How a Lacrosse Store Provided Safe Haven for 9/11 Grievers

To recognize the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are sharing several stories throughout this week that capture the lives and legacies of the people, families and communities impacted most.

Jimmy Butler evocatively remembers the day.

Navigating his way through the often-brutal Long Island traffic, Butler drove from his Bellport home to Manhasset, where he managed the local Lacrosse Unlimited store. Howard Stern’s deep voice permeated the eerie silence of what became an ominous drive to work.

As Butler rounded a curve on the Northern State Parkway headed west, smoke billowed from over the tree line. Stern, providing play-by-play, reported that one plane, then another, had struck the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

“Once I arrived at work, it was just the unknown of everything,” Butler recalled 20 years later. “The second plane, the buildings going down, you’re just trying to process it all. Then it starts with, ‘Who was there?’ The phones start going, checking in.”

The ensuing hours were like that of a nightmare. Butler went through his rolodex of lacrosse people and remembered hearing “hours and hours of nothing.” The Manhasset train station, where Long Islanders head in droves for their morning commutes, is a mere 200 feet from Lacrosse Unlimited. Butler vividly remembers seeing people come back far too early from work, covered in ash and soot.

The days and weeks that followed were somber for a prideful community like Manhasset. Butler stumbles as he recalls the funerals and wakes, one after another, that rocked the small town on Long Island’s North Shore.

An adopted member of the Manhasset community, Butler became part of the healing process.

“He was one of the first people to reach out to me,” said Adam Kohart, who lost his brother, Ryan, a former North Carolina captain from Garden City, in the terrorist attack. “The lacrosse community is very small and tight, and he was always there for me.”

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“Lacrosse Unlimited was the escape, in some regard, to all the funerals.”

Manhasset’s Lacrosse Unlimited store was a “rite of passage” for young lacrosse players, as Butler puts it. Children from around town rode their bikes up Plaindome Road, stopped for pizza at local spots like Gino’s or Villa Milano, and visited Butler while he managed the store from 1989-2006.

The boutique shop was perfectly positioned in the town. Passersby would be tantalized by samples of custom sticks or freshly strung heads in the window. A variety of dye styles and heads adorned the right wall, the same wall on which professional players who’d stroll through would sign their names. It wasn’t uncommon for Mark Millon, Paul Gait, Vinnie Sombrotto or other lacrosse icons to stop by, after all.

The register and a strip of counterspace were just past the sticks. Gloves and pads were past there.

Ten feet away on the opposite wall were the shirts and apparel. On the back wall, which was at most 40 feet away from the front door, were the helmets. It was a lacrosse enthusiast’s haven.

“People in Manhasset love lacrosse,” said John Gagliardi, a former pro and member of the U.S. men’s national team. “It seems to be the common denominator and connector of everything. No matter your color, religion, race or gender — everyone loves lacrosse.

“Lacrosse Unlimited was the escape, in some regard, to all the funerals.”

Future NCAA and professional standouts frequented the store. A young Jimmy Bitter — “a little knucklehead kid,” as Butler quipped — would come into the store as a young teen before a productive career at North Carolina.

Butler’s knowledge of the community and relationships with its residents made him an integral part of the post-9/11 recovery.

When those same kids came into the store after the tragedy, Butler could sense when one was struggling. He’d make it his mission to make his or her day a little brighter.

“By that point, you know the children who were a little more at risk, who need a pat on the back,” he said. “I’d give them little jobs around the store. They looked like they were working, so they became rock stars in the town.”

Like so many others in town, Frank Coughlin knew what it was like to lose a loved one. His brother, Tim, worked at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower — just like Ryan Kohart — and lost his life. Their two brothers — Dennis, who worked in the South Tower, and Rob, who worked in the World Financial Center across the street — both escaped.

“The way in which it seems to touch us all … the bell tolled in some way for all of us that day,” Frank Coughlin said.

At the time, Frank Coughlin ran the sixth-grade team for Manhasset PAL. That team wore “Cogs” patches to honor his brother. He said Lacrosse Unlimited was a “community clubhouse” for the kids.

“Jimmy was a class act during that time with an ability to work with adults and children,” he said. “He appreciated how Manhasset had been shaken. He went about his business providing a safe haven.”

While Coughlin, Bill Miller and Harry Baugher were providing a safe haven of their own with Manhasset PAL, another community six miles away was also doing its best to cope. Like Manhasset, Garden City suffered unimaginable losses. At the time, Butler’s Lacrosse Unlimited store was even the place to go for Garden City lacrosse enthusiasts. The town now boasts its own store.

Garden City and Manhasset — perhaps due to proximity, perhaps due to history — are bitter rivals. And not just in lacrosse.

“It’s the community. It’s the school,” Butler said. “It’s deep-rooted in all of them in everything that goes on.”

The rivalry is best put on display each year in the Woodstick Classic. Outside of the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, it had been held every year since 1935. In 1932, Jay Stranahan founded the first Long Island high school lacrosse team at Manhasset. Three years later, in the midst of a budding football rivalry, Jim Steen led Garden City to its first varsity lacrosse season.

Ever since, players from both teams circle the date on the calendar on which the game will be held. In 2002, when the first Woodstick Classic was held after 9/11, lacrosse brought the rivals together.

“For each of the families in Garden City and Manhasset, there was no one who was spared as to a close friend or family member,” Frank Coughlin said. “[The Woodstick] was a restoration of something that was familiar, and although highly competitive, it was an example of young men at their best on behalf of the communities they love. There was some comfort in having something like the Woodstick prevail and withstand something like this.”

That seemed to be the sentiment among those with experience around the Woodstick Classic. The game didn’t change. The communities didn’t change. But the noticeable loss of alumni added a new perspective.

“It helped bring the towns together,” Gagliardi said. “We didn’t love each other for a while, and we started to realize that we had this great game as a connector. It was just a game.”

And while Garden City’s maroon and gray always wanted to get the best of Manhasset’s orange and blue — and vice versa — community pride was always at the center. Perhaps nobody appreciated the community or the people more than Butler, who left Lacrosse Unlimited in 2006 to focus on family before becoming the general manager of the New York/Orlando Titans (2006-10) and assistant general manager of the Philadelphia Wings (2011-14). He also served a variety of roles with the U.S. national team.

Just as the Woodstick Classic served as an escape for both communities, so too did Lacrosse Unlimited.

“It starts from the history of it all,” Butler said. “For me kind of getting dropped into it, it was the historic nature of it. It was in your blood as a child. Even in second grade PAL, your biggest game was against Garden City.

“It was a very cathartic experience to see those colors against each other, to see those two communities who lost so many to come together and play lacrosse.”