There are approximately 20,000 people in England who currently play lacrosse. This may seem like a large number, but when compared to a sport such as football, which is played by nearly 2 million people across the country, it's not surprising that lacrosse is considered a minority sport.
Due to the fact that lacrosse isn't that widely played, or because it's not actually a professional sport, it doesn't get much publicity. Because of this, not many people know anything about the sport. Out of the 20,000 people that play it, I'd bet not even 5% know the history of the game they play.
So, where did the 'fastest game on two legs' come from?
Lacrosse began in North America as early as the 1400s, when Indian tribes such as the Iroquois, Huron and Algonquin started playing the game. In its beginnings, lacrosse wasn't just a game to play recreationally, but a religious ritual and form of exercise for military training.
For the Native Americans, lacrosse had spiritual significance, so each match would start with a face-off during which players would hold their sticks in the air and shout out to get their god's attention. Games were sometimes played to appeal to the gods for healing or to settle disputes between tribes. They believed lacrosse was given to them by the 'Creator' and so, by playing, they were honouring the 'Creator'.
The original Native American Indian name for the game was 'Baggataway', which translates as 'The Little Brother of War'. The tribes originally played as a method of preparing and training their men for war. The idea was that if you could survive a game of Baggataway, you would be able to survive in battle. As it still does today, lacrosse required a lot of athletic skill. In the early games, just running up and down the field of half a mile was a great feat. With no boundaries, little rules, and large numbers (common in early forms of sports) all trying to move a small deerskin ball, violence and chaos often broke out. Games weren't 25 minute halves like they are today, but two to three days long with 'time outs' between sunset and sunrise.
Initially only men would play lacrosse - it didn't seem appropriate for women to get involved in such a violent sport. It wasn't until the late 1800s when women began to actually participate. Between the 1400s (when the sport started) and the 1800s, the concept of lacrosse spread nationally and internationally. The game reached England and girls' schools used lacrosse as a springtime sport for their hockey players. The women's game began with only 8 players on each team but this later increased to the current 12 players per side.
Lacrosse is now becoming truly international and is being played by more people, in more countries, every year. Nowadays, men's lacrosse is still significantly different to the women's version. In the men's game, every player is fully padded up as they are allowed to make physical contact and certain legal hits with their stick. In contrast, in the women's game, only the goalie wears full protective gear, there are different rules on the legality of body contact and stick checks but the game is still quite violent and physical.
Currently there are 33 teams that play in international competitions, with development programmes underway in many other countries. Hopefully with the fast growth of the game, and increasing popularity and interest, the history of lacrosse will become more known and appreciated.