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Assistant coach for Rock Bridge club lacrosse has wide ranging life experiences

Thursday, May 10, 2012 | 11:09 p.m. CDT; updated 11:35 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 10, 2012
Assistant coach John Dean walks off the field after playing with the Rock Bridge lacrosse team’s goalie during an afternoon practice on Thursday at Rock Bridge High School.

COLUMBIA — With a bandana around his thick white hair, a cutoff T-shirt and his Syracuse shorts, John Dean carried his lacrosse stick on his shoulder and surveyed the Bruins through his dark sunglasses. 

The Rock Bridge High School lacrosse club coaching staff often participates in drills and scrimmages since most are former players and are either still in college or recently graduated.

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But assistant coach John Dean, who at first glance appears in his early sixties when he mixes it up with the high schoolers, is not a recent graduate. Dean, who prefers to keep his age a mystery, graduated from Syracuse in the 1950s with a Lacrosse National Championship.

Dean, the product of a different era, has noticed big differences in the way he grew up compared to the students he now coaches. His varied experiences weave a life story that goes far beyond success in lacrosse.

Growing up in upstate New York, Dean was involved in many organizations like scouts, youth groups and youth sports leagues. Dean then played five sports throughout high school including basketball and, his favorite, ice hockey.

"That's the way it was back in those days," Dean said. "Sports was a big deal. I mean, you played sandlot everything. After school, if you weren't on the high school team you were playing sandlot whatever.

"When I grew up in the 50s, we didn't have the distractions that the kids have today," Dean said. "Very few families had TV sets for example. We had no computers. They didn't even exist. You did your calculations in math with a slide rule. Hand-held calculators were forbidden.

"All you had to do was play sports or music. I was also a musician."

Dean's list of athletic extracurriculars led him to a wide variety of experiences. When he was a Boy Scout, his scout leader recruited 12 boys from his home town of Troy, N.Y., for "Air Scouts" to learn how to fly a plane.

Dean recalls that those chosen had to be a certain type of physical specimen. They had to have 20/20 eyesight, be able to run a mile in less than six minutes and they could not weigh more than 150 pounds.

"Every kid wanted to get into this and I made the cut and ended up learning how to fly. And I soloed an airplane when I was 16. And my parents didn't really know what I was doing. I would just tell them, 'I'm taking flying lessons.' And the 'yeah, yeah, yeahs.'"

Dean then went on to Syracuse University where he walked onto a lacrosse team that included NFL and Lacrosse Hall of Fame player Jim Brown, among other future NFL players and future Lacrosse Hall of Fame inductees.

Jim Brown was an All-American in lacrosse and the only player allowed to drive his own car on road trips instead of taking the bus, Dean said. 

"He had a red Pontiac convertible," Dean said. "The coolest thing was if Jim Brown invited you — me — to ride in the backseat while he cruised looking for girls. So he invited me once to ride with him. And we cruised around trying to pick up girls." 

The team was undefeated and won the national champion team during Brown's senior year. 

"We were blessed with some really good athletes and experienced players and a terrific defense," Dean said, who was honored as a Syracuse Letterwinner of Distinction in 2009.

The goalie during the undefeated season was Oren Lyons, an American Indian from the reservations in central New York who was later inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

"And he became a very prominent leader in the Iroquois nation," Dean said. "He was a really good goalie and a nice guy."

Dean continued his well-rounded ways at Syracuse. He was in Chapel Choir, served as Interfraternity Council vice president, and played clarinet for four years in the university marching band.

Dean remembers going to four Syracuse bowl games, including when Jim Brown was a senior and when Ernie Davis was a senior. However, meeting his wife was the most notable perk of being a part of the marching band

"At Syracuse, the band was called '100 Men and a Girl,'" Dean said. "Again, things were different. We had no women in the band. They weren't allowed. They recruited the top baton twirler in the world every four years. My wife was it.

"I was one of the 100 stiffs marching in the eighth row or something. My roommate at the fraternity was a trombone player. The trombone players, if you know anything about marching bands, are always in the front row. So whenever we had a break, the trombone players were on her like mad and the guys in the eighth row were out to lunch," Dean said as he brightened up with a deep laugh.

"Anyway, he was dating her. He was a really good guy, but long story short, he graduated and I took over," he said with an even longer laugh. "It's amazing because she was really hot, I'll tell ya. She was a really good twirler. She just put up with me.

"So anyway, we somehow made it. I graduated two years before she did and then we got pinned. They don't pin anymore, do they? That was like getting engaged."

In early June, Dean and his wife will celebrated their 52nd anniversary.

"We've been married for 52 years," he said. "Same woman. Can you imagine that? So that's how the music influenced my life."

Dean still plays in a band in Columbia.

Dean graduated from Syracuse as a three-year lacrosse letter winner with a bachelor's degree in paper science engineering. He did not play much lacrosse after he graduated, but it was still playing a role in his life. 

When he went to interview at a small, family-run paper mill company in Connecticut, he found out the president had been the head coach for lacrosse at the University of Virginia.

"I go down there to interview in Connecticut and he's asking me, of course, all this stuff about lacrosse and everything. I gave him my references, he never checked one. Instead, he called the lacrosse coach at Syracuse, whom he knew from competition.

"And I said 'What'd he want to know?'" Dean recalled. His former coach answered: "'He wanted to know how you were on ground balls.'"

Dean got the job.

After retiring and moving to Columbia in 2004, he got back into lacrosse for the first time since college.

"When I came back to it, it was there," Dean said of his lacrosse skills. "I can still pass accurately and still can use both hands."

But, he added: "I can't run like I used to."

Dean is now the assistant coach for the Bruins club team and focuses on teaching players how to play away from the ball. He is also a part of the group that started the youth lacrosse league in Columbia. Dean turned down all compensation for being a coach.

"When you retire, obviously I've got a lot of interests," Dean said. "You're free to do what you want to do. There's no pressure to this."

Supervising editor is Tony Schick.


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