'Mayor of Lacrosse'

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:33 AM ET

They are going to bury Rick Passfield in Oshawa today, and it's safe to assume there won't be many a dry eye. The great game of lacrosse will be a topic of discussion, and Rick's role in it. Perhaps there's no more fitting a tribute.

By all accounts, Rick Passfield lived for lacrosse. A goalie, he started playing at the age of three. Field lacrosse during the fall, box lacrosse during the summer, coaching kids, helping run clinics, it didn't matter.

"Tuggy," that's what they called him around here. He was a big, burly kid growing up. Friends will remember someone friendly and outgoing. "Tuggy" is what they'll still call him today.

For Nemur Haber, it'll be another day of wrenching emotion. It will also be a day where he tries to check his anger. A longtime trainer with the Whitby Warriors junior A team, this has been an extraordinary week of reflection, like no other for the Mississauga resident.

His son Ryan, who would have turned 22 this year, was best friends with Rick Passfield, 21, who died Monday after collapsing during a conditioning exercise at Bellarmine University in Kentucky where he was on a lacrosse scholarship.

Both boys had played on the same lacrosse teams since they were tykes, and followed each other up through the Whitby minor lacrosse ranks for 10 years, right through midget. They were best friends. They would have been pals for life. They most likely would have had careers in the sport. Passfield, who played for the Warriors, was seen as one of the best lacrosse goalies in Ontario.

"He stole games for us," said Bob Hanna, the team's general manager. "He'd carry us until we got going."

After that midget year, after that team won the Ontario championship, and were about to graduate on to junior lacrosse, Ryan went to Haliburton to a teammate's family cottage for a team gathering.

It was to be the last time together for a core group of players who had won championships together with Whitby over the years.

While out on a motorboat by himself, Ryan, dressed in heavier clothes because of the cool weather that day, stood up, tripped over the fuel line, lost his footing and fell into the choppy waters, 80 feet down.

He had been wearing a life jacket all day, but had taken it off and was sitting on it because of the bulky clothes. Nemur, who says he had an unsettling feeling earlier that Saturday, got the call that his boy was missing. It would be the next day when they recovered the body.

Afterwards, it was Rick Passfield who offered much of the support. Nemur is best friends with Rick's dad, Mike, just as the boys were best friends. Soon Rick became kind of a surrogate son to Nemur, a kind of surrogate brother to Nemur's other son, Jordan.

"I kind of adopted Tuggy because they were such good friends," he said. "I looked after this kid. I was his trainer all through minor and junior." He'd always tape him up before games. It was tradition.

The coroner's report on what caused a young man to die so suddenly won't be out for a few weeks. That mystery compounds the shock people are feeling. Rick collapsed halfway through a series of quarter-mile runs.

When they buried Ryan Haber six years ago, more than 2,000 people jammed the Oshawa Funeral Service. Today, legions of friends and family, and others from the lacrosse community, will jam it again.

Nemur got a lesson six years ago on the tightness of the lacrosse community, especially in these parts. Now he's part of the community that will lend support to the Passfield family.

"Mike called and said I need you here right now," Nemur said, recalling the gruelling initial hours earlier this week upon hearing the news. Now Rick is gone too, and that makes Nemur angry.

He's again trying to make sense of it all. He knows he won't, he can't. He has been there before.

"The Warriors have a saying: Pain is temporary, pride is forever," Nemur said. "That's etched on Ryan's tombstone. The pain will subside, but the pride those two kids instilled in the community, that will never go away. My son Jordan came up to me the other day, and I think he summed it best. Tuggy, he said, Tuggy was the mayor of lacrosse."


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