Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Spartan Shield

Sam Cila has a way of getting your attention.

Maybe it's the direct, pull-no-punches, nothing-sugar-coated way he speaks. Maybe it's the deep, powerful voice, the one that intimidates and challenges at the same time. Maybe it's the way he doesn't want to hear what you might think he wants to hear and instead turns that back around on you, challenging you to actually dig deep and find the right answer.

Maybe it's the tattoos that he has on both arms, sticking out from under his shirt, the one that says "The Program," with the circular logo with a warrior inside.

Or maybe it's just the tattoos on his left arm. They're the ones that end at the stump, where his hand used to be, before he was injured in Iraq more than a decade ago, before he had 40 surgeries on his injuries, before he had to have the hand amputated.

Or maybe it's what he says.

He talks about his injuries openly, and yet there's not one piece of him that wants sympathy. In fact, that would probably just anger him.

He talks about the three most difficult things he's had to do in his life: 1) tell his wife and children that he was going to war, 2) have a friend and teammate die in his arms in war, and 3) tell the doctor that finally it was time to amputate his hand.

This is one tough man, and there is not one ounce of BS anywhere in his body. So yes, when he talks, he gets your attention.

Early yesterday morning - before the sun came up, at 4:40 a.m. - Sam Cila was on the pool deck of Dillon Gym. The people he was talking to at this moment were the members of the Princeton men's lacrosse team. TigerBlog was able to observe - and learn.

The program - officially called "The Program" - is designed to build teamwork and leadership and accountability. It's a challenging program, and it was from the first moment Monday when Cila lined the Tigers up on the end line on Sherrerd Field.

Oh, and a little more about Sam Cila. He was a high school wrestler. He has a wife and two children. He had a career with the Department of Corrections before 9/11, when he decided that he would enlist. If it's good enough for someone else to fight, he said, then it was good enough for him.

He went to Iraq in the late summer of 2004. Nearly a year later, on of all days July 4, 2005, Cila was almost directly on top of an IED when it was detonated, ripping into his left side.

Today his biggest regret appears to be that he could not continue his military career and finish the fight he signed up to fight. He owns a CrossFit gym and has put his other time to good use, what with his experience climbing some of the highest mountains in the world and doing triathlons on the international level.

And he does "The Program."

Princeton's first day of practice was Monday, but instead of lacrosse sticks and helmets, the Tigers got a lot of running Monday evening and a lot of swimming Tuesday morning.

Cila set the tone early Monday and it stayed that way until the very end. TigerBlog watched it, and he saw the evolution, as the team figured out that Cila's version of a straight line and most people's version of a straight line weren't exactly the same thing. By the end of "The Program," they understood.

They also understood what it meant to be a team, what their responsibility was as a teammate, how they needed to be strong and confident in their individual selves at the same time. It was pretty fascinating to watch.

The two days ended with a drill that saw the players wear their gray Princeton lacrosse sweatshirts, swim out into the pool, take the sweatshirts off, hold them up in the air, trade them with a teammate and then put the other one on. All while treading water.

At the end, Cila gives an award to the one member of the team who has done the best. It's a cherished award, one that is well-earned in every way.

And what is it? It's a gray t-shirt. It has the logo, but it's not a circle. It's a shield, Cila says, the Spartant shield.

And why?

Spartan soldiers were sent into battle with a shield and a spear. To lose the spear was acceptable. To lose the shield was not, since it exposed not only you but also your fellow soldiers.

The winner was Jack O'Brien, a junior face-off man.

TigerBlog might not have wanted to get up at 4 am yesterday, but he's glad he did. He's glad he got to see "The Program," and to meet the man who was running it.

It'll be awhile before TB forgets Sam Cila. He's pretty sure the Princeton men's lacrosse players feel the same way.

Sam Cila is heroic, even if he doesn't think he did anything special - and TB believes that his modesty is genuine. And here he was, someone who had given so much of himself in a war that he didn't have to go fight but chose to, talking to a group of young athletes who hopefully will never have to experience what he did.

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