The third-seed Haudenosaunee Nationals men’s team already lost an off-the-field legend just a week ahead of the 2023 World Lacrosse Championship kicking off at the Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego.
Affectionately nicknamed “Alfie,” Alfred Jacques, the world-renowned Onondaga stick-maker who popularized and spread the message of the Creator’s Game around the globe, died at 74 in mid-June after a nearly decade-long battle with kidney cancer.
Players and coaching staff missed Jacques, who frequently attended these tournaments, as part of their franchise’s “strongest, most dedicated and disciplined team,” according to Leo J. Nolan III, executive director for the Haudenosaunee Nationals.
Although Jacques’ body and mind were absent from the sidelines, Nolan, an Akwesasne Mohawk who grew up alongside Jacques at the Onondaga Nation, felt his close friend’s presence ahead of this highly-anticipated world championships outing for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
“When you don’t have someone like him there shoulder-to-shoulder with you, personally, it made a huge impact on all this, but he’s still with us,” Nolan told Central Current. “Our team will carry his spirit onto the field today against England.”
Their team went on to defeat fifth-seed England (18-5) in their opening bout almost two weeks ago, before dropping in competitive consecutive losses against the first-seed U.S. (9-7) and second-seed Canada (8-7), who later won gold and silver medals, respectively. After several ups and downs in the tournament, the Nationals ultimately clinched their three-peat bronze medal on Saturday.
Nolan, 75, who entered the Upstate Lacrosse Foundation Hall of Fame four years after his dear friend Alfie was inducted, credited Jacques’ father as “a real linchpin when it came to getting lacrosse revived,” which, in turn, helped pave a promising path for the then-Iroquois Nationals, founded four decades ago.
The global powerhouse program has since evolved into a stand-out squad, consistently contending for world championships like this one, notably, in part, because of the Jacques family. “There’s no one else, I believe, who has been able to contribute [to our game] like him and his father,” according to Nolan.
His father, Louis, was an Akwesasne Mohawk who moved to Central New York and married an Onondaga woman named Adelaide “Ada,” an accomplished potter. He eventually taught Alfie the art of carving and webbing branches of hickory wood into traditional lacrosse sticks by age 12 during the 1970s.
‘It’s not possible to replace Alf’
It all started when Jacques asked his father to buy him a stick, only to find out that he knew how to make his own and would instruct him to do the same. That initial interaction turned into a five-decade-long passion project for Jacques, inheriting lessons and teachings from his father. His mission was much deeper than simply shaping wood into sticks, though.
“We used to settle disputes with a game, rather than a fight. He went out there and spoke on behalf of our peoples to illustrate that peace is more important than war,” said Oren Lyons, an Onondaga faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan. “Alfie was basically carrying the issue of peace. As long as we stand here as a Nation, and as a people, there’s a chance for peace in the world.”
Peace and friendship were traits that Jacques embodied, both of which are intrinsic elements of the Creator’s Game itself, according to the honorary chairman of the Haudenosaunee Nationals. Jacques’ ability to craft wooden sticks specifically used for their spiritual games was an immeasurable responsibility to bear.
“The stick, two goals, no referees, no coaches. Just the men, the ball, the stick and the spiritual purpose for the welfare of people and the welfare of the earth,” said Lyons. “It’s never been a sport with us. That’s why we still play it.”
Alfie and his treasured sticks were part of that tradition. Each stick required an incredibly time-consuming process with steps ranging from cutting and seasoning to steaming, bending and carving the wood.
Another under-appreciated aspect of Alfie’s legacy was his love for nature as an avid woodsman. His commitment to environmental stewardship helped preserve the hickory trees that kept him employed for nearly his entire life.
“My father was always gathering up hickory nuts and planting them in the woods wherever he went. He usually had a stash of them in his van that he took everywhere,” said Ryder Jacques, Alfie’s son. “He believed in being a steward to the land, that the land was going to be there long after you and me, to take care of it for future generations.”
“Alfie planted hickory trees all over. He didn’t just go cut them down,” added Lyons. “He planted hundreds and thousands of seeds that are going to be there because he put them in the ground. That’s what his father did, and that’s what our people did.”
While many Haudenosaunee stick-makers among the Onondaga Nation and elsewhere started going out of business following the W.H. Brine Company’s invention of the first plastic stick commercially sold in the early 1970s, Jacques kept the tradition alive for as long as he lived.
“He was incredibly generous on the one hand, but very particular about his craft,” said Philip Arnold, associate professor of religion at Syracuse University. “He wasn’t somebody who was trying to monetize his knowledge where others often do. Everybody knows that.”
Arnold experienced his unbridled generosity, both professionally and personally. His twin Haudenosaunee sons, Clay and Kroy, obtained their first wooden sticks from Alfie and continue cherishing them to this day.
“He was a major influence in our family because now our sons are lacrosse coaches,” said Arnold. “They’re going into that world specifically to help to educate and grow the game about the origins of lacrosse. I think that’s in large part because of Alfie.”
Jacques would also speak each spring semester for nearly two decades in Arnold’s religion and sports classes at Syracuse University, based on a textbook that he authored: “The Gift of Sports: Indigenous Ceremonial Dimensions of the Games We Love.”
“We would set up in the Carrier Dome, now the JMA Dome, and be on the floor with Coach Roy Simmons III, oftentimes with Oren Lyons and Gary Gait,” said Arnold. “Thousands of students heard from Alfie. I would always pay him, but that wasn’t his primary concern.”
Those must-see demonstrations were considered one of the course’s highlights, but Arnold expressed that he wouldn’t dare attempt to find anyone else to fill that spot in his classroom starting next spring.
“It’s not possible to replace Alf. The loss is incalculable,” Arnold admitted. “It’s just an enormous loss for the entire lacrosse world, and it’s being felt around the world.”
His talents transcended the artform of stick-making, with Jacques excelling as a goalie, most notably for the National Lacrosse League’s Syracuse Stingers in 1974.
Jacques found continued success off the field amid an eight-year stint as coach and general manager for the Onondaga Redhawks, where he led his franchise to three Presidents Cup championship appearances, one of which ended in victory in 2010 following a 13-1 season record during his final season.
Spencer Lyons, an Onondaga condoled chief who came from a long family line of lacrosse goalies, once played under Jacques on the 2010 Presidents Cup-winning team and leaned heavily on the stick-maker for guidance since he, too, was a goalie in his own day.
“He made my dad’s sticks and mine, so I had been around Alfie for a very long time prior to playing for him,” said Lyons. “He was just a true friend and a mentor not only in lacrosse, which teaches us life lessons on how to be good men. That’s what the game means to us.”
Ron Cogan began his professional lacrosse career alongside Lyons while playing defense and serving as captain for the Onondaga Redhawks. He believed that Jacques was “an integral part of us winning that first Presidents Cup.”
Cogan, a two-time Presidents Cup winner, would go on to compete in five world championship tournaments with the then-Iroquois Nationals across 15 years, culminating in earning a silver medal at the 2011 World Indoor Lacrosse Championship in Prague.
Following roster appearances on the St. Regis Braves, Six Nations Arrows and Rochester Knighthawks, Cogan eventually transitioned into coaching and followed in Alfie’s footsteps, pivoting from an on-field athlete into a coach.
He even became head coach for the Onondaga Redhawks in 2018, and found renewed success for this sentimental franchise. It was that same season, during which his team won the Can-Am Championship and had a chance to capture the Presidents Cup in British Columbia.
Cogan, 44, has earned a reputation as a rising sports coach for teams from the Upstate Collegiate Box Lacrosse League to the National Lacrosse League. Since then, he’s been involved in various coaching positions at the Rochester Armory, Jr. Knighthawks and Syracuse Spark.
Today, Cogan credits his coaching achievements to his mentor, Alfie. Picking the right players to build a team didn’t always mean selecting the best athletes, an important lesson that Cogan kept.
“That’s the part he taught me, because everybody wants to pick the best guys you can find, and that doesn’t win championships,” said Cogan. “He built homegrown teams, and I owe a lot to Alfie for any kind of success that I have.”
‘Sometimes it feels like they’re very big shoes to fill’
The Onondaga Redhawks team has been struck with a series of tragic losses over the last two years, plaguing some of their pillars: Brian “Lab” Phillips, Marty Ward, Edward Cathers, and now Jacques.
“I think our younger generation at Onondaga don’t realize how hard it is to come back and keep that team together once you’ve been through these kinds of losses,” said Cogan, “to try to keep the team, the organization, the drive or the effort, because life hits you.”
Before Jacques’ death, Spencer Lyons, the 36-year-old condoled chief, had already stepped up, becoming an assistant manager and later assistant coach for the Redhawks. He’s still helping the program alongside Cogan as much as possible, but his council responsibilities keep him busy.
“We always think guys like Alfie are always gonna be there, and when something like this happens, it’s kind of devastating,” said Lyons. “The responsibility is on this next generation to step up and do all those things that he was for us, for the new up-and-comers, for the younger guys, for the juniors, for the youth.”
“Sometimes it feels like they’re very big shoes to fill,” added Lyons, “but we understand, as Haudenosaunee, there’s a responsibility to make sure we’re passing that knowledge on, and that’s how we keep our ancestors alive, because his teachings don’t go away.”
Like his father before him, Jacques’ dedication to the lacrosse community earned widespread recognition as an inductee into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1999. More recently, Jacques was named the 15th recipient of the prestigious Spirit of Tewaaraton Award.
Oren Lyons, 93, received that same award in 2015. Earlier last month, he accepted the honor on Jacques’ behalf at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., where Lyons exclaimed that Jacques was “a national treasure of the Haudenosaunee” before returning to his bedside at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse.
“Luckily, we were able to get the award back up to him so that he saw it. It really meant a lot to him,” Lyons recalled. “I could see that. The mission was accomplished, and he had the award by his bed when he passed.”
Sarah Aschenbach, director of events at the Tewaaraton Foundation, who considered herself a close personal friend of Alfie, extended her sincerest condolences to his friends and family, days removed from that special celebration of his life and legacy.
“Alfie truly embodied the spirit of lacrosse, and his tireless dedication and commitment to the craft of traditional wooden stick-making made a significant impact on the game throughout his life,” Aschenbach told Central Current. “We are thankful for all Alf did during his amazing life to promote the Medicine Game and educate others on Native American lacrosse culture and traditions.”
‘The collapse was sudden… He fought until the end’
From the Creator’s Game to Deyhontsigwa’ehs, an Onondaga phrase that roughly translates to “they bump hips,” the game of lacrosse goes by many names. And the Medicine Game took on renewed meaning for Jacques, who battled a series of health complications following a cancer diagnosis in 2015 and a heart attack two years later.
In his most recent time of need, though, the Onondaga Nation and their neighbors scattered across the Confederacy came to help him however they possibly could, especially in recent months leading up to his unexpected death.
Jack Johnson, a young and ambitious Akwesasne Mohawk, was once an apprentice of Jacques. It didn’t happen overnight, either, since Johnson spent six months frequently trying to contact Jacques, eager to learn from the famed Onondaga stick-maker.
That opportunity finally came one day, compelling Johnson to travel on three special trips to visit Jacques at his reservation residence, where he spent 36 hours shadowing the stick-maker and training on how to bend the wood.
Jacques even granted him permission to photograph that technical process, which he brought back home and perfected before opening his own business, Johnson Lacrosse, handcrafting traditional wooden lacrosse sticks in the Mohawk homelands where his father came from.
In a way to pay that generosity forward, Johnson decided to organize a GoFundMe campaign in March that has since raised more than $40,000 to aid his mentor of the Medicine Game with his own medical expenses.
Word quickly spread about the GoFundMe page shortly thereafter, catching the ear of Kent Lyons, assistant manager at the Onondaga Nation Arena. He insisted that the Nation should organize its own charity event, so Tsha’ Hoñnoñyeñdakwha hosted the Stickmakers Tournament, a five-team charity competition in April.
The 62-year-old Lyons was the brainchild behind it, so when he approached Jacques with his idea in hand, the Onondaga stick-maker told him: “You guys can do that, but don’t put my face all over it.”
“We had a couple of good laughs, trying to narrow down the pictures. Then he didn’t want his face on a flyer, but little did he know it was all about him,” said Cogan, who had been hired by the Onondaga Nation Arena’s office of sports development a few weeks prior. “He came around and had a great attitude about it.”
At least three teams immediately wanted to register following their announcement. “It didn’t take long. All we had to do was put it out on social media, and people were all over it,” according to Lyons.
One team, in particular, the Irving-based Newtown Golden Eagles, developed a deeply-rooted rivalry with the Onondaga Redhawks, but still decided to come and show up for the Stickmakers Tournament that weekend.
“The calls kept coming in, and the local teams came about, but for Newtown to be there, this shows the amount of respect they had for the game and Alfie,” said Cogan. “They came full-tilt, brought their team and everyone they could in support of him.”
With less than two weeks of advance notice, that charity event raised $7,300 in proceeds, all of which went toward supporting Jacques in his treatment and recovery.
“I told him, ‘Alf, you’re so lucky that you’re receiving this; you are still here. A lot of people don’t have that until they go,’” said Onondaga Turtle Clan Mother Freida Jacques, Alfie’s sister. “He was very fortunate they cared enough to help him financially, because he couldn’t hardly make any money the last couple of years.”
“It was really to support Alfie. That’s what those teams wanted to do,” said Lyons. “They really made him feel good. He was very thankful, very grateful and very happy.”
Little did any of them know that it would be their last time seeing him in the flesh, since the Stickmakers Tournament served as an unexpected but well-deserved farewell to a famed larger-than-life figure in the Haudenosaunee game of lacrosse on Turtle Island.
“He’s been battling that for years and he was in remission. The collapse was sudden — at least about six weeks or so — before I could see he was going to be in a tough fight,” said Oren Lyons. “He fought until the end.”
It was so sudden that Jacques had been scheduled to host stick-making demonstrations at the fifth annual Haudenosaunee Wooden Stick Festival this September. Arnold recognized Jacques amid his declining health during last year’s event on behalf of the Skä•noñh Center, which organizes the festival.
Now, he’s longer with them, a year later. Arnold is tasked, yet again, with contemplating how this upcoming festival can remember his life and legacy once more, a few months removed from his consequential death.
In the days leading up to his service, Haudenosaunee peoples from across the Confederacy flocked to his family’s household on the Onondaga reservation and paid their respects, only three days removed from his death on June 14.
“I do feel we sent him out in a good way, for sure,” said Freida Jacques, “because lots of people who loved and cared for him showed up.”
A ceremony took place at the Longhouse following an initial service at their residence. Part of their tradition is burying a wooden stick with deceased Haudenosaunee players, so they may continue playing lacrosse in the Creator’s Land.
“It’s funny when you get towards the end and everybody, all of the big stick-makers, keeps their sticks. That tradition is alive and well,” according to Kent Lyons.
“Anybody who played the game will be buried with a stick because when they get to the other side, they’re gonna be the captain that day,” said Oren Lyons. “So, it’s going home, actually, and the game is going back home to where it originated.”
Freida Jacques explained how her brother had instructed his only son, Ryder, 38, to bury him with one of his demonstration sticks, which had been chosen some eight years prior to his recent passing. It was a replacement for one his father crafted during the 1980s, which Alfie later designated to become a family heirloom. “That was his personal stick and the one he was buried with,” according to Ryder Jacques.
Now, the Onondaga stick-maker has been laid to rest, ready to pick up his wooden stick and play once more in the Creator’s Land, in accordance with their traditions, but his life story is far from being finished or forgotten.
“His story of stick-making for Onondaga, for the Confederacy, and then larger for the world never goes away,” said Spencer Lyons. “The next Onondaga stick-maker will emerge, but it’s only because of guys like Louis, Alfie and that family, who had taken the time to really hone that craft and keep that alive for us.”