Native Americans who grow up playing lacrosse hear stories of the game serving as medicine that can nourish one another.
South Carroll High School’s lacrosse program has been trying to come up with its own medicine this spring, with an entire community yearning to heal.
It’s how Cavaliers varsity coach Grady Breen used to talk with Noah Homayouni, one of his attackmen, before games. Breen wanted his players to use lacrosse as a way to feel better, mentally and physically, and carry it into other aspects of their lives. The coach referred to the Iroquois/Six Nations people playing lacrosse as a “medicine game.”
Homayouni was a big part of South Carroll’s offense, and entered his senior season as the team’s top returner in points (25 goals, 21 assists). The coronavirus pandemic got in the way of their season, however.
Schools closed across the state. Spring sports went on hiatus, and eventually got canceled. If not for Maryland’s mandated stay-at-home orders, Homayouni likely would have been at South Carroll on the afternoon of April 2, gearing up with his teammates for a varsity game against county rival Winters Mill.
He was home instead, on Bennett Branch Road in Mount Airy, when his neighbor’s estranged husband opened fire in front of their houses. Thirty-five-year-old Joseph Zujkowski of Gaithersburg shot Heather Zujkowski, 36, and Homayouni, 18, before returning to Montgomery County and killing himself.
Breen had more than 20 varsity players who needed each other, but the Cavs faced a few obstacles. They weren’t supposed to be gathering anywhere. They couldn’t meet up at school, or at Parker Field.
Breen wanted lacrosse to be their medicine.
“We have learned a lot about the community. ... We have realized just how many people can step in and understand the grief and the sadness,” the coach said. “That has been beautiful.”
Seamus Kearney wasn’t about to let a pandemic keep him and his South Carroll teammates from each other.
The players went to a teammate’s house for a private ceremony. On April 6, the school honored Homayouni by turning on the stadium lights for 10 minutes, from 8 p.m. to 8:10 p.m., to recognize the senior’s jersey No. 10. The main fence along the entrance of Parker Field has been adorned with mementos and placards for Homayouni.
A GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign was created not too long after Homayouni’s death, with a goal to raise $15,000 to help cover funeral costs and other expenses. The total surpassed $44,600 as of Thursday afternoon.
Breen used cellphones and video conferencing as outlets for his players to connect and grieve as one. Their medicine might have been difficult to swallow, but it was necessary.
“We all got a phone call from our coach and we heard about it, and immediately everybody was like, ‘We have to be together,’” said Kearney, a junior defenseman. “We have this quarantine going on, but if we’re all by ourselves, we’re not a team. And we have to be together for Noah. That’s what we had to do.”
Kearney said he was excited to see what South Carroll might do this spring, with a good mix of talent across the field and a roster filled with eager players coming off a 9-7 season. Instead, the Cavaliers were left reeling from the death of a teammate, someone close taken from them in unthinkable fashion.
“Noah was a kid who loved lacrosse in terms of the process of getting better at lacrosse. He loved studying lacrosse. He was a coach’s and teammate’s dream to play with,” Breen said. “How do you honor that ... the question is, what would Noah want? He wants everybody to A, be happier, B, care more about each other, and C, be happier to play lacrosse.”
Lacrosse had to become their haven. And Breen said he saw his players like never before.
Their text and video conversations went into the night, talks about sports and loss and life and the future. People wanted to know how everyone was doing. Team meetings that used to hinge on defensive techniques and scoring maneuvers now ended with players and coaches saying they loved each other.
It was OK to get upset, OK to cry, OK to emote ― something Breen said isn’t always easy for 15- to 18-year-old high school boys.
Not being able to play lacrosse this spring was disappointing to Breen and his bunch, but it also gave them a chance to mourn Homayouni in a way they likely wouldn’t have had with games and practices taking up time.
“It’s tough when a pandemic becomes the secondary thing at hand, or the second closest-to-home thing that you’re dealing with,” Breen said. "Social distancing makes grief, at times, more challenging. It didn’t make us rush through anything, because when emotion gets rushed, that’s when it’s going to lead to byproducts that you just don’t want. ... When we look out ahead, you just kind of think to who Noah was.
“It was tough to not play right away ... but I didn’t want to us to go out and play in a way that he wouldn’t have played. He wasn’t a guy who played angry, he wasn’t a guy who played in some sort of revenge or jaw-set way.”
Breen said plans are in place for an annual alumni game, the first of which South Carroll hopes can take place later this year. The Noah Homayouni Memorial “Medicine Game" will strive to commemorate Homayouni’s life and bring together the school’s lacrosse community.
“Noah always loved competition,” Kearney said. “Me and him would always being going at it. After practice he’d be like, ‘I feel like I didn’t do enough,’ and he’d keep going. It’s going to be really competitive, and I’m going to love it.”
Emotions will likely run high whenever the inaugural memorial game takes place. It will also count toward South Carroll’s healing process, and set another example of how tight the Cavaliers’ lacrosse community has become.
“I was so proud that Noah knew that I loved and cared about him,” Breen said. "Now it’s so evident because now you’ve got a lot of guys finishing conversations with, ‘Hey, love you Coach,’ and, ‘Love you too, man.’ That’s the end result of such a kid. If who you are on the field is the best thing about you, then you’re a pretty limited person.