Fooling Father Time: Brodie Merrill

“A great athlete is one who takes advantage of the ability that genetics have brought him in order to secure great achievements, but an exceptional athlete is one who can swim in the waters of complexity and chaos, making what seems difficult easy, creating order from chaos.” 

-World Champion ski mountaineer and Ultrarunner, Kilian Jornet, Run or Die

Brodie Merrill knows the question is coming. The past few years he's had to answer it more and more frequently. When you’re in the midst of your 15th year playing professional lacrosse, spanning 30 total seasons, and have earned enough accolades to fill Lake Ontario, the question looms around every conversation about Merrill’s career. While there seems no limit to how much time we spend arguing about who’s the GOAT, our fascination with the best at their craft is only equaled by our interest in their longevity.

So here it goes. Do you have a plan for how much longer you want to play?

"People ask me that quite a bit nowadays," Merrill says with a knowing laugh. "I guess that's how it goes when you get to my age in the game.”

Merrill is 37. He was selected third overall in the 2005 draft after a heralded career at Georgetown University, where he was both a two-time Tewaaraton Award finalist and First Team All-American. If you look at the list of the other 28 draftees from 2005, you might struggle to recognize most of the names besides Kyle Harrison—the first overall pick. These days, some work at investment banks. Others are in commercial real estate. One is a “Retina Territory Manager.” Merrill still plies his trade picking off through passes, initiating fast breaks, and snatching any ground ball within his vicinity. He’s collected 2,617 loose balls on teams in Portland, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Toronto, and most recently for the expansion San Diego Seals. That’s just in the NLL.

When he isn’t redefining limits indoors, outdoors, or leading Canada in international play, Merrill serves as the Director of Lacrosse at The Hill Academy--the independent school in Vaughan, Ontario, his parents, Peter and Patricia, founded in 2006. Since then, Merrill along with his brother, Patrick, and sister, Tory, have helped transform The Hill from an initial 16 student-athletes into one of the premier lacrosse programs in North America.

Merrill represents a through line between the game’s past and present. He’s called a “living legend” so often it should be his middle name. This past weekend he was matched up against Hill Academy graduate Chris Cloutier during Chaos’s 18-13 win over Atlas. Saturday, he’ll face another Hill grad when the Chaos meet the Redwoods and rookie attackman Clarke Petterson, a three-time captain at Cornell University who was selected fifth overall in the inaugural PLL draft.

If you want more evidence of Merrill’s impact on the sport, answer this. How many active players have an award named after them? We’ll wait.

If Merrill is being honest, he didn’t think he’d play this long. Hockey was his first love. The middle child of two educators, he was born in Montreal and picked up the game around the age of eight when his family relocated to the small town of Orangeville (pop. 28,900) outside Toronto. All of Merrill’s friends from hockey also played lacrosse in the summer, so he followed their lead. Some of his earliest lacrosse memories are watching the Junior A Orangeville Northmen games on Friday nights and dreaming of playing on that stage. Chris Sanderson, who starred on those Northmen teams and won two Minto Cups, played goalie at the University of Virginia and appeared in two Final Fours, showed Merrill where lacrosse could take you.

Still, Merrill wasn’t a one sport wonder. He played everything. Whether it was baseball, basketball, or soccer, he tried to keep up with Patrick, who’s two and half years older. “He was always pushing my potential,” Brodie says. Patrick Merrill was the first selection in the 2002 NLL Draft and is now Brodie’s coach and GM on the San Diego Seals. Brodie didn’t even pick up a long pole until he tried out for the Canadian U-19 team in 1999. His reasoning was simple. He thought he’d have a better shot at making the squad on the defensive end. That decision paid off.

You can hear Merrill’s passion for lacrosse when he discusses the game.

“At its core, I just love playing pass and catch and being outside,” Merrill says. “That hasn’t gotten old.”

But to keep playing the game he loves at such a high level, he’s embraced the need to adapt. He enjoys the challenge of longevity, maintaining his performance, and looking for ways he can improve. It’s a growth mindset. Complacency sounds like a curse word.

“You need to evolve,” he says. “The game is not going to slow down for you.”

When you ask Merrill about his secrets to sustained success, his answers range about as much as he does on defense.

“It’s not one thing,” he cautions several times.

We all want a magic formula or a quick fix. Do this and you’ll play as long as you want. Merrill knows that lacrosse and life don’t work that way. There are no shortcuts. That practical philosophy extends to his diet and training. No biohacking or cryotherapy. Instead, Merrill said he focuses on eating whole foods—lots of fruits, vegetables, and protein—and stays away from the processed stuff. He’s always searching for new information on the topic, whether through podcasts or books like “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan.

He tries not to overcomplicate things. The difference between him and the rest of us is that he has the discipline to stick with it day after day.

“He’s nonstop,” says Drazen Glisic, the Sports Scientist at The Hill Academy “He would run through a wall if it was required.”

When discussing his regimen Merrill is reminded of the quote “daily decisions determine destiny.”

“If you’re taking care of today and you have a good routine and a good mindset on a day-to-day basis, good things are going to happen,” he says.

He derives confidence through those decisions. They’re “little victories” or “little edges” he accumulates throughout each day. When he knows his preparation is ironclad, he can eliminate any traces of doubt once he takes the field. He can flow.

That was on display during Chaos’s Week 1 match up against the Whipsnakes LC at Gillette Stadium. Sure, Merrill got beat top side by Matt Rambo for the Whipsnakes’ second goal. But he stayed poised. There he was, hurdling a fallen player in the second quarter and collecting another ground ball. Chasing a shot out of bounds and stealing a possession in the third quarter. And there he was, sliding cross crease and closing out on Rambo to force an errant shot in the final minute and send the game into overtime.

Through two weeks it’s no surprise that Merrill leads the Chaos in ground balls. If you wonder how he can still make it all look so effortless, that’s the point.

“It’s been more subtle,” he says about the evolution of his game. “I take pride in not having to change too much and maintain who I am as a player.”

Merrill wasn’t always so thorough with his preparation. He says he used to be an “anti-stretch” guy. He still earned Rookie of the Year honors in both indoor and outdoor pro leagues. At 25, Inside Lacrosse deemed him the best player on the planet. But he plateaued the next year.

“I don’t know if it was complacency or struggling a little bit with expectations,” he says. “My second year in professional lacrosse was maybe one of my worst and I got hurt.”

 His father offered a suggestion.

“I’m the only one doing yoga here and I’m the only one that’s healthy,” Merrill recalled him saying.

It was a wake up call. Since then, Merrill has adopted a more holistic training approach. Yoga is a priority. Merrill often uses it as a form of active rest after games. His daily practice consists of 10 to 15 minutes before he goes to sleep. While progressing through his mobility poses, he focuses on his breath. He disconnects. Time slows down.

Sometimes he wishes he could halt the march of time altogether. Having a young family will do that.

“You want time to stand still and slow down at this stage,” Merrill says.

He credits his “support system” constantly. He mentions his parents, his in-laws, and especially his wife, Alexandra. They have a 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old identical twin sons.

“I wouldn’t be able to still play without her support,” Merrill says.

Merrill’s family has also helped him gain perspective and tempered the rollercoaster of emotions he used to experience. He’s no longer the 29-year-old who played in the 2011 MLL championship despite knowing he had a concussion.

“As you get older in the game you have a deeper perspective on what a privilege it is to play,” he says. “Having a family and getting to go home to a wife and three beautiful kids, you can kind of detach yourself from those highs and lows. Early in my career a lot of my identity was wrapped in the game. I think I’ve been able to separate that a little more and think that has a lot to do with my kids and my family.”

When he does worry if his identity is wound too tightly to his performance, he thinks about something his college coach, Dave Urick, emphasized.

“Coach Urick always reminded us that lacrosse at Georgetown was important, but it was not everything,” Merrill wrote in a blog post for Philly.com in February 2013 while playing for the Philadelphia Wings. “The key was to strive for balance and to use lacrosse to help you become the person that you can be.”

That’s easier said than done. Merrill knows that like prolonging his career, achieving balance is a constant challenge. How do you throttle back that intensity that helped you get this far? Merrill tries to compartmentalize so that when he’s home, he’s home. Sometimes that means being creative with his training and working out at 10pm or before his kids wake up.

"Balance in life is not about spending more time doing things," Dr. Michael Gervais, the high-performance psychologist, wrote in a post titled “The Mythical Ridgeline: Balance vs Being” on his website Finding Mastery. "It’s more about being present with what you’re doing."

So if Merrill does adhere to a formula, it’s this….

Show up. Be consistent. Focus on what you can control. Stay proactive with your training and “take advantage of the days you are healthy.” But, perhaps, most importantly: “don’t let your sport define who you are.”

Merrill explains he has a “broad goal” to play in the FIL World Championships in 2022, in Coquitlam, British Columbia. It would be his fifth consecutive world games. At the same time, his plans are fluid. He doesn’t want to limit himself or set a boundary for when he’ll hang up his cleats. He understands how fragile health can be. He saw his brother’s NLL career halted after 15 years when he tore the ACL in his left knee four games into the 2016 season.

While it might sound cliché, Merrill has learned to take nothing for granted. Even practice. He loves practice. He says his three decades in the sport have allowed him to appreciate all of the relationships he’s gained and every opportunity he has to play. He’s looking forward to his latest opportunity as captain for Chaos —a fitting name for the mayhem he inflicts on offenses. There’s a new team culture to construct, more bonds to forge, and deeper levels of trust to build. There’s also the weekend of August 17th at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario. The venue is about an hour’s drive from where Merrill’s lacrosse journey began. He isn’t concerned with that homecoming or parsing his legacy just yet.

“If you’re looking too far ahead in the midst of your season that can have a detrimental effect on your performance,” he says.

He’d rather enjoy the present.

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