By Jeffrey Bessen
LILacrosseNews.com, Posted 11/28/11
One could apply the clichés, “like father, like son” and “following in dad’s footsteps.”
Although those phrases could capture the relationship between Kevin and Brian Balkam, the one that truly does is “for love of the game.”
Kevin, the father, was part of the Sachem High School team that won a state championship in 1979 and later became an All-American goalie at The College of Wooster in Ohio.
Brian, the son, a junior standout at Smithtwon East, was given a lacrosse stick as a newborn, has played the sport since second grade, earned athletic and academic honors, and committed early to his favorite college, the University of North Carolina.
“We started having catches in the backyard with lax sticks instead of a glove and baseball like my dad did with me,” said Kevin, 51, a goalie who plays for for Checkmate Inn, a team of men aged 40 and over that competes in outdoor and indoor Long Island leagues and tournaments in upstate New York, Rhode Island and Florida. “Although [Brian] played both baseball and lacrosse it was lacrosse that really got his attention at an early age.”
Though he barely remembers being that young, Brian said despite the natural trepidation of most players to playing goalie, he took to it naturally.
“Typically a new lacrosse player doesn’t like being in the cage while everyone else runs around, but for me I actually liked it and got a rush from making a save on an opponent,” said Brian, who added that occasionally he would play midfield or attack in youth league and brandishes one of the harder shots on his varsity squad.
Inspiring Brian’s love of lacrosse was made easier for Kevin with the huge youth lacrosse program in Smithtown and the support both parents have showered on their son.
“My mom, Michelle, is very supportive of me and is always at my games with my dad cheering me on,” Brian said. “Her support helped me gain confidence in my skills and my ability to perform game to game.”
Those skills have been honed through dad’s coaching and augmented by a former rival of Kevin’s, a relationship that began during a business trip.
“I can remember playing catch with Brian when he was in second grade, the goalie stick was already in his hand,” said Wayne Hall, a colleague of Kevin’s at Cisco Systems.
On a flight to San Jose, they discovered their high school lax connection – Hall had played at Walt Whitman High School against Kevin’s Sachem team – and Hall offered to help coach the Smithtown Youth team.
“Kevin and I always found time to work on Brian’s goalie skills in our backyards,” Hall said. “We challenged him and worked the ball hard and fast. It was evident early on that Brian was a special kid who really enjoyed the goalie position.”
However, as much as playing sports is a part of his life, Brian also plays varsity football and pick-up basketball, both parents emphasized the importance of academics.
“Lacrosse has helped him get to the University of North Carolina, but it will what he accomplishes in the classroom that will have a real lifetime impact,” said Kevin, who noted that Brian’s varsity coach, Jason Lambert, tells his athletes that the first two questions college coaches ask are, “what’s his name and what’s his grades,” when they scout players.
A member of the National Junior Honor society, a 2010-11 New York State Student-Athlete and a DECA regional finalist (DECA is a national organization that helps prepare students for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management), Brian is thrilled to have committed to be a Tar Heel. “I always loved UNC, and thought it was the most amazing school and best lacrosse team,” he said, noting Michael Jordan is one of his favorite athletes.
Brian’s lax skills have brought him recognition from Inside Lacrosse as a top 50 player, All-League Class A honors in Suffolk County and selection to three All-Star games. He also started as a freshman when an injury sidelined the senior goalie.
“He has good feet and very quick hands, he is like a quarterback for the defense when he plays for us,” said Lambert, who has coached in the Smithtown School District for a decade and has known the Balkams since Brian was in the fourth grade.
Burn out is usually factor when athletes start so young, but Kevin has helped maintained Brian’s balance by stressing fun and friendships in the earlier years and ensuring that rest and other interests are part of his life now.
“I think parents need to encourage their kids to develop a determined and focused work ethic, but also make sure they take time off for rest to do other things that will broaden their interest, while always maintaining academic disciple,” said Kevin, whose older daughter, Alyssa, is graduating a year early from college next spring due to her focus and ability to prioritize, he noted.
While Kevin believes he is fortunate to have a son who wanted to play not only the same sport, but the identical position, Brian thinks having a dad who was an All-American goalie is “special” and valuable to his development.
“It’s funny, sometimes we’ll sit in the kitchen with our sticks, use the door as a goal and tell each other stories and do reenactments from our games,” Brian said. “Having a common tie like this is the best and really helps to keep us close. It’s something I look forward to sharing with my kids one day.”
Tags: Smithtown East