The History of KSU Lacrosse
The year was 1989. The Iron Curtain still held Eastern Europe in its grasp, George Bush, the elder, had yet to finish his first year in office, the Cats hadn’t won a football game in over three years and Lacrosse was a foreign word at K-State. Enter the freshman class. A loud, unruly band of somewhat motivated individuals who knew little about college and less about life. Packed into various dorms around campus and the occasional Greek house they arrived in Manhattan with vague ideas and plenty of free time. Realizing they held the potential energy required to fuel a dream Dave McConnel, a sophomore from Colorado, shared with them the idea of forming a Lacrosse team.
The seeds were planted in the hallways of Marlatt Hall and K-State’s first recruits were picked from the ranks of those who walked them aimlessly. Lacrosse? Nobody knew what that was. Nobody really cared either until the word got out that you got to hit people with sticks and not get in trouble for it. This appealed to the wanton youth of the late eighties and soon the fourth floor of Marlat became the center for lacrosse at Kansas State. On McConnel’s wing alone there were seven of the original twenty-five. More were culled through classroom acquaintances and word of mouth. Aslin, Kice, Sweet, Stoltz, Thurman, Dunham, Edgerton, Robson… Names legendary to the program first gathered then. Soon the first batch of sticks came in the mail. Looking like East Coast rejects with tight pockets and cheap shafts they began appearing around the campus in the first weeks of October. Wild, out of control, ugly. These were the words used to describe the initial efforts. No pads yet, no field, no real direction but a lot of energy and tons of enthusiasm. McConnel took the reigns as the coach and under his direction we were soon wingin’ balls all over the place. Totally out of control. Marlat’s 4th floor was no safe haven as lacrosse balls could be sent down the corridors at any moment of the day or night. We got attention but not for our precision.
As the Fall faded into winter the lacrosse team found itself building in enthusiasm. The Spring ahead held promise and we were beginning to feel like something was going on. Severely under funded we held t-shirt sales to get cash. Jay Sweet took a type-writer (see these were the old days, students still arrived on campus with these ancient machines) and printed up membership cards that allowed us free access to the local Aggieville night spot. Nobody really knew what these things meant but the card said ‘member’ so in we went. The feeling was starting to come around. And then one day during a lacrosse meeting in the Student Union in walked Donnie Tillar and Bill Kazer.
Curt introduced them and gave a brief resume. Both had come from New York and both played better than we knew possible. Donnie in fact had played four years at West Point and was now stationed at Ft. Riley with the Big Red One. Bill owned the Futon Store in Aggieville. They became our coaches and in one sweet motion added legitimacy to the Program.
Donnie could play. Man, he’d amaze us with his skills and our lack of them. He ran the show from the get go and instantly gained all our respect and most of our attention. Plays? You mean they actually have these things in lacrosse? As the Spring semester began we started to come together. A game was scheduled against KU and we began to get ready. The team was still without helmets and had yet to see the actual dimensions of a lacrosse goal but we had a couple of cars and we knew the way to Lawrence. Right around Springtime. Beautiful day and in we went. KSU Lacrosse was on.
The story got better as the season went on. The school year was coming to a close. The summer was coming. 1990 and the music was good. People went home for the summer and things went without a ripple. Even that day in August when the Special Report came flashing up on the TV screen. Grainy scenes of odd looking helicopters flying over a desert city. Kuwait and Saddam. Low topics till things kept going.
School arrived and things returned to pace. We practiced all through fall with the Army guys there when they could be. We had picked up quite a bunch by that time too in addition to Donnie. So we always had a bunch of ringers in the mix wherever we went to play. Bone, Jim Meskil, OC and a couple others. The desert thing was always in the air but still a little distant. News became more interesting as the signs of big war increased. Brokaw and the boys always with serious things to say. The thing was approaching however and the clues were becoming increasingly difficult to deny. Ft. Riley and The Big Red One turned entire fleets of vehicles from army green to desert tan literally overnight. Thousands of trucks, tanks, jeeps, whatever. They were loading up and Saddam wasn’t backing down. Then around December, pretty close to the Christmas Holidays and almost to the end of school, they had the big press announcement. Marlin Fittzwater (K-State grad and White House Spokesman) called them all to Washington and told the country the news. He went on with “…the following units are now being placed on Active Duty Combat…” he called about fifteen heavy units. All the big divisions, hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Told’em straight out- You are going to The Desert. It was for real now. There was to be no backing down. Bush wouldn’t and Saddam couldn’t. Too late for no action.
So that day in December when we knew the guys were going we all just gathered around the practice field at the Old Stadium and looked at each other. Practice had been over for about two weeks- we finally had to stop because our sticks kept breaking in the cold and we had no money to replace them. The army guys all showed up in their full ‘ready to go’ duds and we said our things about good luck and all. Conversation was light despite the weight in the air and we soon got on to laughing about the things we’d done in the last year. And as the sun clipped down behind the leaveless trees and the day got dark we made our farewells with good handshakes and best wishes. People split, car doors slammed and the gathering was finished. It was the last time we ever saw Donnie.
The Big Red One pulled out a few days later and when they moved they shook the town. All the big guns and tanks went out on midnight trains and moved houses like thunder when they passed. A ton of noise. Some guys flew over, some took boats out of Texas with the tanks. We went home for Christmas and watched things get deeper. Talks in Geneva went south and deadlines approached. School got back in session right about the time the final straw was pulled. Everyone counting down with CNN and then hearing the news interrupted with the official announcement that War is On. And it was on. And then soon after that it was off and the show was over. Wild victory could be seen in full celebration. Casualties had been light and the future was bright. And right about that time we got the news. Donnie didn’t make it. Last day of the war and he got shot down. Dead.
And things haven’t been quite the same since. The memorial service for all the Big Red Ones Killed In Action sat thick in most throats. We went together. Walked into the helicopter hanger right in front of the bayoneted rifle stuck by a pair of empty combat boots with an empty helmet draped over its end. An enormous American flag backdropped the speaker’s platform. It was all too bad. And then there was his name. Donaldson P. Tillar III. He died with ten other people. Some of the last casualties of the war.
We had to deal with some deep questions there but we stood it together. There was never any real doubt as to would we go on, more of question as to how we would go on. And we decided to do it with style. With pride and all the good things of Team. Curt and Brandon remained at their posts for many years after and it was because Donnie had appointed them such and we knew the decision was right. Lives were committed to the effort, none more than Curt’s. Our spring season saw us play with heart and the tradition has remained. Never in our history has K-State taken the field lightly and it is that pride and respect for the game that survived in Donnie’s name. We do things as a circle before the game because that was the way Donnie taught us. The more serious you are about it the more fun it is. And it got fun.
We played all over. Kansas City, Tulsa, Stillwater, Omaha, Columbia, St. Louis, Bartlesville, College Station, Denver, Wichita, Lawrence and places now out in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and beyond. KSU Lacrosse has become a force. Over two-hundred games, 200,000 miles, 67 former players, 22 wives, 12 children, 46 graduates, three millionaires, 26 injuries, 520 grill-outs, 34 dogs, 111 hotels, 106 bars, 0 car accidents, 245 sticks and a deeper appreciation for life.
It goes full circle. Our (twenty-fourth) year is upon us and we are more now than ever before.