Lacrosse was already a tradition in Bill Isaacs’ family when he was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation in southern Ontario on March 18, 1914. He was the son of Freeman Joseph Isaacs, who played on Canada’s bronze-medal-winning lacrosse team at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, and two of his five brothers were star players. But it was Bill Isaacs who would grow up to become arguably the greatest “box lacrosse” player of all time.
Lacrosse was invented by the Haudenosaunee, who called it tewaaraton — meaning little brother of war. Also known as stickball, the game — which was meant to toughen up young warriors — had a spiritual element while also being fun to play and to watch.
French Jesuit missionaries working in the St. Lawrence River valley in the 1630s were the first Europeans to witness the game, and they named it lacrosse. By the time Isaacs was born, lacrosse had been adopted by white settlers, with the rules standardized to include fewer players. (In Indigenous communities, the rules were usually agreed upon the day before, and there could be as many as hundreds of players on the field.) The new codified game became firmly established as Canada’s national summer sport.
Isaacs grew up playing field lacrosse, but by 1931 indoor box lacrosse leagues had been established by the National Hockey League to make use of empty hockey arenas in the off-season. He and his older brothers Lance and Wade played for various teams in southern Ontario and in the United States, at a time when games typically attracted up to six thousand fans.
Isaacs’ son, Peter, said in 2011 that his father was recruited by a team in Hollywood, California, but turned down the offer because he and his wife were expecting a child: “He recruited some other people in his place, and interestingly enough one of them was a fellow [also from Grand River] who came to be known as Jay Silverheels, who ended up playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger series on television. So every once in a while I think, hmm, that could have been me or my dad.”
Inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2015, Bill Isaacs played competitively from 1932 to 1949. A member of two Mann Cup-winning teams, the Mimico-Brampton Combines and the Hamilton Tigers, he scored a total of 777 goals and added 467 assists in 346 games during his professional career. Isaacs died in 1985.
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