It’s easy to miss at first glance. If you look at the 2007 team picture of the men’s lacrosse team, you might not see the Hard Hat right away. It rests on the knees of senior co-captains Mitch Belisle and Matt McMonagle in the center of the front row, blending into their white jerseys. The red numbers on its side are hard to read unless you get a little closer. But if you do, you’ll see that the number is 21, and you’ll have a better look at the heart and soul of the Cornell men’s lacrosse program.
The tradition of the Hard Hat began in the fall of 1999, after Cornell head coach Dave Pietramala caught a Virginia Tech football game on TV. The announcers kept talking about the Lunch Pail on the Hokies’ sideline, a battered black metal box with “WIN” painted on the front and “VT” on the side in orange letters. The Lunch Pail tradition began in 1995, when the Hokies began carrying it to every practice, game and team function to symbolize their blue-collar approach to defensive football. Pietramala and his staff, which included current head coach Jeff Tambroni, decided to adapt this concept for their team.
“The Hard Hat was a great symbol of what we wanted to represent in every practice and game,” Tambroni said. “We make sure it’s with us every day.”
Midway through the fall season, a freshman is selected to carry the Hard Hat for the year. The recipient is someone that the coaches feel demonstrates a blue-collar approach to the game of lacrosse; he is driven and selfless, not the most talented player on the field, but consistently the hardest worker. He puts the team first, and embodies how the coaches want Cornell players to act and respond on or off the field.
“When you look at a hard hat just in its own form, it represents … just going to do your job every day and not necessarily needing any type of publicity or fame,” said sophomore Matt Moyer, who carried the Hard Hat during his rookie season.
During the 2004 season, the Hard Hat took on a new significance. On March 17, George Boiardi ’04 was struck in the chest with a ball shot by a Binghamton player and died on Schoellkopf Field. Boiardi had carried the Hard Hat his freshman year.
“After he passed away it [became] symbolic of just George,” said senior David Mitchell, who was in charge of the Hard Hat that season. “It came to represent a person as opposed to just some ideas. It just took on a bigger meaning … and I was just proud that I could carry it on for him and just pass it down to the next guy.”
That successor was junior John Glynn. Although Glynn only met Boiardi briefly during his recruiting trip to Cornell, he saw that Boiardi put teammates before himself, almost to a fault.
“We were out kind of late and George was doing work, and he came out out of his spare time and picked us up in the middle of the night, just being the good teammate that he always was, and gave us a ride home,” Glynn remembered. “We actually got pulled over for having too many people in the car, but he was so nice to the cop [that] nothing happened.”
Even for teammates that never met Boiardi in person, they hear his name each week when the coaches talk about “playing as hard as George” and getting “Boiardi stats” — hustle plays that don’t show up in a box score but are integral to the team’s success. Moyer and freshman Joel McCready, who currently holds the Hard Hat, got to know the man behind the number 21 and the meaning of the Hard Hat this way.
“I saw it in Matty’s locker [this fall] and they were just telling us that he was such a hard worker, and I wanted to be like that,” McCready said. “Then when I got it, it was the greatest honor ever.”
While one player is selected to carry the Hard Hat, it is symbolic of what each and every member of the program strives for on a daily basis. It represents the values that have propelled the Red to a 10-0 (4-0 Ivy) record and the No. 1 position in the Nike/Inside Lacrosse national rankings for the past six weeks. If Tambroni feels the team is losing focus, he’ll bring the Hard Hat into the huddle at practice so everyone can get a touch.
“I think it’s a reminder if there’s ever a moment when we’re not doing our job,” he said. “I’m hoping it inspires everyone to get back to our roots, back to the details.”
The players believe that approach is what has gotten them this far, to the chance to play for a share of a fifth consecutive Ivy League title tomorrow against Princeton.
“You work hard and good things will come,” Mitchell said. “It’s kind of our motto. Don’t worry about what other people are doing, just focus on your own job and what is in your control and success will follow. Just hard work, dedication and teammates is what it’s all about.”
Tomorrow, Cornell will put that blue-collar work ethic to the test. From its spot on the sideline, the Hard Hat will remind them how to play. So will the number 21, written in white on the corner of the Schoellkopf turf. Even the calendar is showing team spirit.
“Coach [Tambroni] made a good point this week. Our game this weekend falls on the 21st day, and we just try to look at that as a sign from above and just try to play for George,” Glynn said. “Every scouting report that we go over we have to play as hard as George and get Boiardi stats, and I feel like that’s going to be in our blood and in our veins.”
Olivia Dwyer is a former Sun Sports Editor. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Forever Wild appears on alternate Fridays.