FREEPORT—Steel Crawford wasted no time making his presence felt at Freeport High School on Sunday. Even after departing this world for the next.

Crawford – 17, slated to start his senior year at FHS in a few weeks – died in a summer-fun accident a couple Fridays back, a jump into the water that went wrong at the Salmon Falls rope swing in Buxton.

Steel Crawford’s empty helmet earned a place of honor at Falcon Stadium on Sunday. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Pained hours passed. A pained day. A pained night. Ryan Baker, a recent NYA grad and a close friend of Crawford’s, needed some way to purge his grief. To get it outside himself. Listless, Baker hit upon the idea of a memorial game, a benefit game – Crawford played passionate lacrosse for the Falcons.

“I was sitting on the couch, just sad,” Baker said. “Long night, couldn’t sleep, 4 a.m., and I was like, ‘Let’s do something.’ So I called some people in the community that I look up to, and I’m like, ‘What do you think we could do? I’m thinking a lacrosse game. Would it work?’”

Oh, it worked.

“I was planning on maybe 30 players, a hundred fans – great stuff,” Baker said. “This is what you see. I don’t know how many people showed up, but a lot.”

It was easy to tell, standing on the turf at Falcon Stadium on Sunday, that far more than a hundred people had shown up. In fact, so many members of the southern Maine lacrosse community were eager to show their love for Steel, that Baker & Co. had to cap the rosters at 50 heads apiece. That’s 100 players. Not 100 people total—100 players.

Likely, better than 1000 people filled the stands on Sunday. 1000. And really, that’s got to be a conservative estimate.

Hundreds of identical white t-shirts reading “CRAW” and “7” in maroon on the back packed the stadium. Chatter and laughter overflowed it. Chatter and laughter and big smiles and alert eyes and hugs and bouncing lacrosse balls and the steamy smells of concessions. And cheers – cheers in call-and-response:

“When I say, ‘Steel,’ you say ‘strong’!”
“Steel!”
“Strong!”
“Steel!”
“Strong!”

And so forth. And these weren’t just my-team’s-going-to-beat-your-team cheers. They were we-will-defeat-death cheers: “Steel strong!” weren’t just the words, STEEL-STRONG was the tone.

“It got way bigger than I could handle, instantly,” Baker said. “I had to get permits from the police department. I had to go to Town Hall and fill out a bunch of stuff. It took a toll on me a little bit. I didn’t have time to grieve.”

Baker & Co. set up the game to ease whatever financial concerns the Crawford family might face in the wake of Steel’s death, and to establish a scholarship in his name. The contest itself raked in better $18,000 – before it’d even finished, that’s how much it had collected.

Hearing that number somewhere in the late third or early fourth quarter seemed to throw Baker for a bit of a loop. Perhaps it made him aware of his exhaustion, finally. “I think I’m done,” he said, dropping his helmet and gloves and stick just anywhere – wherever he happened to be standing – and walking away from the action. Letting it go on without him.

Beyond those $18,000, a Gofundme set up by Baker, Dominic Spina and “The Fruitcakes” (whoever they are) exceeded its $25,000 aim in roughly five days. As of late Monday, it had raised $27,261.

Make that $27,731.

It’s been shared more than 1000 times on Facebook.

“Funeral’s going to be paid for, everything’s going to be paid for,” Baker said. “I hope [the Crawfords] go on a nice vacation. They deserve it.”

“Ryan Baker’s the man,” Freeport head coach Geoff Arris said. “I knew the player he was; I didn’t know the person. Wow. I talked to him 10, 15 times a day, all week long. My gosh, I couldn’t want to meet him yesterday and give the kid a hug. As a human being – not, like, shake hands, ‘Good game’ – it was the first time I met him. As a human being, he’s someone I would aspire to be.”

Arris recounted: “Ryan woke up, had a dream, called me, said, ‘Hey, I need some help.’ I said, ‘Whatever you need.’”

Baker, Arris and the rest invested a good deal of time and effort in setting up the event, of course, but countless others were ready to lend a hand. “The word went out, and I’m getting calls from, Softball Boosters want to help,” Arris said. “Morse Boosters, Thornton Academy Boosters, our Soccer Boosters. Shaw’s said, ‘Hey, we’d like to donate.’ Everybody was like, ‘What can we do?’ We weren’t on the water that day, but there’s that air of powerlessness.”

“This is the best way to handle it: together,” Arris said. “Get together, smack each other around a little bit, get some sweat out, run hard.”

“By now, everybody should know that kid,” Baker said, asked to sound off on Crawford. “Just a great all-around guy. A great athlete, a great friend, a better person all-around. An absolute animal, a daredevil – you know that, now. But that wasn’t unusual; he did that.”

“This is the hardest, easiest thing to do,” Freeport head coach Geoff Arris said. “I can talk about Steel all day, how much I love him. What a great kid. He’s our most dynamic player, one of our most unselfish players. He was constantly working with everybody on the team bring them up, make them all better.”

“He made it comfortable for the young guys to be on the team,” Arris continued. “Oftentimes, freshmen, sophomores, they’re a little anxious when there are some older guys that’re pretty legit. They get nervous, and Steel was very good at calming them down.”

“He’ll pass to you until you catch it,” Arris continued. “He won’t just throw it, get mad, like ‘What’s up?’ He was the kid that would throw the pass, they’d drop it, smack them on the helmet like, ‘It’s okay, get the next one.’ Then he’d feed them again, until they got it.”

If 100 players trotted onto the field on Sunday, they couldn’t all be Falcons. Lacrosse teams aren’t that big. Clearly, these guys had arrived from all over. Even players who weren’t quite as tight with Crawford as Baker was wholeheartedly wanted to take up their sticks in his honor.

“I didn’t know him on a personal level, but I’ve played with him and against him many times,” said Brannon Gilbert, Gray-New Gloucester’s recently-graduated standout keeper. Gilbert starts college at St. Joseph’s this autumn; come spring, he’ll be playing for the Monks men’s squad.

“Lacrosse is such a tight sport in the State of Maine and New England and around the country,” Baker said. “There’s a small amount of players. It’s a family.”

“Steel would always make it a point to come up and acknowledge my game,” Gilbert said. “And I would acknowledge his. He made it a point for everybody – he respected everybody’s game…He represents the spirit of the game, and the respect that we all have for each other.”

“At first, it was the memories that I had, playing against him,” Gilbert said, asked what went through his head when he learned about Crawford’s death. Gilbert wistfully chuckled. “Each time that I made a save against him, or he scored, or that we talked. And the sadness.”

“I felt helpless,” Gilbert said. “I didn’t know him on a personal level, but I so badly wanted to help. But there was nothing I could do.”

But there was, it turns out, something Gilbert could do. Something everyone could do.

“My mom came downstairs while I was playing ping-pong with my dad,” Gilbert said, asked how he learned about the memorial clash. “She told me she was signing me up. I was totally [on-board with] it. I’m glad she signed me up when she did, because it filled up so fast. A couple of hours and 100 guys were on it.”

Gilbert wasn’t the only Patriot to take part in the evening: Sam Tibbetts – another goalie (Gilbert’s heir-apparent) – played too, as did Travis Caron and Scotty Lynch. “Sam, I think, played with Steel just as much as I did,” Gilbert said. “Scotty. Travis didn’t really know him, but he came out in respect.”

As for the game itself – we should talk about the game, at least for a few paragraphs – well, Team Steel defeated team Crawford (aka Team LaxPros) 15-5 in the end. The action was loose, but competitive, with few or no penalties called. Yes, it was competitive, but not competitive like that.

A number of players had multiple goals across the four unevenly timed quarters, including Baker himself, Miles Lipton – Lipton graduated from Waynflete in June, and joins the BU Terriers this autumn – and former Westbrook star Curtis Knapton, currently heading into his senior year at Bates and a leader on the outstanding Bobcats’ roster.

Overall, Team Steel (wearing white) controlled the majority of the action – the score suggests as much, and it’s not lying – while Team Crawford (wearing black) played a good deal of defense, launching sporadically into attacking forays.

Happily, the players looked focused on the game, at least when they were running and passing and defending and shooting – while they jostled through the fray. Nobody looked half-hearted in his efforts. Indeed, the mood in the entire stadium felt celebratory on the whole. Perhaps that was because Crawford’s service had been the day before.

“Yesterday helped me a lot, to get through today,” Baker said. “But this week’s going to be tough. I’ve got a week till I leave for school.” Baker heads to Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut in the coming days. He’ll join the DII men’s lax contingent there.

“Today’s a great day,” Arris said. “Yesterday was a day of reflection, and sorrow. Today, there are tears of happiness, and a lot of smiles from a lot of people that really needed that today. This is the epitome of the medicine game for our community.”

“By the time we got onto the field, everybody had processed the actual event of what happened. It was there,” Gilbert said. “Everybody got into the game. It was a game about Steel, a game for Steel, but it was still a game. So everybody went out and played as hard as they could – just like he would. That kind of took over any emotions.”

“I know Ryan and Miles went off in the game,” Gilbert said. “They did phenomenal. I think that, every time they did something remarkable – like they did all game – that was always for Steel.”

If the #SteelStrong game was originally conceived as a one-off, it quickly took on a life. Baker envisions it morphing into something grander: “A tournament, we’re trying to make it a tournament,” he said.

“I guarantee this won’t be a one-time thing,” Arris said. “We’re working to keep it going.”

Whatever form #SteelStrong takes in the future, no doubt it will find support from all over the Maine lacrosse community. “I do,” Gilbert said without hesitation, when asked if he wanted to participate in the event going forward. “I want to play until I reach an age limit. The game meant so much to him, and it’s only paying respect to such a respectful person. I would play no matter what, if I had the opportunity.”

Bill Cosentino and Cooper Queenville coached Team Steel, while Sam Manders and Jack Kearney coached Team Crawford.

Scotty Lynch defends for Team Steel. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Former G-NG standout goalie Brannon Gilbert tracks his opponents. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Ryan Baker tells the crowd of his grief over Crawfod’s death, the moment in whiich he was inspired to found the memorial game, and more. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Ryan Baker (left) and Geoff Arris (right) hug. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Players’ gear litter the sidelines at Joan Benoit Samuelson Track and Field. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Sunday’s players’ helmets sit side-by-side along the sidelines; Steel Crawford’s stands alone in the background. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Curtis Knapton competes for Team Steel. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Sam Tibbetts, G-NG’s up-and-coming goalie, faces down an opponent. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

G-NG’s Scotty Lynch charges towards the faceoff. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Falcon Stadium (properly, it’s named after Maine running legend Joan Benoit Samuelson, a Freeport native) overflowed with love on Sunday. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

G-NGer Travis Caron unwinds into a shot. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Curtis Knapton, formerly a star for the Westbrook Blue Blazes and now a star for the Bates Bobcats, prowls the top of the zone. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

The scoreboard in Falcon Stadium counts down to gametime as all stand at attention for the National Anthem. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

100 players signed up for the #SteelStrong game. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Steel Crawford’s family enters Falcon Stadium. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

There’s a very deliberate unity in the meticulous arrangement of these players’ helmets. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly

Goodbyes dot a player’s helmet. Adam Birt / Lakes Region Weekly


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