As a toddler, Gaylord Powless, was keen with a lacrosse stick. In the book “Lacrosse Warrior: The Life of Mohawk Lacrosse Champion Gaylord Powless”, Gaylord’s father Ross Powless talks about his son’s skill.
It was the dawn of the 1950’s and Ross was playing for a lacrosse team in Huntsville. His young family would travel north to watch Ross play.
“Gaylord and I used to put on a little show for the fans in between the periods,” Ross said. “I’d stand with my back to the net and he’d put a little shift on me and go in for the goal. Beat me every time!”
Ross was a lacrosse legend in his own right; he was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1968 and was twice granted the Tom Longboat Award, naming him Canada’s top Indigenous athlete. Gaylord was the oldest of the 14 children Wilma and Ross Powless had. For the Powless family, the game was more than just a hobby, it was ingrained into everyday life.
For indigenous people in Canada in the 1960’s, something else was also a daily truth — being confronted with racism.
In his early teens, regular clashes with that racism coming from white lacrosse players targeting him on the field earned Gaylord a reputation as a hothead. It was coaching from his father, along with teachings about the traditions of lacrosse, a medicine game to the Haudenosaunee from the Creator, that helped Gaylord overcome those attacks and hone his skills to become one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time.
A CBC biography by David Giddens on Gaylord says this became part of his tough skin strategy: play clean, frustrate opponents straight into a foul and his own team into a power play.
Strategic play combined with a cultural understanding of the roots of the game took him at the age of 16, to lead the Oshawa Green Gaels to four Canadian Junior A Minto Cup championships from 1963 to 1967 — twice being named MVP.
“I think he really enjoyed his junior years the most,” his son Chris Powless said of his father at the time. “He was really glad that he played for the late Mr. Jim Bishop (considered one of greatest lacrosse coaches ever) and the tight-knit group that they had.”
From there, it was a trajectory of national championship titles, awards and accolades — earning him the nickname “Marvelous Mohawk” by sports journalists.
Richard Powless told CBC he watched his older brother make a historical shot that he remembers. “Gaylord was running away from the goal, with his back to it. He had a defender on either shoulder. So the almost-predictable, reverse-over-the-shoulder shot was not an option. Instead, Gaylord rifled the ball straight back down between his own feet, where it caromed off the ground and buried top shelf in the net. Even the goalie had to admire that. Almost impossible.”
Powless is featured in the upcoming documentary “THE RULES OF LACROSSE — and the Men Who Break them” by Joanne Storken and Honest Engine Films. In it, hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky tells how much impact Powless had.
“I watched every Canadian, every North American that played lacrosse in the 60s and 70s,” said Gretzky. “Gaylord Powless was the greatest lacrosse player I ever saw play. He would do things with the ball and his stick that nobody’s ever done, nobody ever will do. He was just a very unique, special player. His creativity was so over the top. He could throw the ball backwards even better than he could throw the ball forward. And I remember watching him play each and every night idolizing what he brought, and how exciting it was as a young kid to watch him play.”
Gretzky said, “I saw a lot of great players but to me, there was nobody like Gaylord Powless.”
In 1968, at the age of 17 he was recognized as the best First Nations athlete with the Tom Longboat Award. In the same year he was given the National Lacrosse Association’s All-Star Award. By 1977, Gaylord had played for squads in Montreal, Detroit, Syracuse, Rochester, Portland, Brantford, Brampton and Coquitlam, B.C.. By 1978, he had won every title known in the world of lacrosse.
He retired and became an active coach and advocate for sports at Six Nations of the Grand River. In 1990, Gaylord was inducted to the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, making Ross and Gaylord the first and only father-son duo in it’s legacy.
Powless continued his advocacy and support of local athletes up to his illness with colon cancer and eventual death in 2001. Days before his passing, community members at Six Nations made the suggestion to the Six Nations Elected Council to rename the Ohsweken Arena in his memory.
Members of Gaylord’s family said he was told about the decision days before his passing and say it was a happy moment during one of the most difficult journeys a family takes — saying goodbye.
On July 28, 2001, Gaylord died after a three year battle with cancer. He was 54 years old.
In 2017, he was named to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. His daughter, Gaylene Powless, accepted the award on behalf of her father and his surviving family — and gave a message to her father’s grandchildren — that the love of the Powless family was paramount to Gaylord’s success and his descendants, his greatest accomplishment.
“As much as your papa would like to have been here and been proud to get this award — he would be more proud of all of you and that you carry on his legacy in your own way.”
By Jim Windle and Nahnda Garlow (@nahndagarlow)