Redwoods defenseman John Sexton’s traditional stick — strung with leathers and cross lace — has become as distinctive as his elite play between the lines.

There's a Story to John Sexton's Stick, an Ode to Ando


Jogging into the tunnel at the 50-yard line of Gillette Stadium during halftime of the Premier Lacrosse League’s 2021 season opener earlier this month, Redwoods long-stick midfielder John Sexton stopped when he saw Lucas Ando. Hanging over the railing yards from where the New England Patriots play, Ando performed a handoff of another kind — passing along a freshly strung Epoch ID Vision head to Sexton.

The pocket was anything but generic.

Sexton’s traditional stick — strung with leathers and cross lace — has become as distinctive as the 2018 Schmeisser Award winner’s ground-ball play on faceoff wings or his toe drag and goal against the Archers in the first round of the 2019 PLL playoffs. The pocket that harkens back to the game’s origins stands out in a sea of mesh and helped shape Sexton’s creative, but bruising style between the lines.

“He’s got no problem toe-dragging guys and he can let the thing fly, but there’s nothing cute about his game,” said Redwoods captain and fellow Notre Dame grad Eddy Glazener. “He’s built like a truck. He’s very hard-nosed and plays with a bit of that ’80s, ’90s grit that you saw from some defenseman that used those [traditional] sticks during that era.”

“When I’m doing a game and I spot a kid with leather, I almost want to have a conversation with him,” ESPN lacrosse analyst Paul Carcaterra told the New York Times in a 2015 article about how all eight siblings in the Stanwick family played Division I lacrosse and used traditional “pita” pockets strung by their father. “I want to know his story. Something is different about that kid. There’s a story to a kid that uses leather. There’s a story to a stick.”

The story of Sexton’s stick is intertwined with the Ando family. During his sophomore year at Lincoln-Sudbury (Ma.) High School, heralded trainer and mentor Yoshitaka Ando, Lucas’ father, noticed how Sexton liked to scoop up ground balls with the top left corner of his head.

“You know, this would be a lot easier with a traditional stick,” Ando told him. “If you’re open to trying this out, I’d love to string you one.”

Sexton said he’d give it a shot. He immediately loved the added feel from the leathers. The high pocket that broke in a little deeper on the left also gave him even more confidence to attack ground balls. He started exclusively using a traditional pocket with brown leathers strung by Ando around the playoffs of his sophomore season.

The tradition stuck. “I never looked back,” Sexton said. He used Ando’s traditional pockets throughout the rest of his career at L-S, where he was a three-time USA Lacrosse All American and tallied 43 points, and then in South Bend. “Who else but John Sexton,” announcers at Arlotta Stadium grew accustomed to saying after the three-time All-American collected yet another one of his 191 career ground balls to go along with 64 caused turnovers.

The connection continued into the pros, first with Major League Lacrosse’s Dallas Rattlers in 2018, then the Redwoods after Sexton made the leap to the PLL for its inaugural season in 2019. The entire Ando family attended Sexton’s first PLL game, a win over the Atlas at Gillette. He started every game during the Redwoods’ playoff run that fell short when the Whipsnakes defeated them in overtime in the championship game.

The black dyed head that Sexton used in that game now hangs in his apartment in Chicago.

It was the last one Yoshitaka Ando strung for him.

“I have no intent of using that anytime moving forward,” Sexton said.



***

On Nov. 29, 2019, Ando was admitted to the Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where he was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer. He died in the early-morning hours Dec. 3, 2019, surrounded by friends and family. He was 56 and survived by his wife, Cheri, and their four children: Lucas, Kyle, Marcus and Olivia.

Ando’s memorial service was held 11 days later at Lincoln-Sudbury on a dark and rainy morning. The school was the only place large enough to accommodate the more than 2,000 mourners. They needed to open both gyms.

“I’m going to miss my best friend and partner, and the kids are going to miss their dad,” the Metro West Daily News noted Rev. Tom O’Brien read aloud from a remembrance written by Cheri Ando at the memorial. “But our family, friends and L-S community are going to help us through. For this I have no doubt.”

The support and tributes since have been wide ranging. The Ando Family College Fund has raised more than $400,000. December 14 is now Yoshitaka Ando Day in the town of Sudbury. The Lincoln-Sudbury varsity lacrosse team — for which Marcus and Kyle Ando compete and will play tomorrow in the Division 1 state championship against St. John’s Prep — adorns its helmets with “Ando” stickers. Some players have continued the tradition in college.

If you looked closely after North Carolina graduate transfer Connor McCarthy scored the overtime winner against Rutgers to send the Tar Heels to the final four, you could see the word “Ando” written in black sharpie on white tape on the throat piece of his helmet before he was mobbed by his teammates.

Sexton also writes “Ando” on a piece of athletic tape attached to his throat guard, but with a notable distinction. The name faces the inside. It’s the last thing Sexton looks at before he takes the field.

“He was always so generous and looking to help others,” Sexton said. “I was lucky to have him in my corner.”

Inducted into the Eastern Massachusetts Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2016, Ando had never seen lacrosse before he got the job as athletic trainer at Lincoln-Sudbury in 1987. Growing up in Japan, he’d watched American soldiers play football at a nearby Army base and dreamed of playing the sport. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1978 at the age of 15 and lived with his aunt and uncle in Franklin, Massachusetts. He played defensive back at Franklin High School and later walked onto the team at Bridgewater State.

The man whose picture now adorns the wall in the training room at Lincoln-Sudbury was a picture of devotion during his 33 years at the school. Ando had a knack for bringing people together and making connections. He became a trusted resource, often dispensing advice on nutrition, strength training and leadership.

Ando would open up the weight room for the 7 a.m. “club.” Sexton added 40 pounds of muscle his freshman year. Still, he was a bit uneasy heading into varsity tryouts that spring. “The work has already been done,” Ando told him. “Go out and play the way you know you can.”

“He showed up every single day and did his job perfectly, executing on everything he was responsible for,” Sexton said. “Dependably always being there for all the kids at all the programs across the high school. He was one of the great leaders by example in my life.”

The head trainer for the Japan Lacrosse Association at the 1994 and 1998 world championships, Ando added the role of stick doctor to his list of responsibilities. He often performed some last-minute maintenance on Lincoln-Sudbury alums’ sticks that they’d ship him overnight. He went by just Ando, since he told people that it was easier to remember. Though he assisted more than 10,000 students in his career, he never seemed to forget anyone’s name.

“He was the institutional memory,” said Tim Jason, an English teacher and assistant boys’ lacrosse coach at Lincoln-Sudbury. “He was the one who kind of kept these traditions alive and kept the past as part of the present. You can really look at Johnny's stick and the traditional pocket as a connection between the past and the present of the sport.”

Jason, who is working on publishing “The Book of Ando” as a way to preserve the memory of his former colleague and friend, also can’t help but see the similarities between Sexton and Ando. Both embodied the lacrosse team’s mantra “first to serve, last to be served,” he said.

“There is a standard of excellence in their respective performances,” Jason said. “They’re also not only great ambassadors for the game, but they forge so many strong relationships by sharing their wisdom and really helping people.

“John is the best player I ever coached. He's the hardest working player I ever coached. But he's also from the time he was in high school one of the best coaches I ever worked with. I think that sense of connectedness is something he got from Ando.”








An associate board member for OWLS Lacrosse, an inner-city program in Chicago, Sexton volunteered for a day of games and a park cleanup project before he headed to training camp in Foxborough. At one of Jason’s daughter’s soccer games earlier this month, other parents told him they had met Sexton in the parking lot and had a great conversation with him after the Redwoods’ win over the Cannons at Gillette.

Before the pandemic, Sexton, who now works in private equity and previously was in investment banking, would leave the office at around 9 p.m. for a 90-minute “workout break.” He’d then return and continue working until the early-morning hours. Back in the summers at Lincoln-Sudbury, he’d work out in the weight room, then help train the seventh- and eighth-graders.

That work ethic carries over to his pocket. Besides the advantage off the ground, Ando helped Sexton understand and appreciate all the time and craftsmanship that a traditional stick entailed. The thousands of reps on the wall to break in the leathers. The maintenance after games, especially if it rains.

Sexton started breaking in his gamer for this season in April. Last week, he said it was just beginning to feel fully dialed in.

“He’s not the biggest kid. He’s not the fastest kid. But he is the hardest-working kid and he’s the greatest competitor,” Jason said. “A traditional stick requires a great commitment from its users. That’s Johnny.”

***

A couple months before the 2020 PLL Championship Series, Lucas Ando reached out to Sexton. He mentioned that he was a student of his father’s work and eager to string Sexton a stick. Lucas Ando grew up watching his father spend countless hours stringing outside the family’s kitchen for a player at Lincoln-Sudbury or one of its many alums. He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and started stringing in middle school. An initial attempt at a traditional pocket went awry, but his dad fixed it.

“It’s a lot of trial and error,” Lucas Ando recalled his father telling him. “It’s gonna be frustrating, but once you get the hang of it, it will really come easier.” He used traditional pockets throughout high school at Marlborough, where he graduated in 2020.




The late Lincoln-Sudbury (Mass.) trainer Yoshitaka Ando strung Sexton's traditional leather pockets. After Ando died of esophageal cancer in December 2019, his son, Lucas, decided to carry on his lacrosse legacy.


Lucas Ando was intrigued by the creativity of the craft, but also the opportunity to help grow the game. In 2016, he started Emass Strings with the goal to create a place where people can get high-quality stringing at affordable prices. He just shipped a head to Montana the other week.

“It was instantly a perfect match,” Sexton said.

“It is an incredible feeling knowing that one of the best players at the high level trusts you with something that is so important,” Lucas Ando said.

The leathers for Sexton’s latest head arrived late, so Lucas strung it up the morning of the Cannons game. Sexton joked with him later that he could have waited until after the game to complete the handoff. “It wasn’t like I was going to use that in the second half, because it needed to be broken in, but it just shows the extent to which he takes his work very seriously,” Sexton said. “He’s done such a great job and taken so much from his father in stringing and beyond. He’s done a phenomenal job for his family, really being there for them and working hard.”

When Lucas Ando sees all the tributes to his father, he said it fills him with pride but also shows he has big shoes to fill. For the eight or so heads he has strung for Sexton, he has used one his dad strung back in Sexton’s Lincoln-Sudbury days as a template. In the past, he’s experimented with different sidewall patterns and ways to attach the leathers. For Sexton’s sticks, however, he’s tried to copy his dad’s work down to every knot and interlock.  

He believes the pocket that Sexton has used so far this season is the closest yet.

“A lot of boys want to be just like their dad growing up,” Lucas Ando said. “Getting to even be a little bit of what he was and carry on that tradition really means the world to me.”