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'Crooked Arrows,' the first lacrosse film, took a winding path

College SportsMoviesBrandon RouthSuperman (fictional character)ESPN

When it comes to lacrosse, all roads lead to Baltimore: That's key to the history of "Crooked Arrows," the first mainstream feature about the sport. It involves a stream of small investors and one genuine big-screen superhero — Brandon Routh, star of "Superman Returns."

But at the start, there was just a boy bowled over by Baltimore lacrosse.

Mitchell Peck, a native of Richmond, Va., had the athletic epiphany of his life when he went to Naples, Maine, to attend a summer sports camp called Skylemar. That's where he first saw a swift, seductive game played with odd webbed sticks by boys in shorts sporting exotic school names like Boy's Latin, Gilman and McDonogh. Skylemar offered every sport he ever wanted to play, but this game was so fresh and so beautiful, fast and flowing that it hooked him.

"It was lacrosse, and I learned how to play it from Baltimore kids," Peck said last week. "I got the feeling that in Baltimore they started early. Those kids and the guys from upstate New York had a dexterity and solidity and skill level that were really advanced."

Peck ended up on the varsity team of Richmond's Collegiate School, and in 1987 it went undefeated — though Peck spent most of his time "on the bench, watching all the guys who were All State." He and benchmate Todd Baird "had a lot of time to think," Peck recalled, which paid off years later, when Peck was a green producer with a deal at 20th Century Fox and Baird decided to try screenwriting. Baird pitched Peck "a 'Mighty Ducks' with lacrosse."

Peck loved the formula of "misfits versus the establishment. A coach sweeps in and helps kids realize their highest potential, and the kids end up humanizing the coach." But the friends' best idea was to pit a "Native American 'hero team'" from a struggling reservation against the elite players in a prep-school league.

"It became a beautiful distillation of what the first lacrosse movie should be," Peck said. "When anyone is really interested in lacrosse, the first thing you learn about are its proud Native American origins. Still, it's not something you always see brought to the fore, probably less and less the farther you get from upstate New York," where the sport swept through the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Peck was stunned when the studios gave the script the cold shoulder. "In the '90s, they felt lacrosse was a niche sport, rather than the fastest-growing sport in the country," Peck said. So Baird returned to Virginia and became a doctor.

But Peck never forgot his dream project. When he acquired some heat for producing "Priest," a $60 million fantasy based on a Korean comic book, he decided "to use whatever momentum I had and transfer it to 'Crooked Arrows.'"

This time, he went independent, with the help of J. Todd Harris, an executive producer on the Oscar-nominated "The Kids Are All Right."

For the role of the mixed-blood Native American coach, they needed a star. But the actor had to have some Indian heritage, even if that limited their choices. Serendipity struck at the Seattle Film Festival, where Harris was promoting a black comedy, "Miss Nobody," with one of its actors — Brandon Routh. The way Routh remembered it last week, "He looked at me and asked, 'Do you play lacrosse ... and do you have any Native American blood?'"

The answers were no and yes. Routh didn't play lacrosse growing up in Iowa, but he had played soccer, which at least resembles lacrosse in its pace, fluidity and physicality. And he did have some Kickapoo in him.

"My grandmother on my father's side would talk of what little she knew," Routh said. "She kept that spirit alive and had a lot of Native American heart. She always seemed a little wise beyond her years; her spiritual presence was just a little different and deeper than other people's." Routh seized the chance to explore that aspect of his history.

The casting delighted Peck, who thought, "Here we had a bona fide movie star who also happened to be perfect for the part. ...The coaches in these movies always end up humanized as mentors and good guys. And that's the truth of Brandon: He's really a sweet, good guy."

A year ago, Routh came to Baltimore for the 2011 NCAA lacrosse tournament — "my first live lacrosse games, the first ones I didn't just watch on ESPN," he said. He also helped producers schmooze fans and potential investors in town. Thanks to similar stops in other lacrosse hotbeds, the movie ended up with a patchwork quilt of financing. And Routh became a true believer in the sport.

"Lacrosse is where soccer was when I was in high school. ... It's like a mixture of soccer and basketball. It just needs to make a greater visual impact, and that's one of the things we hope we do with the film," said Routh.

Set in upstate New York, "Crooked Arrow" was filmed in prep schools and parks outside of Boston. The combination of locations, state production incentives and proximity to investors determined the choice.

To keep it real — and to make sure he could handle a stick — Routh relied on the youthful athletes who were cast from the Mohawk, Tuscarora and Onondaga nations, as well as co-producer Neal J. Powless, who belongs to the Onondaga Nation's Eel Clan. Powless was a collegiate All-American, a professional player for seven years and a member of the Iroquois Nationals in four World Lacrosse Championships.

They also helped a second writer, Brad Riddell, beef up the Native American lore, building on the knowledge Baird had acquired from Smithsonian folklife expert Thomas Vennum, author of "Lacrosse Legends of the First Americans." The finished film presents lacrosse as "the Creator's game," played initially by animals and birds for the Creator's amusement. In "Crooked Arrows," each "hero team" member — coach included — becomes energized to the core when he envisions his animal or avian identity, from a terrapin, able to withstand great blows, to a soaring, all-seeing eagle.

Routh returned to Baltimore last week for a benefit premiere at Goucher College supporting the US Lacrosse Foundation and its First Stick Program. The movie opens Friday in lacrosse capitals like Baltimore, then spreads out on June 1. Peck said reactions from sports zealots and Native Americans have been heartening: "It's also the first mainstream family film about contemporary Native American life."

Routh said audiences will find it a welcome change "from everything blowing up. ... If we have to sneak up on people, that's fine, as long as they get out the word that it's a great underdog story." He could be describing the story behind the film.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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