Chris Mattes made a career in football as the Patriots Director of Player Operations and Engagement, and while he loves the game, it wasn't his first love. Not by a long shot.
He was only a kid when he picked up his first lacrosse stick. The pace of the game, the intensity, it drew him in. Mattes went on to play for Rutgers, the German National Team in the 2014 World Lacrosse Championships, and for Major League Lacrosse.
"From a very young age, I just kind of grew up to love it," Mattes said.
Lacrosse is the oldest sport in North America and was created by Native Americans. Like many lacrosse players, Mattes learned a basic overview of the sport's history throughout his years playing, but it wasn't until he met Lyle Thompson and his family that he learned just what the game meant to Native Americans.
Thompson is from the Onondaga Nation, which is one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. As professional lacrosse expands with the foundation of the Premier Lacrosse League [PLL], Thompson is effectively the face of the game. He was the first overall NLL and MLL draft picks in 2015 and currently plays for the Cannons in the PLL. He is a two-time league MVP, a two-time champion and a two-time recipient of the Tewaaraton Award, given to the most outstanding American college lacrosse players.
When Thompson and Mattes crossed paths as teammates for the Florida Launch, Mattes saw firsthand that lacrosse is more than a sport for Native Americans. In the locker room and over dinners with Thompson and his brothers (Jeremy, Miles, and Jerome), Mattes listened to them talk about playing to honor their Creator, their history, and their culture.
"I would watch him play in college and was amazed at things he could do. Hearing what the game meant to them and how winning, losing wasn't everything," Mattes said. "To them, it was about respecting the game, playing for the love of the game, playing for what they refer to as the Creator, and embracing the sport. It was very impactful. Just hearing what it meant to them was beyond what any sport means to anyone else, like what soccer means to a soccer player or football means to a football player."
Thompson and his brothers started 4 The Future Foundation to center the roots and values of lacrosse with diverse communities. It provides programming to "promote health and wellness, support education, embrace Native American history and traditions, give back and honor their ancestors and the earth through sharing the 'Creator's Game' with Native and underserved youth."
For My Cause My Cleats, Mattes is representing the 4 The Future Foundation to bring light to issues facing Native Americans and to support Thompson family's efforts, something that became even more important to him over the last two years.
As the Patriots locker room talked more and more about racial and social issues throughout the 2020 season, Mattes and Thompson sparked up even more conversations about how Native American issues continue to be ignored.
This year, the remains of more than a thousand First Nations students were found at the site of "residential schools" in Canada. The number of children who died in U.S. "residential schools" is still unknown, but the number could be as high as 40,000, according to one researcher. These boarding schools have largely been considered a form of cultural genocide by Native Americans, with students being forcibly taken from their homes and "punished for speaking their Native languages, banned from conducting traditional or cultural practices … [taught] they should be ashamed for being Native American," according to the Native American Rights Fund.
Additionally, a report was released earlier this year revealing that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing in Wyoming between 2011 and 2021. Despite those numbers, white homicide victims were more likely than Native people to received media coverage. Indigenous women and girls are killed at 10-times higher rates than all other ethnicities, making murder the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women, according to the CDC.
Both issues were at the top of Thompson's mind when he asked to design Mattes's sneakers.
Thompson designed the shoes "to remember and honor missing, and murdered Indigenous women and girlsandNative children, who were stolen from their parents, put into residential schools, and brought up in the most violent circumstances with the intent to erase their culture, language, and connection to their people," he said in a statement. "The atrocities are staggering; the coverups continue today. The silence is deafening, and generational, trauma, and fear remain."
As a staff member, Mattes hasn't previously participated in My Cause My Cleats, but after seeing Director of Football/Head Coach Administration Berj Najarian use the initiative to shine a light on the plight of Armenians, Mattes was inspired by its reach. He hopes people see his sneakers, stop, educate themselves, and look into what the Thompson family is doing.
"For them they want everyone to be educated on the history and for other native Americans to be proud of their culture," Mattes said. "For me, my goal is to not only raise money but also to bring awareness to their foundation, educate others, and raise any money I can for them."
Though lacrosse is rooted in Native American culture and tradition, as it stands, it is a predominantly white sport. According to the NCAA, less than one percent of all college lacrosse players in the U.S. were Native Americans or Alaska Natives.
Not for nothing, Mattes pointed out, lacrosse is an expensive sport. Purchasing the equipment can be a barrier to entry for a lot of kids and their families. By representing 4 The Future Foundation, Mattes hopes they can expand their reach and continue to grow the game among Native youth.
"It was the least I could do to give back to a sport that's given so much in my life," Mattes said.
You can see Mattes's sneakers, as well as the other participating Patriots' cleats, in the gallery below.
For the sixth straight season, the New England Patriots are participating in the NFL's 'My Cause My Cleats' campaign, which gives both players and coaches the opportunity to wear cleats that are designed to promote a cause important to them. Here's a look at the Patriots' custom cleats.