome,” he said. “But with my job. I just didn’t think it would ever happen.”
Both Bokmeyer and Fullerton have been up front with their priorities since Day 1.
"The Army is our job, our No. 1 priority," Fullerton said. "As soon as you start diverting away from that and your job performance starts slipping, you lose credibility. You've got to show you're a good soldier."
Due to his work and training schedule, he has not been able to make every practice, every flight or even every game.
“Sometimes I can’t make the Friday night practice, because I’m flying on the red eye or something like that – and (the organization) has no issues with it,” Fullerton said. “I have even missed a few flights and they had no issues with it, and were there to support me.”
He has missed his share of flights over the two seasons that he has spent with the Outlaws. But, each time something goes awry, the team has been there in support.
“Whether I was working late or whatever the case was, they help me out,” he said. “They get me a new ticket and I show up and there is no love lost. They are just constantly there helping out.”
Bokmeyer’s run with the Outlaws could be interrupted as well. He recently learned that he has been accepted for Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) and will head to Fort Bragg, N.C., in the fall for training.
Their teammates both understand and appreciate the sacrifices the pair of first lieutenants is making.
“It’s great what they are doing, fighting for our country,” said goalie Jesse Schwartzman, who had no problem removing himself from a tightly-contested game so that Fullerton could play the fourth quarter. “Adam is a great teammate and a great friend. We’re going to miss him.”
The storybook ending
Back at Harvard Stadium, Boston had regained the lead for the first time since it scored the game’s opening goal. Despite the fact his starting goalie played so well through the game’s first three quarters that he would go on to win the MLL Defensive Player of the Week Award, Head Coach Tom Slate stuck with his gut and his heart.
“Absolutely I thought twice about it, but it kept going back to him going over and defending our country and the bigger picture with what he’s doing and what we’re doing,” Slate said. “We were happy to get him in there and it was certainly appropriate.”
The decision paid off as Fullerton saved his biggest plays for the game’s final minutes.
With the Outlaws clinging to a one-goal lead, the Cannons won the faceoff and came roaring towards the cage on a fast break. Fullerton made the stick save on a point-blank shot from Michael Stone, but Rabil scooped up the rebound to give Boston another chance to tie the game. Rabil tried to hit reigning MLL MVP Matt Poskay, who was wide open at the edge of the crease, but Fullerton managed to get a stick on the pass and deflect it harmlessly behind the cage. Fullerton tracked down the loose ball with 30 seconds remaining on the clock, giving the Outlaws possession and the win.
“You get chills when you talk about it and the guys, as soon as we put Adam in there, were very supportive,” said Head Coach Tom Slate. “All the guys got behind him and probably tried just a little bit harder there in the fourth quarter to get the win. We all really wanted to give him something to think about while he’s over in Afghanistan for a year.”
Fullerton already had plenty to think about while he is overseas, but he will gladly accept one more fond memory from the lacrosse field.
Pat Graham of the Associated Press, Jackie Branca of Major League Lacrosse and Alyssa Bruno of the Denver Outlaws contributed to this story.