Nassau take pride in Jim Brown’s football and lacrosse legacy

Nassau take pride in Jim Brown’s football and lacrosse legacy
Manhasset's Jim Brown (right, leaning down) is considered the best football and best lacrosse player ever by many experts. Photo credit: U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame

It’s a part of the speech during the opening days of practice every year for Coach Jay Iaquinta, the leader of Manhasset High School football team.

While his players are starting to learn the playbook and get familiar with each other again, he points to the field and tells them a little history.

“I say ‘hey, boys, do you know who practiced on this field and wore the same Manhasset uniform you’re wearing?’” Iaquinta recalled on Saturday. “Jim Brown, the greatest football player ever.”

“Some of them seem to know who he was, but a lot of them look at me and don’t know,” Iaquinta said.

Manhasset Head Lacrosse Coach Keith Cromwell does a similar thing at the start of each season his team plays and also gets “a few kids” who know who he is.

It’s been more than 70 years since the kid from the Spinney Hill neighborhood of Manhasset started his legendary sports career, but the stories of Jim Brown’s greatness have been passed down from generation to generation.

And as great a football player as he was, considered by many to be the best ever, it may be only here in Manhasset where his lacrosse legacy is just as, if not more, important and treasured.

During Brown’s high school days from 1949-53, he set the standard for what a well-rounded high school athlete could be.

He won an unfathomable 13 varsity letters in his career, with time on the basketball court (he averaged 38 points per game as a senior) and even the baseball diamond complementing his incredible skill in football and lacrosse (legend has it that Yankees Manager Casey Stengel saw him play baseball once and offered him a pro contract.)

And as good as Brown was in football, eventually going to Syracuse University and becoming an All-American, his skills in the stick-and-ball sport of lacrosse shone just as brightly.

“He was great at everything he did, but everyone I ever talked to who saw him play said he was just unstoppable in lacrosse,” remembers Alan Lowe, Manhasset’s lacrosse coach from 1974-2006. “Just his speed, his strength, and his quickness in getting the ball from his stick into a shooting motion and scoring. He was so, so strong.”

How unstoppable was Brown on the lacrosse field? The U.S.A. Lacrosse Hall of Fame archivist Joe Finn confirmed that after Brown’s playing career, the rules of the sport were changed because of him.

Prior to parts of Brown’s lacrosse career it was legal for players to cradle their stick against their chest while running with the ball, making it very difficult for defenders to take it away.

Because Brown was so strong and powerful, it was almost impossible to strip him of the ball.

“He was so strong, who was going to get it from him?” Finn said with a chuckle.

After Brown’s career the NCAA and U.S.A. Lacrosse changed the rule and forced players to keep the arm, stick and ball in motion at all times, giving opponents more of a chance to poke it away.

Bobby Anastasia, a Manhasset sports historian, recalled that three local white businessmen, Ken Molloy, Tom O’Connell, and football coach Ed Walsh, for whom the Manhasset H.S. field is named, took Brown under their wing and tried to guide him as best they could.

“It’s known that Ken pulled some strings to make sure Jim got to go to school in Manhasset,” Anastasia recalled. “And Jim throughout his life always showed appreciation for all the help he got from these local men.”

Indeed, it’s often forgotten in the Brown legend that he wasn’t given a scholarship to Syracuse in 1953, but that Molloy and others paid his way to the upstate New York school, until his immense talent earned him a free ride starting as a sophomore.

Cromwell, who said that he met Brown as a member of the professional Long Island Lizards a decade ago, added that it’s “humbling” to walk by Brown’s jersey in the school weight room and see that the origin of the Manhasset lacrosse dynasty began with the best ever.

“It’s humbling and it’s mesmerizing to know he started here,” said Cromwell, himself a former college and pro star. “The idea that the best athlete maybe ever from Long Island was here on this grass is a big inspiration to kids.”

Maybe the current Manhasset athlete best equipped to speak about Brown is senior Matt Cargiulo.

Cargiulo, headed to University of Massachusetts on scholarship in a few months, was the quarterback on the gridiron last fall and is a key member of the Indians lacrosse team that won the state championship last spring and may do so again over the next few weeks.

“He’s an icon for Manhasset athletes, absolutely,” Cargiulo said a day after Brown died. “I’ve seen some clips of him on YouTube and he was just amazing. As a football player, what I noticed was just how athletic he was, and how tough he was when he hit people.

“His legacy will never be forgotten by the athletes here.”

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