Blake Dunford, Military Service and Lacrosse
The differences between military battle and playing a lacrosse game are significant. But Corporal Blake Dunford of The Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders understands why sport tends to appropriate military terminology.
Dunford, 21, was sworn into the Canadian infantry as a reservist in February of 2019— his "second birthday" as the army likes to call the day reservists join. He's also a dedicated elite lacrosse player.
The lefty defender has worked his way from Junior C, with the Brantford Warriors, to Junior B, with the Hamilton Bengals, and most recently a season in the Arena Lacrosse League (ALL) with the St. Catharines Shockwave. He also made a pair of appearances representing Canada. First, with the Canada Development Team in Prague, Czech Republic at the 2019 European Box Lacrosse Invitational, colloquially known as E-Box. Then, with Canada East at the 2021 IIJL World Junior Lacrosse Championship, where they won the gold medal over Canada West.
“In the military we have classroom work where we learn our systems, then we practice, and then put it to use,” Dunford says. If that sounds familiar to athletes, that's because it is the same general approach.
In both the army and lacrosse, the key to success is “Repetition, on repetition, on repetition,” Dunford adds. “When you're prepared properly, in the heat of the moment, you don't have to think, you can just react—fall back on your training."
Dunford says he sees similarities between his military training and how his Canada teams came together. “One of the things that surprised me a bit, with guys coming from different programs and areas, was how well we worked together and communicated with each other. The coaching was great, but as players we sorted out our own SOP's—or standard operating procedures, as the military would say. You knew some guys going in... but by the end, you were all buddies. There were no hotheads or egos, because we all had a job to do and we worked well with each other to reach a common goal.”
There's a common saying, "the will to win is critical". Really, though, it's the will to prepare that really matters. Dunford agrees wholeheartedly.
“It's not that the game is decided before you step onto the floor, or the battle is decided before you step onto the battlefield,” he explains. “Your preparation gives you the ability to perform. It's all in the practice, the training, the reps.”
Dunford has been involved with the military to some degree since he was about twelve years old, when he joined the cadets. The regular military is “a whole different beast”, he points out, but says some things remain the same, particularly the focus on “dress, drill and deportment.”
As a reserve, Dunford has parade every Wednesday and attends training one or two weekends per month. While “parade” conjures images of floats and marching bands, there is a lot more to it than just marching, which generally only occupies 10 or 15 minutes of the four-hour Wednesday sessions. It's largely about training for what they will need to do if they are deployed.
The full training weekends take things to another level, and can touch on some “dark stuff”, Dunford acknowledges. After all, the soldiers are preparing to go to war if necessary.
Photo: Blake Dunford, pictured far left, with his training group during break.
To that end, they go through some hard moments, things like sleeping in the bush in cold and wet weather. “But we're doing it together. That creates a different bond, just like lacrosse, that makes it enjoyable aside from the parts that are enjoyable, getting fluent in your crafts. There are hardships, but like anything else they create a strong bond between you and the people you're doing it with.”
One of the challenges coming up in a training weekend to wrap up this calendar year before a break is IED training, learning how to operate in a mine environment, and doing mock battles in simulation gear. Serious stuff, but a challenge that is satisfying.
There's a good chance that Dunford will opt to move from the reserve to the regular, full-time military at some point. For now, being part-time allows him to chase a huge goal of his.
“I want to make it to the NLL, definitely,” he says matter-of-factly. Some injuries have made the route to the pro league take a few twists for the defender who stands just a shade under six feet and weighs about 195 pounds. He had a wrist injury then suffered an ACL tear. His return to sport date is in February of 2023. Not being available till at least then was a huge factor in Dunford not being selected in last fall's National Lacrosse League entry draft. Now, he'll have to take whatever opportunities or options are available to prove that he has what it takes to play at the highest levels of the game.
That means focusing on next summer, when he'll be fully fit and healthy. He's already itching to get back to the game, but Dunford says his research has shown him that for every month you wait after the 8-month minimum to return from ACL surgery, the re-injury risk is reduced by 33%, so he is willing to be patient and make sure he's ready to be at his best when he returns.
“It's hard to wait but it's the best thing,” he says. In the meantime, Dunford has been diligent in his military training and in working out to be as strong and solid as possible when he's ready to hit the floor again.