July 5, 2006
Note: This article first appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Lacrosse magazine, a member benefit of US Lacrosse. Click here to become a member.
The telltale black and blue bruises on the legs and arms of lacrosse defensemen come with the territory. Ridiculously painful at the time, they're a badge of honor after the final whistle blows, a throbbing reminder of taking a shot for the team. But taking a shot is a distant memory after that final whistle.
Not necessarily so for U.S. team defensemen Christian Cook and Todd Rassas. Taking a shot is the ultimate fear, but also the ultimate show of commitment in their lives off the lacrosse field. Protecting a lacrosse goal isn't exactly high stress when your real job has you protecting lives as special agents in the United States Secret Service.
Rassas has served in the Secret Service for nearly six years. He's now on a tactical unit assigned to presidential duty. While he says it can be a little bit overwhelming the first time you're assigned to the president, it's also a realization of a longtime goal.
"It's something you've pursued from the beginning," says Rassas. "My goal was to be in the Secret Service and when you do finally come in contact or close proximity to a protectee, it's gratifying knowing that you made it all that way."
Cook has been with the service for three years and works out of the Washington, D.C., field office, one of the agency's largest offices. Much of his duty centers around some of the Secret Service's less-publicized responsibilities, such as investigating counterfeiting, credit card fraud and identity theft, as well as various protective assignments.
The diversity in their jobs is one of the appealing things about working for the Secret Service.
"Every day is different and you're learning new things all the time," says Cook. "Being a good investigative agent helps you to be a better protection agent and vice versa. They really complement each other."
"I think the great thing about the job is that it enables you to do both," says Rassas. "In other federal agencies, you're restricted to one subject. We have the opportunity to do both, so neither side gets old."
Doing both is a theme familiar to Cook and Rassas. The odds of finding two individuals that can meet the high standards of the Secret Service, and be two of the world's best lacrosse players are, needless to say, staggering. Just being able to play at an elite level while balancing the rigorous demands of their jobs is amazing in itself. While there's certainly a cachet to the job, there's also the reality of what they might face.
On the Secret Service Web site, here's the first bullet point in the conditions of employment section for a special agent:
• Work long hours in undesirable conditions on short notice.
That pretty much sums it up right there.
But Cook and Rassas feel fortunate that they have their positions, and that they've been allowed to pursue their passion for lacrosse simultaneously. They'll be two of the players helping the U.S. attempt to defend its crown July 13-22 in the 2006 International Lacrosse Federation World Championship in Canada.
"I think it's an honor," says Cook. "Every day, whether you're working as an agent in the Secret Service or putting on a U.S. jersey and playing lacrosse --- they're equally gratifying. I consider myself very fortunate to be a part of that."
"We get the best of both worlds," says Rassas. "We get to serve our country and protect those who represent us at the highest level, and in our extracurricular activities we have the opportunity of wearing the red, white and blue and representing our country."
Though both graduated from college in 1998 -- they met at the USILA's North-South Game that year -- they've taken vastly different routes to the 2006 U.S. team.
By working in a large field office for the Secret Service, Cook has been able to continue his career as a Major League Lacrosse player. The Princeton graduate began his MLL career with the New Jersey Pride, but now plays for Baltimore and helped the Bayhawks to the 2005 MLL championship. Championships are nothing new for Cook, who helped Princeton to three straight NCAA titles from 1996-98 to close his collegiate career and received the Schmeisser Award as the nation's top defenseman his senior year.
Cook's college coach, Bill Tierney, was the 1998 U.S. team coach, so he's known about the U.S. team program for a number of years. Cook was easily in the prime of his lacrosse career when the tryouts for the 2002 team were held in the summer of 2001, but the timing was off. Major League Lacrosse played its first season that summer and players had to choose between trying out for the U.S. team or playing in the pro league.
"The U.S. team was something everyone aspired to and still does," says Cook. "I wanted to make that team ever since I picked up a stick. It was kind of the right time for me to try out, but the wrong time in that the MLL was just coming into existence. I wavered back and forth for several months leading up to that decision."
One of the factors swaying him the way of the MLL was that the vast majority of the country's top players chose that route. One that didn't was Rassas.
After earning All-American honors three times at Notre Dame, Rassas was denied a tryout for the 1998 U.S. team. Four years later, he tried out for and made the 2002 U.S. team. Though he was just four years out of college, Rassas was one of the veterans on the youngest U.S. team ever. Of the 23 players selected for the tryouts held in the summer of 2001, 15 had played collegiate lacrosse that season.
"The first time around we were kind of the underdogs," says Rassas, "because we weren't the top MLL stars."
Though there were certainly established stars and leaders on the team -- like brothers Darren and Kevin Lowe -- it was also a team that might have been too young to appreciate the rare opportunity it had.
"They (the younger players) were great players in college and it was just kind of a natural thing for them to end up on the U.S. team," says Chris Hupfeldt, general manager for both the 2002 and 2006 U.S. teams. "I don't think they understood the full scope of playing for the U.S. team."
Rassas was working for the Secret Service in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a life-changing experience for him. In the September/October 2002 issue of Lacrosse magazine, Rassas wrote a first-person account of his experiences of that day. He wrote, "We (he and other agents) got about a block and a half away from the remaining tower when I saw the top floor drop... I thought I was going to get crushed. If the tower had fallen a little more towards the Hudson River, I would not be here today."
A month later, when the U.S. team gathered for its one fall tournament, Rassas had spent the previous four weeks at Ground Zero, while the majority of his teammates had been participating in fall lacrosse practices. Though dazed at the time, the experience heightened his pride in playing lacrosse for his country.
When the team arrived in Australia for the championships the following summer, following a series of exhibition games and a training camp in California, their focus wasn't where it needed to be.
"We weren't playing well together and didn't seem to be into it at that point," says goalie Trevor Tierney, a 2002 and 2006 U.S. team participant. Rassas helped change that.
In an emotional speech to his 2002 U.S. teammates, Rassas shared his experiences from Sept. 11. When asked about it, he simply says, "It was something that was meant for the guys in that room." Rassas would much prefer to blend into the crowd than stand out.
"I can't do justice to his words," says Tierney, "but it really made us realize how special it is to represent your country no matter what you do. I attribute a lot of that championship to his speech."
Leadership isn't the only thing Rassas brought to the table. His 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame and physical presence was key to the U.S. team's championship over Canada.
"The Canadians had some big guys like Paul Gait and John Grant and we really didn't have too many guys that could stop them, the way they backed into the goal," says Ray Rostan, who coached the defense on the 2002 U.S. team.
The U.S. used Rassas playing Gait or Grant straight up and also playing him off the ball, allowing him to be the first slide and "come at them hard with the body," says Rostan.
"We were able to use him to defend one of those two because of two things -- one, his physical ability and two, his serious character," says Rostan. "You give him a responsibility, he's going to do it."
Following the 2002 championships, Rassas spent a year playing for the New Jersey Pride in the MLL. However, his job responsibilities working on a tactical unit had prevented him from continuing to play in the league. He was selected by Chicago, his hometown, in the MLL expansion draft and has played in six games for the Machine this season. He's the anomaly on the 23-man U.S. team roster.
"There are 21 guys playing pro and Joe Walters is in college and I'm the random club guy," says Rassas. "On one hand, it's frustrating. I would love to play in the MLL, but right now my first priorities are with the Secret Service. My job is one of the most important things I have. I wouldn't give that up."
In other words, despite playing one of the most important roles on the last U.S. team, he has to prove himself all over again. But it wasn't his past experience or leadership that earned him a spot on the 2006 team; it was what he can bring to the team on the field.
"You certainly want the best players, but you also look at potential match-ups," says John Desko, head coach of the 2006 U.S. team. "Todd gives you that physical presence, but he's also quick. He has the agility to match up with faster players."
Physical tools are also a big reason that Cook is finally getting his chance to play in a U.S. team uniform.
"In my opinion, he's the best in the game right now," says Tierney, who played one year with Cook at Princeton and was a teammate with him on Baltimore's 2005 MLL championship team. "A lot of people will argue that, but the guy just sticks on everyone. No one can get around him, he's just so quick."
Cook found himself playing almost exclusively longstick midfielder during the U.S. team's showing at the Price Modern Lacrosse for Leukemia Tournament in October. It's a position that doesn't exist in the MLL and one he played sparingly at Princeton.
"He has the ability to play close defense, but in the international game with the transition, there aren't a lot of defensemen that can handle the ball and be a threat offensively," says Desko. "With his speed, he can do that. He's also going to be facing some athletic, fast midfielders and he'll be able to handle that."
Playing new roles and handling new responsibilities is something virtually every one of the 23 players on the U.S. team will be adjusting to. This is clearly one of the most talented lacrosse teams ever assembled. One hundred and twenty players laid it on the line for four consecutive blazing hot days last June in the hopes of making this team.
"It was some of the best lacrosse I've ever played," says Rassas. "They could've fielded three legit world teams out of that tryout. You look at the defensemen alone, there are six or seven guys that aren't on the U.S. team that either deserved to be or could definitely field another team."
Because of that, and the many players who didn't try out for the team in 2002, there aren't likely to be many players who won't relish this opportunity to play for their country.
"Everybody on the U.S. team is very excited to be there and I wouldn't say we're any more special than any other guy," says Cook.
But there is something to be says for two players that have devoted their lives to protecting our country.
"They live their lives with the spirit of being an American citizen," says Hupfeldt. "They live it and breathe it every day because they're so close to it. Those two guys are cut from a pretty special cloth."