Major League Lacrosse face-off specialist Max Adler, now a resident of West Hartford, recently hosted a clinic for youth players.
By Michelle Bonner
It’s a mild evening in West Hartford, CT, and high above the turf at Conard High School, the lights are ready to race the waning sun as a group of youth lacrosse players play a game of “rock, paper, scissors” – more affectionately known as the face-off in the sport of lacrosse.
Two players from each West Hartford Youth Lacrosse League (WHYLL) team, in each division, were chosen by their coaches to take part in a face-off clinic with Major League Lacrosse (MLL) face-off specialist Max Adler for three weeks in May. It’s just one of several experiences that WHYLL offers its players during the spring season.
“We’re trying to increase opportunities for our players in an effort to help better develop and improve their skills at certain positions,” said Sam Smith, President of WHYLL. “We also want to give parents more for their money.”
“These types of opportunities really don’t come along that often,” said David Halpert, who has two kids in the West Hartford program. “I know the kids are really excited when they get on the field with a pro like Max.”
Adler isn’t your “average” pro; he is the No. 1 face-off specialist in MLL, is coming off an MLL Championship with the Denver Outlaws, and has become the face of the entire league
“There are many great athletes out there, but few like Max who have both the desire and ability to work with kids this young,” said Tim Walsh, an assistant coach for his son Ben’s U12 team. “An interaction with a top professional like Max creates a spark in a young athlete that lasts beyond a 90-minute clinic.”
“He is really patient with us kids,” added 11-year old Ben Halpert, adding “he really shows us how to consider the different skills required to perform the face-off role.”
That effect also resonated with first-year lacrosse player Will Keever, who plays in the U14 division, and who traded in the sound of the clichéd crack of the bat of America’s favorite pastime for the sounds of coaches hollering “mark up” or “middies off, middies off” in what is considered America’s oldest sport.
“In lacrosse it truly is a team effort the whole time to be successful. In baseball you could be sitting in your position just waiting for the ball to try and make a play,” Keever said. “In lacrosse, you always a have purpose or a play; Max didn’t just show us how to do something; he showed us how to handle losing a face-off. [Max] would not only have an answer but he would demonstrate it right away and show us drills we could use to get better.”
“I love working with these kids and teaching them the intricacies of the position,” said Adler, who also calls West Hartford “home.”
“West Hartford is beautiful. I actually signed my lease without coming here, I got the last apartment in my building. I just love it here, and I couldn’t have been more fortunate.”
Adler’s reverence aside, it is the West Hartford organization that is fortunate. Not only did Adler spending three weeks working with the players, but he did it for free. “I live in West Hartford, and I figured this would be a great way to give back. If I can teach just a couple of things these kids will take with them, that makes me feel good.”
“The success of the clinic was not only based on Max’s willingness to give back to the community,” added Walsh, “but also his ability to breakdown complex, split second face-off techniques into basic concepts that a 10-year-old could understand, practice and master.”
One is forced to wonder if Adler lives in a world in which there are more than 24 hours in a day. When he’s not helping kids “clamp,” Adler is working full time at ESPN as a financial analyst in the affiliate revenue division, and when he clocks out on Fridays he is “wheels up,” flying around the country to wherever his games are being played on Saturday, before returning home Sunday night.
For those who may be exhausted by the thought of such a schedule, taking inventory of how he got here helps interpret his unrelenting vitality.
Growing up in Florida, Adler spent most of his youth playing baseball, fielding balls on the hop as a shortstop and trying to turn double plays as a second baseman. Adler, who is quick to point out that Florida is not a hotbed for lacrosse, says he dabbled in rec lacrosse during middle school. It wasn’t until he was in high school at Northfield Mount Herman (in Massachusetts), which has a requirement that all students must participate in a sport, that Adler’s pursuit of a lacrosse career unwittingly began.
“My freshman year I was playing JV football, and the coach was the wrestling coach and he’s like, “I really like how you play and how aggressive you are, you’re going to do wrestling in the winter.” He said he had no idea what wrestling was, and thought it was like WWE.
“I had wanted to play hockey until my advisor said, ‘if you don’t know how to skate, don’t bother trying out,’ so that was off the table. So, I started wrestling, and that was my main thing.”
In fact, Adler was so good at the sport, colleges started to take notice. But injuries would prevent him from competing at the next level. As luck would have it, Adler had picked up a lacrosse stick during the spring of his freshman year.
“I played [lacrosse] freshman and sophomore years, started my senior year, but I didn’t play my junior year, which is a big recruiting year for the sport. Coaches told me I couldn’t play at the college level, not Division II or III. I was calling schools asking for a look, and then I ended up at Bentley College, and the lacrosse coach says, ‘yeah, we’ll give you a chance to try out for the team,’ so that summer I committed myself to getting ready. I had never really faced-off, so I was significantly behind, I mean I’m playing with All-State, All-Americans. But I had great coaches who taught me the intricacies of the position.”
Learning and owning the position was one thing, but Adler had additional challenges impeding his chance of playing – five of them. “Freshman year, we had five other guys facing-off and I was the fifth one. I took five face-offs that year.” To rub a little salt in the wound, Adler’s parents traveled from Florida that season for a game, hoping to see their son play at the collegiate level. “I didn’t touch the ball that game.”
Adler can tell that story with a boyish grin, because he is able to push the fast forward button to 2018 when his parents witnessed him win a Major League Lacrosse Championship with the Denver Outlaws.
But even that moment looked like one in which Adler would be celebrating from the sideline. “I’m at the D2 National Championship game and I get a call from the GM of the Outlaws. I was absolutely shocked, I thought one of my friends was playing a joke on me. They had the number one face-off guy in MLL, and they drafted another guy who was one of the best midfielders, who could also face off. I didn’t think my chances of actually playing would happen. Jump ahead in this story and our starting face-off guy gets hurt in the All-Star game and they call me.”
It was a call that changed Adler’s life. It was another call that changed nothing, but one that magnified his character and inflated his influence on the game.
“Paul Rabil called and asked if I would play in the new Premier League that he started, which was a huge compliment.” Faster than you can say “down, set, go,” Adler said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I was so flattered, but I owe everything to Pat Bowlen and the Denver Outlaws organization. They picked me out of D2, traded away their number one face-off guy, we win the championship; I’m not going to just up and leave. I want to show Denver the same loyalty they showed me.”
In a sport where most salaries force players to supplement with full-time jobs, guys like Adler play for the love of the game. But a tireless work ethic, a winning attitude and boasting the number one face-off percentage in MLL earned Adler an endorsement deal earlier this year with Cascade and Maverik, one of the industry leaders in lacrosse protection and equipment. “I just couldn’t be more excited; I have used their products my entire career.”
He’s the guy every mother wants their son to grow up to be like, and he’s the guy that 20-plus kids in West Hartford also want to grow up to be like.
“I go home after the clinics and watch Max on YouTube, said 10-year old Matthew Bonner (son of this writer). “I have watched every YouTube video of Max” (writer can confirm). “It’s so cool that he spends time showing us how to play the position.”
Today, lacrosse is considered the fastest growing team sport in America. It’s popularity in West Hartford is evident by the number of teams each division fields, with two to four teams at each level. Many surrounding towns often only have one team in each division.
“We try to keep it real here in West Hartford,” said Smith. “I want West Hartford to love lacrosse, and to become a true lacrosse town. There are tremendous pressures to perform in the classroom and on the field. We try to provide an environment where kids are welcome regardless of ability and feel it’s a safe place to play. We want to further the abilities of our players, but in the end, it’s about loving the sport, not about the wins or ‘recruiting potential.’”
“These kids develop their skills very rapidly,” added Walsh. “And even the best coach needs to recognize his own limitations in his ability to teach more complex concepts. I think West Hartford lacrosse is one of those programs that truly recognize this.”
For the coaches, the clinics have an impact on them as well. “I have gotten so much out of these clinics,” said Chris Keever, who played collegiate lacrosse and coaches a U12 team. “As a coach I’m able to pay that back to the program. I hope the program continues this path because the game is changing and it’s quality clinics like the ones that we have used that will make us better coaches and, in turn, our players better players.”
“I give a lot credit to those who have made this possible for our kids,” added Halpert, whose 8-year-old son Max understands the significance of this opportunity. “It is really exciting to be on the field meeting and learning and playing with someone who is a professional lacrosse player, it gives me the WOW factor.”
His dad further added, “It is very admirable that a professional player is taking the time out to work with the youth players of West Hartford. It’s a bonus that he is living within the West Hartford community. All the parents I have talked to are very impressed that a Pro MLL player is giving back to the youth lacrosse players of West Hartford.”
Max Adler was told he wasn’t good enough. He proved them all wrong. The kid who played lacrosse because he “had” to play a sport during the spring could be the poster child for one of soccer great Pele’s most famous quotes: “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”
Adler knows that with success comes great responsibility to pay it forward, and as the twilight shadows lengthen and a chill in the night air sets in, the lights flickering above don’t just illuminate an athlete coaching a skill set these kids can use on the field, but highlight how one athlete can influence those kids off the field.
“I love giving back. This sport has given me so much and it means everything that I can give back, and hopefully inspire someone to never give up on your dream.”
A version of this article can also be seen in U.S. Lacrosse Magazine by clicking here.
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