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Seated in a motorized wheelchair, Paul Gait shakes Gary Gait's hand during his jersey retirement ceremony at Syracuse's JMA Wireless Dome.

Hope and Closure for Paul Gait as Syracuse Retires His No. 19 Jersey

April 24, 2024
Matt DaSilva
Rich Barnes

Editor's note: This article originally ran April 19 and has been updated to include details and interviews from Paul Gait’s jersey retirement ceremony.

Lacrosse fans remember the 1988 NCAA semifinals for the Air Gait, the iconic moment when Gary Gait soared from behind the goal and dunked a ball over the crossbar to score. The move inspired sculptures and imitators, heralding Gait as the Michael Jordan of lacrosse.

But what if Syracuse had lost the game?

When Gait thinks about the Orange’s 11-10 win over Penn, he remembers the hectic final sequence when he lost the ball momentarily, recovered it near the sideline and passed it to his brother on the right wing.

Paul Gait glanced at the clock behind the goal, got underneath his defender with a one-handed cradle, brought his stick back to his left hand and scored with three seconds left to send Syracuse to the national championship game.

“Come playoff time, there was no one better than Paul,” said Gary Gait, now in his third year as head coach for the Orange. “He shows up biggest at the best time.”

As innovators both on and off the field, the Gait brothers redefined lacrosse together. But the spotlight always shined a little brighter on Gary.

On Saturday, however, Paul Gait had it all to himself when Syracuse raised his No. 19 jersey to the rafters at JMA Wireless Dome next to his twin’s No. 22.

Where it always belonged.

“I’m thrilled that it’s happening and I’m excited for him,” Gary Gait said last week. “It’s going to be an amazing day and I’m sure he could use it. You know, he’s been going through a lot the last year and a half.”

The jersey retirement ceremony took place at halftime of the Orange’s nationally televised game against Virginia. Paul Gait, who stood proudly at midfield two years ago when his brother earned the honor, was in the motorized wheelchair he has used these last 17 months.

On Nov. 3, 2022, Gait was finishing construction on a shipping facility he built in Altamont, N.Y., when he fell 20 feet from the attic to the cement floor. He suffered permanent damage to his spinal cord and is paralyzed from the waist down.

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Gait will never walk on his own again. He harbors no false hope about that.

But if anyone can retrofit his life to meet the moment, it’s the Tony Stark of lacrosse.

For 35 years, Gait has developed products that were ahead of their time. From the bent handle he played with at Syracuse to the Gait Draw and new Gait D2 heads, the founder of equipment manufacturer Gait Lacrosse has made a career out of disruption.

And for someone who played through a litany of injuries throughout his National Lacrosse Hall of Fame career and whose inventions have challenged accepted norms in the sport, paralysis simply amounts to another obstacle.

“You adjust like anything,” Gait said in a January 2023 interview with USA Lacrosse Magazine. “It’s like losing a game. Once you lose, you’ve got to figure out how to win again. I’ve got to figure out how to do all the stuff I used to do, but from a wheelchair instead of standing.”

Reached again by phone last week, Gait’s outlook remained the same. He knows his injury is irreparable and he’s remarkably OK with it. About three months into his rehabilitation, he regained some feeling around his abdominal and back muscles. He hopes to rebuild his core strength to the extent that he can perform a sit-up again.

“Three months after I fell, I got a jumping feeling to a thin layer from my chest to my waist about an inch under the surface of my skin, bearing a layer of muscle. I had feeling,” he said. “To me in the beginning it felt two millimeters thick. Right now, that muscle feels like it’s five millimeters thick. I feel like I’ve more than doubled my strength in my core area. That gives me hope. Even to work a good manual chair, you need that strength.”

With progress comes pain, however. Gait can feel spasms around his diaphragm where he broke six ribs and fractured three vertebrae. The peak of his paralysis has shifted from the T6 to T7 vertebra in his upper back.

“Having that core get stronger is what I focus on in my rehabilitation,” Gait said. “The problem is every time I did any type of back or core workout, it would put me down for three days of pain where it was difficult even to work. Like every other day of my life, I fought through the pain. It's all because of my playing days that I'm able get through those days.”

Earlier this month, Gait began training with a wearable robotic exoskeleton that wraps around his trunk and legs and allows him — with great difficulty — to stand and walk. He says he’s lucky he can afford the best care and newest technology. Doctors say the pain from his injuries will subside eventually.

“I’m incredibly impressed. I hope I would attack the situation in the same way. Control what you can control and don’t worry about what you can’t,” Gary Gait said. “To him, it’s just another challenge. Put some effort into solving problems and you can solve most of them. He'll find a way to do the things he wants. We were talking about golf the other day.”

Paul Gait moves with the assistance of a robotic exoskeleton and a walker
Earlier this month, Gait began training with a wearable robotic exoskeleton.
Gait Lacrosse

Paul Gait had mixed feelings about Saturday’s ceremony, during which he joined Gary Gait, Mike Powell and Katie Rowan as the only lacrosse players with their jerseys retired at Syracuse.

“I sometimes second-guess why they did it. Is it because I fell? Or is it that they truly believe I belong there?” he said. “I appreciate the honor and I’m very happy about it. Gary and I put a lot of effort into our years at Syracuse to make sure that we did our best and to win. The fact that they appreciate that now, it’s great.”

In front of 8,348 fans, Gait wheeled himself out of the JMA Wireless Dome tunnel with a gaggle of supporters to see his No. 19 jersey lifted into the rafters next to his brother’s No. 22. The Syracuse community rallied behind him, as the third-largest crowd in college lacrosse this season came out to watch the historic moment.

When he got to midfield — surrounded by family and Syracuse royalty, with his old teammates looking on — everyone turned to the big screen to watch a compilation of his greatest moments, narrated by his biggest fan, and brother, Gary Gait.

“If you didn’t see him play, Paul was magic,” Gary Gait said. “A great passer, a superior athlete, a fierce competitor and a complete player. No fear, and a thirst for titles.”

The Syracuse teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s were “changing the game… and at the heart of it all was Paul,” he added.

Paul Gait is a member of every national lacrosse hall of fame and is now one of four Syracuse lacrosse players to have their jerseys retired. Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack presented him with a commemorative jersey, and Gait got the chance to say a few words to the crowd.

“It’s truly a great honor, and my time at Syracuse was some of my favorite playing days, and I had a lot of playing days,” he said. “The fact that Syracuse is probably my favorite time, it means a lot to me and my family and the people behind me.”

Having his family on the field with him made the moment that much more special, as Gait said they couldn’t do that when he played for Syracuse. His wife, Cathleen, has been married to Gait since they were in college, and she was finally able to share the spotlight with him Saturday. That meant a lot to him, as did the return of most of his teammates.

Especially those from the undefeated 1990 national championship team.

After the Orange won it all in 1988 and 1989 — Paul Gait won championship game MVP honors with a four-goal, two-assist performance in Syracuse’s 13-12 win over Johns Hopkins in the 1989 final — they steamrolled everyone en route to a three-peat in 1990. The top-seeded Orange defeated Brown 20-12 in the quarterfinals, North Carolina 21-10 in the semifinals and Loyola 21-9 in the final. It was the coronation of a dynasty that compiled a 42-1 record from 1988-90.

But in 1993, the NCAA vacated Syracuse’s 1990 championship after discovering that coach Roy Simmons Jr.’s wife, Nancy, co-signed a car loan for Cathleen Gait. In the 2015 documentary “The Lost Trophy,” Simmons and numerous alumni voiced their objection to the harsh penalty for such a minor infraction considering nothing in the NCAA bylaws at the time explicitly prohibited it.

“It’s taken me a long time to get over it — to not feel the blame, to not feel responsible for that,” Gait said. “You're talking about still today the greatest team to ever play the game in NCAA lacrosse. The pride those guys should feel for having the highest margin of victory of any team ever and going undefeated, but then they’ve got to say, ‘Oh yeah, but.’ That tears at me, as it would any good teammate and competitor. It’s never not going to be in the back of my mind.”

Action image of Paul Gait at Syracuse
Gait was a three-time first-team All-American and the 1989 NCAA championship game MVP at Syracuse.
Syracuse Athletics

It’s about time Paul Gait felt the love from Syracuse, his brother said.

“Hopefully we’ll give him some closure on that as well,” Gary Gait said. “It’s a shame the way that whole thing went down. I don’t know if the facts are out there — that’s for another day — but it’s never fun to have your name used as this reason why a championship has an asterisk. He’s ready to move on and this will be a big step in that.”

“Forget about whatever happened to me,” Paul Gait said to the media after the ceremony. “The fact that they live their lives like Al Bundy, talking about those championships at Syracuse everywhere they go, that to me is the greatest.”

A three-time first-team All-American at Syracuse, Paul Gait played for the Canadian national team in four world championships and was an eight-time first-team All-Pro in the National Lacrosse League. He was the NLL MVP in 2002, his last full season as a pro, when he and Gary Gait combined for 226 points with the Washington Power.

When Major League Lacrosse started in 2001, Paul Gait was one of the last players assigned to a franchise. At age 33, he went on to be named MLL Championship Game MVP after scoring seven goals to lead the New York Lizards to the inaugural pro outdoor title.

The Gaits are 57 now and still lauded as the most transformational players in lacrosse history. Their journey from obscurity in British Columbia to fame at Syracuse forever reshaped the game. They shared midfield once more at the Dome on Saturday, but this time it was all about No. 19 with No. 22 at his side.

Wyatt Miller contributed to this article.