Ahead of His Time: Remembering Tommy Adams, Navy's Beloved Stick Doctor

Tommy Adams loved to tinker.

The equipment manager at Navy fixed sticks, strapped helmets, adjusted gloves, tailored pads and built relationships for nearly 40 years spanning five different decades that included four standout coaches and hundreds of Midshipmen.

“Tommy was a really special person, not only somebody who was way ahead of his time and incredible in his trade, in his job, but just a person who had so much good influence on hundreds of fine young men going through the Naval Academy,” said Bryan Matthews, head coach of Navy from 1983-1994. “He not only made our teams and our performances better, but he made their experience there so much better.”

Adams’ office was his workshop, with all the tools conventional and otherwise to repair anything. It produced the stuff of legend, including the claim that Navy’s “Stick Doctor,” as he was known, invented the first mesh pocket in 1971, three years before STX introduced it to the world.

“It’s hard to gauge Tommy’s value to the Navy lacrosse program,” said Richie Meade, the Navy head coach from 1995-2011. “He was like a guy now in big-time football where that’s an industry, being the equipment guy. Tommy was that for the Navy lacrosse team. There’s no way to gauge how much financially the Academy gained by Tommy’s care of that government property. From sticks, to gloves, arm pads, helmets — he could fix anything. He was one of those guys that you hand him something and he’d fix it.”

Adams passed away peacefully July 3 at the age of 81. His wife of 59 years, Joyce, was by his side, as she was for all Navy games. They had a son and four grandchildren.

“You could tell he cared about the people and the program,” said Adam Borcz, a former All-American midfielder at Navy. “It wasn’t a job for him. It was more like a family. I don’t know if it’s unique to us at the Naval Academy, but I think the Naval Academy is a unique place and he felt really connected.”

Borcz scored four goals in a win over Army when Adams was honored in a ceremony for his years of service. Even after Adams retired in 2000, he and Joyce continued to attend Navy games together.

“He brought the past to the now and it made us proud to wear ‘Navy’ on our chest,” said Rear Adm. John Wade, the director of Maritime Operations, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, and a 1990 Navy graduate whose sons both graduated from Navy as well. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s just … it was special. He had the old sticks on the wall and he told stories of old teams and games, and it just connected the past to the present, which I think is important for any program or organization steeped in tradition.”

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Adams contributed more than he ever knew. He was constantly pushing to improve Navy equipment, and players and coaches say he was consulted by top equipment makers for ideas and suggestions.

“The equipment thing was kind of the thing he had to do, but he enjoyed the lacrosse, the physical — the nylon and the leather — and he always understood those components well,” Borcz said. “I think that’s really what made him happy.”

Matthews witnessed plenty of improvements from the hands of Adams during his tenure as coach. They helped make his players safer.

“Tommy was the first guy to put a bar in the middle [of a helmet],” Matthews said. “I played goalie, and I didn’t have a bar in the middle, and I had a ball go right through and stop right on the bridge of my nose. Tommy saw that happening, and he would weld bars up in the middle up there. I had my goalies break their thumbs, which a lot of people did a lot of times, and Tommy would come up with the little plastic mold that would go over the thumb and literally it’d be on the outside of the glove back in those days. Tommy was doing that in the early ’80s.

“He was always an innovator. He loved tinkering there in his shop. He was an inventor and he never made a dime off any of it.”

Some of Adams’ innovations are displayed at the Bilderback-Moore Navy Hall of Fame, including the stick that he invented with a mesh pocket made out of a laundry bag.

“He was always experimenting,” said Glen Miles, a National Lacrosse Hall of Famer, three-time All-American midfielder at Navy and USILA Midfielder of the Year in 1986. “He would say, ‘Milesy, try this.’ There are a bunch of drawings of his early ideas. To do this as an older man, to be sitting in an equipment room doing it then, it’s really, really cool. The Rock-It Pocket, I think he drew a Rock-It Pocket in like 1978 and those guys turned it into a business. He’d say, ‘I did it 20 years ago.’”

Added Andy Ross, the three-time All-American who played on the 1998 U.S. national team: “If you went back in his office, it was basically the Navy lacrosse museum. He had sticks from Jimmy Lewis and Jeff Long, and helmets, and it was always fun to go on a little tour.”

“If we considered Coach Bilderback our father figure, Tommy was the great uncle who cared for us and took care of our equipment.” — Carl Tamulevich
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Adams grew up less than an hour from Annapolis and became equipment manager at Navy in 1961, when Willis Bilderback was head coach. Working at Navy was a big deal for a local product, and Adams embraced the opportunity.

“Tommy Adams was a huge factor in the Navy lacrosse family,” said Carl Tamulevich, a 1968 graduate and National Lacrosse Hall of Famer. “If we considered Coach Bilderback our father figure, Tommy was the great uncle who cared for us and took care of our equipment.”

Those were the days of wooden sticks. Sticks are expensive nowadays; but they were valuable then.

“It was crucial that they were repaired with the utmost care and alacrity,” Tamulevich said. “Many of us only had that one special stick that we bonded with and relied upon and didn’t want to play without. Tommy took care of that. He was the ultimate master in fiber-glassing the breaks and restoring the sticks like new.”

Jeff Long, yet another National Lacrosse Hall of Fame member who played at Navy, never used a plastic stick until he came to Annapolis and switched from the wooden stick he’d grown up playing with in New York. Long gained experience in stringing sticks while growing up around Native Americans. He fashioned himself pretty good at it, but was blown away by Adams’ expertise.

“He could do anything,” Long said. “I thought I could do anything. I used catgut. We used to have all the tricks with the Natives up there. His turnaround time was one-tenth of what it took me.”

Long flourished on the field for head coach Dick Szlasa as the Midshipmen’s all-time leading scorer, but he relied on Adams for more than his stick genius. Long had Adams as a sounding board as he adjusted to life at Navy.

“I spent a lot of time in his shop,” Long said. “We talked about stuff. To me, it was a safe space. I could go up that stairway and hang out with him. He was one of those guys. You deal with so much. Everyone had long hair, and we had short hair. He told you all the sea stories. He knew all the old guys. It was a great way for me to get away from it. I’d go up there an hour almost every day.”

Long wasn’t alone. Plenty of Navy players relied on Adams, who balanced the stern business side of his job with a supportive, mentoring side of his personality.

“All my players knew that as soon as they left the hall go to practice, they were going to see a non-judgmental friend who was always there for them,” Matthews said. “It was kind of like a grandfather would be. He was a friend and an adviser for them, somebody they could talk to. He understood what they were going through, and he had seen it for generations coming through there. It helped get them in a great frame of mind every day for practice.”

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Coaches found Adams’ stick expertise incredibly valuable at Navy as well. He strung sticks in ways to make it easier to change the pocket if they broke in a game, and Matthews looked forward to playing at home because of the advantage of having Adams on the sideline.

Having the Stick Doctor on their side always gave them an edge.

“At the Naval Academy, none of my guys had time to fool with their sticks,” Matthews said. “They couldn’t do it in the day or at night or any other time, so they totally needed and depended on Tommy to be that guy for everybody on the team — varsity [and] JV, and that was 70 guys. He totally relieved all that pressure on them, because they could come every day and take their stick to Tommy and describe what it was doing, what was good, what was bad, and obviously he knew more about it than anybody else. [He] could take it and fix it and make it right for every individual player. To have that confidence for them and relief for them was just huge.”

Regardless of what the Navy team needed, Adams was happy to deliver. Famously, he’d promise to “have it tomorrow.”

“He loved serving the Midshipmen,” said Neil Duffy, co-captain of the 1984 team. “He was serving our best interests all the time. You’d go in the shop and there were screwdrivers, nuts and bolts, string all over the place. There was everything old school to keep us going.”

Duffy recalled Adams always trying new ideas and pushing the limits to develop equipment.

“He talked to me about trying to configure a retractable shaft,” Duffy said. “I was a defensive midfielder mostly. We had unlimited long poles on the field. We sometimes rode with nine long poles. My freshman year, I played defensive midfield with two long sticks. Now it’s one pole and two shorties. We had two poles out there, and I was the shortie. I would call it a tweener, but he made me a stick that was probably 50-some inches long. I was the short stick, but it was really an in-between one.”

Adams kept notes of each player’s stick preferences, and he was known for his remarkable attention to detail and turnaround time. After losing a game in overtime in which he broke his stick, a frustrated Ross threw it in a garbage can.

“The next morning, I went in the locker room to put some stuff away and there was a brand-new stick, strung just the way I liked it, ready to go,” Ross said. “That’s Tommy. He was always there, always ready, always lending support for you without hesitation.”

Adams had military precision with his organization. Every item was accounted for.

“Tommy kept incredulous records,” Tamulevich said. “On my return to the Naval Academy in 1986 some 18 years after graduating, Tommy asked me if I still had my Navy lacrosse stick and helmet I used in the North-South All-Star game in 1968. That was Tommy.”

When Meade returned to take over as head coach, Adams greeted him with a box of his personal items that he’d kept from when Meade was an assistant coach.

“I knew you’d be back,” Meade recalled Adams saying before adding, “You owe me a T-shirt.”

Adams’ care and concern didn’t stop when players graduated. He followed with pride their post-collegiate careers.

“When I played for the ’98 U.S. men’s national team, Dave Morrow created sticks that were exclusively for the members of Team USA,” Ross said. “They actually said ‘USA ’98’ on the side. The sticks that were given to us, they made a similar stick that they sold to the public. We felt special getting these sticks, and I actually gave that stick to Tommy after the World Games in ’98. The smile on his face, you could see the pride he felt knowing that I had accomplished that and played in those games, and that he was a part of my development in my four years there.”

Adams was active outside the team as well. In addition to volunteering in Boy Scouts and youth sports, Adams shared his stick expertise with the community.

“We used to have a summer camp, and it was pretty big,” Meade said. “We would have 600 kids a session for three sessions, and Tommy would just come with his wife Joyce and sit in a chair by the fields. Kids would come up from wherever and get their sticks fixed. He was like a doctor. Kids would come up and he’d say, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he’d fix it. He was a great man, and he really cared a lot about the kids and the coaches. He was very involved.”

“You couldn’t try harder at your job no matter what your job is,” Miles said. “It meant the world to him to run that equipment room.”

A memorial service for Adams will be held in Edgewater, Md., on Aug. 17. A celebration of his life is being planned as well.

“I’m sure these guys that played at Navy are going to remember Tommy forever,” Meade said. “Everybody’s going to have a story.”

Short Summary: 
Tommy Adams, legendary Navy lacrosse equipment manager of nearly 40 years, passed away July 3.
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