When Lizards defender Tim Henderson gave notice that he would miss his team's July 3 home game, it was with good reason. He had a scheduling conflict with his other job -- helping to defend his country.
Henderson, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, is based at Fort Hood, Texas, but flies out for Lizards games, which are mostly on weekends. He has played in only three of their 10 games this season but expects to play in every remaining game, starting Saturday in Boston against the Cannons.
A 2012 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Henderson, 25, is from Tully, a small town in central New York. He has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, spending six months commanding a platoon charged with keeping security in an area near Bagram Air Field, the largest U.S. military base in that country.
The Lizards acquired the 6-3, 225-pound former West Point captain in a 2012 trade with the Rochester Rattlers, who drafted him 35th overall that year. He played 11 games with the Lizards before missing the 2013 Major League Lacrosse season because of his military duties.
"In terms of the team, you could immediately tell his absence and the effect it had on us,'' Lizards defenseman Brian Karalunas said. "We lacked that intensity and our defense really suffered when he left. He's the kind of a guy who's irreplaceable in terms of physical attributes. He's an absolute specimen. He looks like Captain America.''
For Henderson, the transition back to the lacrosse field is nothing compared to time spent in a combat zone. He said that while in Afghanistan, his operating base endured fire by artillery shells nearly twice a week. He added that roadside improvised explosive devices were another constant threat.
"Where we lived got hit,'' Henderson said. "The first time they hit, my heart started racing. It was one of the wildest noises I've ever heard. You get a little stressed out and it's nerve-wracking, but after you've seen so many go off, you kind of accept there's nothing you can do.''
Despite such danger and chaos, when an M4 assault rifle wasn't in Henderson's hands, his lacrosse stick was.
"If I had five minutes of down time, I'd throw a ball against a wall,'' Henderson said in a phone interview from Fort Hood last week. "A lot of times, when I'd been in school and just needed to get my mind off stuff, I would play wall ball. It was a time I could use to relax and get refocused. You just don't think about anything, you get your mind cleared and go back to what you're doing.''
For Henderson, lacrosse remains cathartic. It's part of the reason he travels, despite full-time duties in the Army. The other reason is a sense of responsibility to his friends.
"It's just the atmosphere of being in the locker room with guys going out and competing,'' Henderson said. "I've done that since I was 4 years old. It's the same locker-room atmosphere in the Army.
"Whether you're in a leadership role or not, you want to positively influence the people around you. Showing up, being emotional and giving everything you have to the sport is going to separate you.''
Henderson has been a leader on defense for the Lizards since 2012, his rookie season. He picked up 30 ground balls in 11 games that year while splitting time with Army training. Karalunas, who teamed with Henderson when they were teenagers on a club team in Syracuse, said Henderson seamlessly assumed his old role as friend and fierce competitor upon returning to the Lizards this season.
Lizards coach Joe Spallina said he learned just three days before a game last year that Henderson was being deployed to Afghanistan. He said the offer for him to return was an unconditional one.
"Obviously, a guy that goes and defends the country in war has every right to come back and be part of the team that he left to begin with,'' Spallina said. "It's an honor to have him on our team and he enjoys the opportunity to play after going through what he did.''
Henderson said his goal with the Lizards is to win a championship. But for now, he knows he has a job to finish in his other uniform. He still owes the Army three years of active duty.
"I'm leading soldiers in the military,'' he said. "At the end of the day, that comes before lacrosse. People's sons and daughters are signing up for the military and if I'm not there . . . to me, that's morally not OK. I owe it to [them] to be there.''