FORT COVINGTON — Tahnaokata Elijah didn’t want to play lacrosse.
He refused to — unless the bribe was right.
Some ice cream here, or a video game there. Elijah always struck a deal with his parents, who wanted him to play. They knew he had to. It’s more than a game for members of the Mohawk Tribe in Akwesasne, and Elijah hadn’t learned the lesson yet.
At eight years old, Elijah played for the Akwesasne Storm minor box league team in Ontario. It took a while to get with the program.
“I wasn’t really passionate about it until I was 12,” said Elijah, who is the Times’ 2021 All-North MVP for the Northern Athletic Conference. “I’d pick up the stick, go to practice, my parents would reward me for that.”
Lacrosse was something Elijah was pressured into, something he paid little mind. That is, until he was cut from the Akwesasne Attack field team.
It was a jolt. For once, lacrosse turned away from Elijah.
“I got real, I guess you could say, emotional and mad about it,” Elijah said. “I threw a fit and I told myself that I’m gonna practice every day and get better, get faster to prove them wrong, that I should’ve made the team.”
Every day, from after school until the sun went down — even longer during the summer — Elijah hit the gym. He ran. He hit a growth spurt and became taller, faster and stronger than those around him.
The 5-foot-9 midfielder now wanted to play for himself, to show everyone he had what it took. He didn’t need lacrosse, lacrosse needed him. At least, that’s how it began.
“I was one of those victims of the coach having favorites,” Elijah said. “I was one of those kids who barely got any playing time. In my mind, that made me mad.”
With age came the knowledge of lacrosse’s origins, the roots that lie deep in his own culture.
Elijah scored 44 goals and nine assists throughout his senior campaign at Salmon River and now he thinks differently. It’s no longer about him.
“I’m not just going to play for myself,” Elijah said. “I’m going to play for everybody else who needs it.”
Elijah plays for his grandfather, Keto, who would drive up from the Onondaga Reservation to visit Elijah when he was 3 years old. His grandfather died when Elijah was 5.
“You’re out there playing a game that others can’t play,” said Salmon River lacrosse coach Jim Barnes. “When you step on the field, you’re playing for the people in the crowd, playing for someone who’s not in the crowd.”
Elijah couldn’t play during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. He passed the time whipping a ball against a couple of wooden boards screwed together. The ball would hit the boards and bounce back as he envisioned the lumber as a teammate.
“That’s basically what I did to keep me sane throughout the summer when the pandemic first hit,” Elijah said.
He still saw some friends and cousins, still played small bouts when he could.
“It’s probably what most kids did on the Rez,” Elijah said. “Little pickup lacrosse here or there.”
It wasn’t just to keep the skills sharp. He had to be ready for any role that came his way ahead of the season and during it.
“He’s one of those kids you can put anywhere,” Barnes said. “He could probably grab a long stick and play long stick if I asked him to.”
Elijah can pace the attack well at the net, and move through defenders when he needs to. Ground balls, creating transition offense — the speed, agility and precision has come over time through Evolve Lacrosse youth teams and attending showcases in Maryland and Delaware.
“He definitely has the skills for an all-around midfielder, and he’s not afraid to run back on plays and play some D,” Barnes said. “I know he’s on our man-down, too, so he’s all over the field.”
Maintaining skills in a year without high school lacrosse was just one side of the balance scale. The other was maintaining a positive mind-set — something Barnes stresses to his teammates often.
“Each player is like a link of a chain,” Elijah said. “Once one link of that chain starts being negative, starts being down, calling players out for mistakes and what-not, then the whole chain comes down with that one link.”
Elijah still had pregame jitters during the season opener at Canton.
“Even though we lost, I thought it was a good learning curve for the team, and I thought it was a good wakeup call for some of us,” Elijah said. “I didn’t play my best that game, but it woke me up to realize, ‘OK, I need to work on these things for the rest of the season.’”
Elijah and the Shamrocks went on to win out the rest of the regular season and reach the Section 10 title game, where they fell 7-5 to the Golden Bears in their third meeting of the year.
Now Elijah is ready to move on to Siena College, where he’ll play Division I lacrosse with the Saints.
When he meets his new crew in Loudonville, Elijah will have more people to play for.
“That’s what lacrosse is supposed to be about,” Elijah said. “You’re supposed to know who you’re playing for and what you’re bringing to them.”