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Harvard Stadium looks like the type of place Roman gladiators would call home, making it a fitting arena for the Boston Cannons to annihilate the competition at their first home game.
But that game isn’t for another six hours.
In a far corner of the stadium’s parking lot stands a red pop-up tent. Before you can even read the flag billowing in the wind, you hear Creedence Clearwater Revival blaring on a stereo and see a ballet of backwards caps and cargo shorts in the heat of a pick-up lacrosse game. At the top of a small hill and past the smoke of a camping grill is the home base for the Cannons’ very own team of hecklers — the CannonBall Busters.
In the tradition of the first fan to reject a belly-itcher on the pitcher’s mound, the CannonBall Busters have a role to play during Cannons’ games. While most fans attend games to root for the home team, the Ball Busters show their support by picking on, throwing off, and — you guessed it — busting the balls of the competition.
But first, to loosen up and get in the spirit of spewing slurs, they do what every self-respecting diehard fan prefers to do all day before a big game: They tailgate.
Manning the grill with a cigar at his lips and an “Irish Drinking Team” cap upon his head is Greg Shidler, patriarch of the BallBuster clan and longtime lacrosse fan.
Greg’s had a strong relationship with lacrosse for most of his life, playing youth lacrosse in high school and more recently turning his time on the field into a coaching career. Now, as the professional circuit grows in popularity, he, his family, and their closest friends — all in attendance at today’s tailgate — remain devoted fans of the game, reveling in the chance to help their team any way they can.
“Our job is to get in players’ heads,” says Greg. “Anyone who turns and acknowledges us, we have them in our sights. If they get angry when we call them out, it only fuels our fire.”
The trick to being a successful Ball Buster, according to Greg, is to start at the beginning of a play, with the player in the face-off circle. In the rules of lacrosse, the face-off player’s only job is to try and take possession of the ball and toss it to their teammates, giving their team the offensive advantage.
“If we can throw that guy off, we’re already in good shape,” says Greg. “And if he does lose the face-off, we don’t let him off easy. ‘Donate your paycheck! Why are you even here?’ Those are a few of our favorites.”
The Shidlers and friends first became Cannons season ticket holders in 2001, the same year Major League Lacrosse as an organization was formed. Early on, they rooted for one player in particular, Dave Evans, an attackman on the Cannons with the then-fastest shot in the league, a blazing 104 mph.
After a few years of hard-core heckling, the group’s unique approach to sideline support caught the attention of the Boston Cannons themselves. In 2005, they were given seats directly behind the opposing team’s penalty box and christened themselves with a name that seemed fitting for their fandom. From there, the CannonBall Busters were born.
“For us, being behind the penalty box is the best place we could possibly be. We’re very gracious to the players who end up there. They receive all our thanks if we score on a penalty. Man, does that piss them off,” says Greg, laughing.
Since forming, they’ve not only stayed true to their name, but have also gotten in the good graces of Harvard Stadium’s security team, which comes in handy when you spend hours celebrating on game day. Just like today.
Greg lifts up the lid of the grill to check on the burgers and hot dogs just before yelling, “Food’s ready!”
With that, the nearby pick-up game dissolves into a few last-minute shots on goal before sticks are laid to rest and everyone heads straight for the paper plates.
Among the players, who mostly include Greg’s sons and their friends, is Greg’s wife, Kathy. Just as diehard a Boston sports fan as her husband, Kathy is very happy to be back on familiar turf for this year’s tailgate.
“Last year, when the games were played in Foxborough [at Gillette Stadium], it was harder for us to be there all the time. We missed tailgating here, so it’s great to be back again.”
After the food gets doled out, Greg Jr., Greg and Kathy’s youngest son, holds a cheeseburger fresh off the grill in one hand. In his other, he grasps a bright blue staff of Bud Light cans duct-taped to each other end-to-end.
“It’s a way to keep track of how many beers you drink in a day,” says Greg, taking a swig from his yardstick of pop tabs past. “We carry them around as a way to measure how much we drink, and then we sometimes take them into the games as a way to rally support for the teams.”
Looking around, the staffs (so far) range from three cans to six. Casey Morrison, the day’s king of drinking, holds the tallest staff, a Budweiser cowboy hat acting as his crown. Leo Shidler, the oldest Shidler sibling, holds the shortest staff, most likely because he has a job to do. Just as his dad’s role is to man the grill, Leo acts as the game master of the group.
“I do my best to rally the troops and keep things fun for everybody,” says Leo.
Beyond pick-up lacrosse, the array of activities the Ball Busters have at their disposal makes it easy to see how they’re able to fill all six hours before the game.
There’s the usual bevy of beverage-centric games, the best of which is Stop, a Ping-Pong-ball-tossing, beer-chugging accuracy game that requires good aim, fast reflexes, and a thirst for victory. There are also traditional backyard games scattered across the grass, like spike ball, Kan Jam, and Poleish Horseshoes.
All this pregame activity serves one main purpose: to get the juices flowing in preparation for the night’s match. According to Leo, the best ball busting is the kind the other team can’t ignore.
“We’re right on the sidelines so they hear everything we say, whether they want to or not,” says Leo. “If we can get their attention on us, it means they’re not focused on the game. They lose focus, we score goals.”
The CannonBall Busters have a little more room than usual to spread out the fun and games, as today’s opener only has about one third of the people you can typically find at one of their tailgates.
“We can sometimes get up to 60 or 70 people here at one time. Everyone knows we’re here and everyone’s always welcome.” – Greg Shidler
One of the things that makes lacrosse so appealing to the Ball Busters (beyond their ability to make fun of the other team) is how much their approach to the sport differs as compared to other sports, especially the big four.
“When entering a lacrosse season, you never really know what you’re going to get,” says Greg. “We go in with no expectations. With other sports, you see the trades and watch the drafts and have an idea about the team going in, but here we watch and learn how the team is stacked by their performance on the field.”
Sipping on beers (or chugging them in quick succession to lengthen your staff), feasting on mac and cheese, and blasting throwbacks like Nelly in the bright sunlight, it all certainly feels like the calm before the storm. According to Greg, at only one game in recent memory did the ball busting ever get heated enough to force a truce.
“A few years back we had a bit of a rivalry with the Lizards, and some of the players didn’t like what we were doing,” says Greg. “For the most part, though, the players either find what we do funny, or take it as an added challenge to their game.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” says Leo. “And if we do our jobs well, we can’t be ignored.”