Lacrosse standout is benched because his head is too big
At 6 feet tall, 265 pounds, Alex Chu is a big kid with a mighty passion for playing one of the toughest positions in sports: lacrosse goalie.
As a high school all-star, Chu blocked dozens of shots per game, some hurtling at him at nearly 100 miles an hour.
He’s now a freshman at Wheaton College, where he was recruited for lacrosse. But he’s sitting on the bench because they can’t find a helmet large enough for his head.
Yes, that’s right: Chu, a soft-spoken, polite kid who wants to become an elementary school teacher, happens to have an oversize head.
And without an NCAA-approved helmet, he’s been relegated to the sidelines, welcome to run sprints with the team but banned from tending shots or playing in games when the season begins later this month.
“Lacrosse is kind of my whole life,” Chu, 19, of Mendon, said when we met on campus. “I can’t remember ever going this long without playing.”
Chu’s parents, coaches, and supporters have exhausted themselves trying to get Chu back on the field in full pads and helmet. What they need is for one of the two major manufacturers of lacrosse helmets (Cascade-Maverik and Warrior) to agree to make a custom helmet for him.
At Nipmuc Regional High School in Upton, Chu wore a rigged-up helmet that a local fabricator made by combining the front and back portions of two different helmets. But he is no longer in business.
The state organization that oversees public high school athletics approved the custom-made helmet, and Chu made good use of it by notching dozens of victories for his team during two years in goal.
He had hoped to use the same helmet in college, but by the time he arrived at Wheaton last fall, it was too cracked and tattered.
But even if it had been in perfect shape, it likely would not have been allowed: Helmets worn in NCAA-sanctioned sports must be embossed with the official stamp of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. NCAA officials are supposed to randomly check helmets for the stamp before whistling a game to begin.
Since Chu’s patched-together helmet lacks the official stamp, he can’t play.
I get that these companies are in business to make a buck and that there’s little profit in a one-off order of this sort. After all, the vast majority of lacrosse players have a head circumference of less than 24 inches and fit nicely into one of the standard-size helmets that come rolling off the assembly line. Chu’s head circumference is slightly larger than 25 inches, so big that he can’t get even the largest available helmet over his ears.
A Warrior company representative told me a custom-made helmet is “cost-prohibitive” because retooling factory machinery would be “tens of thousands of dollars as a general estimate.”
Alison Chu, Alex’s mother, wrote in an e-mail that “nobody can believe the nightmare my son is caught in. All he wants is to play lacrosse. He’s got the dedication. He’s got the skills. He just needs the helmet.”
Mike Oliver runs the national committee that issues the official stamps to properly tested helmets. This kind of situation — “someone with a really big noggin” — arises occasionally, he said.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” he said. “But we don’t have leverage over the manufacturers. We can’t compel them to make a special helmet. We can encourage them, cajole them, work with them, but not command them.”
Oliver said he’s begun making calls on Chu’s behalf.
Alex, his mother, and others are convinced that Cascade-Maverik, based in upstate New York, could make a helmet to fit Alex. It recently helped with a custom, large-size helmet for Tehoka Nanticoke of the University of Albany, one of the best players in the country at a school that made it to the Final Four last year. (Wheaton runs a serious Division 3 lacrosse program, but no one will confuse it for an elite Division 1 school.)
A spokesman for the University of Albany confirmed that Nanticoke wears a very large helmet that was produced after Albany coaches and Cascade “huddled up,” but declined to say much more.
My repeated calls and e-mails to Cascade-Maverik went unanswered. Alison Chu said the last time she tried to speak with a company rep, he angrily hung up on her.
Sean Quirk coaches the Boston Cannons, a professional lacrosse team, after almost two decades at the college level. He has seen Chu in action at a summer lacrosse camp.
“I’m one of the people racking my brain trying to find a way to get Alex on the field,” he said. “All I know is it’s an unbelievable situation.”
Yeah, but not impossible. It’s time for everyone involved in this odd predicament to put their heads together and come up with a solution so Chu can do what he loves.
I recently wrote about Jessie Fire, a mentally challenged Cambridge woman who was signed up for an expensive personal training contract she didn’t fully understand.
After I got involved, Elite Home Fitness LLC refunded her $5,000. In the column, I highlighted an apparent loophole in a 35-year-old law that gives consumers an absolute right to cancel a health club contract within three days. An Elite lawyer said that law didn’t apply because Elite isn’t a physical health club; its trainers go to its customers.
Several readers pointed out a different section of the law that would apply. State law gives you three days to cancel any sale made at your home, workplace, or dormitory, or at a seller’s temporary location, like a hotel or motel room.
It’s something you should know, in case you feel you were fast-talked into a bad deal.