Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from Major League Life: Why Major League Lacrosse Players, Coaches, and Fans Share a Passion for a League that Often Goes Overlooked and has been published with the permission of author Phil Shore.
At a quarter past 10 A.M., it was 92 degrees outside in Annapolis, Maryland. The country – the Mid-Atlantic in particular – was in the middle of a heat wave. In the 10 days from July 11 to July 20, nine days registered at least 90 degrees, with the July 17, 18, and 19 hitting 95 degrees, 94 degrees, and 96 degrees, respectively. It was expected that July 20 would hit 98 degrees.
The Bayhawks game against the New York Lizards was pushed back from 7:00 P.M. to 8:00 P.M.
“We’re in a dilemma today. Is it healthy to play today?” Bayhawks head coach Dave Cottle said. “It’s going to be a 12-degree difference between 7 and 8.”
To help ease the strain on the players, Cottle made that morning’s walkthrough voluntary. The activity at the walkthrough was light; it included some shooting while the defenders participated in long toss.
One of the players at the walkthrough was Matt Abbott. The midfielder was in the midst of his 11th season in Major League Lacrosse. He was the longest tenured player on the team – the franchise’s all-time leader in games played – and one of the longest tenured players in the entire league alongside Denver’s John Grant Jr. (14 seasons), Dallas’s Donny Moss (11 seasons), Boston’s P.T. Ricci (11 seasons), and New York’s Mike Unterstein (11 seasons).
When Abbott joined the league, MLL had just contracted from 10 teams (a league-high) to six teams (a league-low); the Los Angeles Riptide, Philadelphia Barrage, New Jersey Pride, Rochester Rattlers, and San Francisco Dragons folded, although the Rattlers staff and players transferred to a new team, the Toronto Nationals.
Fewer teams meant fewer roster opportunities, which made it harder for players to find a role and playing time. As a two-way midfielder who was capable on both offense and defense, Abbott was able to establish a role for himself from the beginning, however, and hadn’t looked back.
“I love the game. I’ve always loved it. I want to play it for as long as possible,” he said. “The draft, it was on a Wednesday night. The Bayhawks played in Denver on Saturday. All of us rookies didn’t make that trip; it was too quick of a turnaround. I played in every game the rest of the year that year. To be able to find a way on the field, to try and help the team win, meant a lot.”
Abbott was born into the game. His grandfather, Larry, and father, Tom, both played lacrosse at Syracuse University, one of the biggest powerhouses in college lacrosse. Even his older brother, Mike, played at the University of Virginia and Cortland State.
Growing up in Syracuse, all Abbott wanted to do was follow in his family’s footsteps and play lacrosse at Syracuse. At Nottingham High School, he played lacrosse from eighth grade through his senior season and was a three-time captain.
At Syracuse, Abbott played all 64 games during his four years. He was an All-American as a junior and senior, and the Orange won national titles both those years.
Abbott said there was a difference between reaching his goal of playing at Syracuse and playing at a high level at Syracuse. As he experienced success as an upper classman, he then believed playing at a higher level was also a possibility.
“I played it my whole life,” he said. “I can’t imagine not playing it.”
Playing in his first MLL game was an eye-opening experience.
“My first game I played against [Syracuse legend] Gary Gait,” Abbott said. “I remember watching him growing up, so it was a little bit of an adjustment to get up to speed.”
Syracuse is one of the collegiate programs with the most storied histories. The two championships Abbott helped the Orange win bumped the program’s total number of titles to 10, the most in Division 1.
He was drafted onto another team with a strong fan base and a winning history. In the eight seasons prior to drafting Abbott, Chesapeake (which previously played as the Baltimore Bayhawks and the Washington Bayhawks before moving to Annapolis in 2009) played in four of the first five championship games, winning two of them.
From the organization’s last championship in 2005 through 2008 – the team’s final season before drafting Abbott – the team had not reached the playoffs, let alone the Championship Game, however. That streak continued in Abbott’s rookie year, but the organization returned to dominance in the coming years. From 2010 through 2013, the team reached the playoffs every season and won three championships.
The Bayhawks only reached the playoffs once in the following five seasons (it was 2018, the most recent season), but Abbott was proud of the accomplishments he and the team have achieved.
“What we’ve done with the Bayhawks since then is we’ve won three titles during my tenure here, to give the Bayhawks five, the most in the league,” he said. “I’m very grateful to be a part of a great Syracuse tradition and now a great Bayhawks tradition.”
In 11 years, Abbott saw ups, like the championships, and downs, like the league contracting for a second time prior to the 2019 season.
What he was impressed by, however, was not just the growth of the talent pool in the past 11 seasons, but the growth of the fan base, especially in nontraditional hotbeds.
“The Outlaws have had great success in our league,” Abbott said. “They’ve got a great fan base. Being there for the Fourth of July game, between 25 and 30 thousand people in the stands even after lightning delays and hailstorm delays, it’s a great environment to play in. It’s great to see the growth of the sport.
“The Hound Legion in Charlotte, I always enjoyed going there and playing because they had such passion for that team,” he added. “It’s encouraging. We’re going to see more of that as time goes on and the sport continues to grow. The future of lacrosse is bright in the hotbeds as well as the nontraditional areas.”
Chesapeake head coach Dave Cottle had coached Abbott for six years at the professional level. He consistently applauded his work ethic and said he is “so smart of a player.” Those attributes played a large role in his ability to play in Major League Lacrosse, but Abbott also believed luck played a large role as well.
“Thankfully for me and a lot of the guys, we dedicate a lot of our free time on the weekends to make this happen,” he said. “I’m thankful my work schedule still allows me to play. I’m pretty lucky injury-wise to still be playing after 10 seasons, in my 11th year. It’s been fun. When I look back on it, I hope I have more years to reflect on it to come, but when I look back on the people I’ve met, the relationships I’ve made, just the good memories, it’s hard to believe it’s been 11 seasons and 10 years already. It’s been a great ride. I hope my body and abilities can allow me to do it a little while longer.”
In 2019, Abbott was selected to play in the MLL All-Star Game, scheduled for July 27 in front of the Bayhawks home fans in Annapolis, Maryland, the first time the city hosted the league’s best. It was his ninth time playing in the All-Star game.
He was also hoping to win his fourth MLL title, and the Bayhawks seemed to be in a good position to contend for the championship with a 4-2 record prior to the July 20 game against the Lizards.
Long-term, however, Abbott hoped to help raise the profile of the league to make sure it was a place future generations of lacrosse stars had the opportunity to play in.
“Obviously, it’s still a niche sport, in my opinion, but growing at a rapid pace in certain areas,” he said. “Still, you go to a lot of places, even in this country, and they may not know what lacrosse is or be aware there is a pro league around. It’s encouraging to see the growth. MLL was around pretty much throughout my middle school and high school years. That was when the league first started. There was always that opportunity, at least when I was of age, to be able to play. I hope through us giving back and trying to raise the profile of this sport can make that a possibility for the next several generations to come.”