By Nelson Rice | Tuesday, September 1, 2020 | Pro | Reprinted from uslaxmagazine.com
This article appears in the upcoming September/October edition of US Lacrosse Magazine.
Tucked behind the stage inside the University of Virginia’s 520-seat Culbreth Theatre, Zed Williams worked his magic. Tasked with “running the fly” — the rigging system that moves scenery, curtains, lights and stage effects — for a 2016 fall production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” Williams made none.
He displayed the traits that fans at Klockner Stadium became accustomed to during the previous three springs when they watched the prized recruit out of Silver Creek High School (N.Y.) operate on the lacrosse field. Williams was calm and collected. He had a keen eye for details and quick reflexes.
“We’re always really careful to get a student we trust. If we can’t get a student we trust, we hire a crew person to do the fly operation,” said Caitlin McLeod, associate professor of stage management and production in UVA’s drama department. “There’s just no room for error.”
“Zed has the perfect personality to be in charge of a huge piece of equipment that could hurt people. He did a really wonderful job backstage in a way that I don’t think he even expected.”
On Aug. 9, the drama major who preferred a behind-the-scenes role took center stage during the Premier Lacrosse League Championship Series’ final act. With the Whipsnakes trailing the Chaos 6-3 entering the fourth quarter, Williams delivered the most memorable performance of the two-week fully quarantined and fanless tournament. The righty attackman with a powerful shot and inside roll dodge, who led the league in goals, scored five of his PLL single-game record six goals in the final frame. He poured in four in less than two minutes. He scored so fast that Twitter almost couldn’t keep up. He started trending. The Whipsnakes won 12-6 and capped off an undefeated series with their second consecutive title.
But on the dais after receiving the PLL MVP award, Williams, 25, tried to make an assist. He turned to his right and attempted to pass the glass trophy to Whipsnakes goalie Kyle Bernlohr, who stopped 73 percent of the shots he saw with 16 saves in the final and who Williams believed deserved the hardware.
“No, Zed,” midfielder Jake Bernhardt chimed in. “You earned this.”
“For me, man, lacrosse is a team sport,” Williams said a couple days after the championship. “Individual awards I don’t think highlight the importance of what championships are about.”
Yet it was the five words Williams said on the postgame NBC broadcast that carried the most weight. Asked about his mindset entering the fourth quarter, he mentioned how Bernlohr stood on his head to give the Whips enough time to unleash a 10-goal barrage after they fell behind 6-2, how he knew the defense would keep giving them possessions and how Chaos goalie Blaze Riorden stuffed him early on. Williams said he knew he had to make something happen.
“This one’s for my dad,” he said, still holding his stick. He started to cry.
Back in Williamsville, New York, the Williams family had gathered at Zed’s house with his wife, Amanda, and their 2-year-old daughter, Dani, to watch the championship. The speech moved all of them to tears. “In that moment, he took us to a better place,” said Jonathan Williams, Zed’s oldest brother. “He brought joy to our mother. He brought joy to the family. It uplifted our spirits and, in that moment, it felt like he brought our dad back.”
When Williams emerged midway through the first quarter of Virginia’s game against North Carolina on April 9, 2017, the cheers were the loudest that senior attackman Joe French had ever heard at Klockner Stadium. A week earlier, French had traveled by private plane to the Cattaraugus Reservation outside of Buffalo with teammate Jeff Kratky, current Cavaliers coach Lars Tiffany and former coach Dom Starsia to check on Williams and attend the wake for his father, Daniel, who died from complications with diabetes.
French can still remember Daniel Williams’ smile after the Cavaliers’ win at Klockner over Loyola during Zed’s freshman year. He never missed a game. There was an understanding among UVA players that if you didn’t need the two or three tickets allotted by the university, you set them aside for the Williamses. Zed is the second youngest of five brothers (Jon, JoJo, Zach, “Cornbread” and Sherman). He also has two older sisters, Samantha and Mary.
“He basically did whatever he had to do Monday through Friday, so he could see his family on Saturday,” French said. “He was playing for them.”
Williams, a citizen of the Seneca Nation, returned at the last minute for the game against UNC. Within a couple minutes of taking the field, he wowed the crowd and a national ESPNU audience with a surprise bounce-pass assist to Mike D’Amario. The Cavaliers still lost 15-12.
“It didn’t really matter,” French said of the outcome. “Zed was playing for his dad. It was about so much more than lacrosse. That’s the thing nobody understands.”
After the PLL championship game, stories popped up on Twitter of Williams’ genuine and kind demeanor almost as quickly as his shots found the back of the net. “Zed is great at lacrosse,” Whipsnakes midfielder Tyler Warner tweeted after the game. “He’s also the best human being you’ll ever meet (no exaggeration).”
That’s the Zed, who isn’t on social media, his family has always known. He’s an anomaly. The high school national record holder for career points (729) who’d rather not talk about himself. The softest spoken guy in the room who people can’t stop talking about.
“Zeddy is probably the most humble, caring, supportive, loving guy you will ever meet in your whole life,” Jonathan Williams said.
“He showed what we all are as a family,” Samantha Williams said. “He wants that platform for all of us, and that’s who he is.”
On nights before games at Virginia, Williams would play trashcan hockey with his little cousins until almost midnight. When Chase Scanlan was in the seventh grade at Silver Creek, he wanted nothing more than to play with his cousin “Zeddy” on the varsity team. The Black Knights didn’t have a goalie, so Scanlan stepped in between the pipes and tried to stop the “lasers” Williams hurled his way.
Even more than those shots or Williams’s inside roll dodge that Scanlan calls “unstoppable,” he remembers the encouragement his cousin provided back then and still does today now that Scanlan is a two-time All-American attackman at Syracuse. He recalls how Williams used to pick up other people’s trash after games and how for a senior art project at UVA he painted a portrait of Batman overlooking Gotham that calls to mind Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The picture was in honor of Gage Martin Seneca, one of Scanlan’s younger cousins, who loved the Caped Crusader and died of child abuse from his mother’s boyfriend at the age of 3. Last fall, Williams gave the painting to Scanlan. It now hangs on his dorm room wall at Syracuse next to his Iroquois Nationals jersey.
“Zed would do anything for his family,” Scanlan said.
Whenever Starsia calls, Williams always first asks about Maggie and Emma, Starsia’s 35-year-old identical twin daughters who have special needs. Williams invited Starsia, his wife, Laurie, and Maggie and Emma to his wedding a couple months after his father’s death. Starsia tended the bar. Former Virginia teammates came from as far away as Australia to celebrate the occasion — held inside a refurbished barn at Amanda’s uncle’s house. The Williams brothers built the altar. The night before, French convinced Williams to let him throw him a bachelor party. Williams got to pick the location — Dave & Buster’s. Williams was so good at the racing games, French remembered, he won about 30,000 tickets.
The next March, Dani was born. Amanda worked full time at the United States District Court in Buffalo, so Williams quit his security job at a Buffalo casino to become a stay-at-home dad. “I wanted to provide this little girl with everything I could,” he said.
If Williams was going to be a professional lacrosse player, he was going to do it to the best of his ability. He became obsessed with the weight room and vowed to take care of all the details. The attention he used to dedicate to his studies at UVA he now focused on being a father and grokking the moves of Lyle Thompson, Rob Pannell and Matt Rambo. Williams noticed defenders were getting bigger and stronger, so he put on 20 pounds of muscle. “You have to constantly evolve and keep getting better, or eventually people catch up to you or your talent catches up with you,” he said.
Even when Catalyst Fitness in Buffalo closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams made due with an old bench he got from his mom, Wendy, and a couple weights he set up in his backyard. Scanlan now compares his cousin’s physique to an NFL safety.
“It’s amazing what he’s turned his body into now.” Jonathan Williams said. “Zedzilla. But if you look at the weights in his backyard you wonder, ‘How the heck did you do that?’”
“Anything he played, he always had the passion to win,” Wendy Williams said. “After his father passed, I think it just became a little stronger.”
The PLL lists Williams at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. When Williams does his leg workouts, he thinks about his father’s struggles and how he had both legs amputated because of his condition. He adds more weight or does one rep.
Williams adopts the same mentality when he plays. Lacrosse is more than a game. It’s a way to honor those who are not here anymore, like his father and former Six Nations Rebels Junior B teammate Carney Johnson, who committed suicide in 2012.
Williams, who now works as a liaison and mentor for Native American students at Silver Creek, has tattoos on his forearms and wears wristbands with their initials. “He wears his heart on his sleeve quite literally,” French said. “You’ll never be in doubt what matters most to Zed.”
Williams kisses the bands and his stick before every game.
“I know they are watching and my family is watching,” Williams said. “Their happiness is my happiness. That’s what drives me — to bring out their smiles. That’s what the game of lacrosse does.
“That’s why I play.”
After Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta got doused in orange Gatorade by faceoff specialist Joe Nardella and backup goalie Jacob Stover, he received another surprise. On the jumbotron at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, his daughter, Ali, son, Matt, and wife, Laurie, congratulated him from back home in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. Stagnitta reunited with them the next evening for the first time in three weeks, but before that he was looking forward to spending a little more time with his “guys.”
“This is like family,” he said of the Whipsnakes.
That word gets thrown around almost as much as “culture” these days when we talk about successful organizations. But the Whipsnakes place a premium on it. When captains John Haus, Michael Ehrhardt and Jake Bernhardt discussed personnel decisions with the coaching staff this offseason, their criteria always came back to the same question: “Who is going to fit in best with the group?”
“The Maryland kids are like a pack of wolves,” John Tillman said. “Where you see one, you see a lot of them. And they’re always with the pack.”
After the various quarantines were complete, it wasn’t unusual to find 15 Whipsnakes congregating in a couple rooms on the second floor of the SpringHill Suites by Marriott Salt Lake City. Many kept their doors open. The experience felt like college without classes. Several spent their downtime playing “Catan,” others opted for card games, and some just talked. Rambo and Williams, both high school running backs, dueled in “Madden” into the early-morning hours.
“He was just a pleasure to hang out with,” Williams said of the 2019 MVP.
Selected fifth in the PLL entry draft a year after tallying 48 points at midfield for the MLL’s Boston Cannons, Williams’ acceptance into the group of 13 Maryland alums on the Whipsnakes’ 22-man roster almost seemed preordained. A member of the Wolf Clan through his mother’s lineage, Williams and his brothers earned the nickname “Wolf Pack” because they always traveled together.
On Zed’s right forearm, those words are written in black ink.
“He is a phenomenal person,” said Haus, a PLL Midfielder of the Year finalist. “That is what made him fit in the most. He is just a down-to-earth, good person. That’s what we look for in our teammates.”
Still, Williams never changed who he was to fit in. On Friday nights when the Virginia lacrosse team used to gather at the sports bar Boylan Heights in Charlottesville, Williams always ordered the same milkshake and burger. “You think of how people use drinking as a social lubricant,” French said. “This guy has such a natural energy that draws people in, he didn’t need that.”
On the field in Utah, Williams’ dodging ability and scoring range took some of the pressure off Rambo, who led the league in points despite taking only one shot in the championship game (he scored). To some extent, Williams’ performance was a relief to the Whipsnakes defense that led the league in goals against average. He made countless plays in training camp that strained the imagination. “Do we all stink now or is Zed just this good?” wondered Matt Dunn, the PLL Defensive Player of the Year. Though Dunn knew how good Williams was from playing with him on the Georgia Swarm in the NLL, he felt he reached a different level during the Championship Series.
While Williams averaged more than a hat trick per game, that never came at the expense of the offense’s flow. “He wasn’t trying to do too much,” Whipsnakes assistant coach Brian Grady said. “He quietly goes about his business. I don’t know that I’ve come across someone who can have such an impact on the game, yet be so humble and want to be a part of the group’s success without standing out.”
Before each game, Williams took a stand by taking a knee during the national anthem. It was the first time he had ever done so, a reflection of the social justice movement that has swept the nation and absorbed professional sports. “I don’t have social media or anything like that, but I am going to stand up for what I believe and I am going to do my part in this,” Williams said. “Kneeling is what I felt is right.”
“He is incredibly soft spoken, but strongly opinionated,” said McLeod, the stage management professor. During a senior independent study course, she even asked Williams to present an opinion each day as a means to help express himself. If the opinions were written on a page, McLeod remembered, you could almost hear someone shouting them from a pulpit.
In recent months, the conversation and attention of the lacrosse world has turned to the exclusion of the Iroquois Nationals from The World Games, an event set to be held in Birmingham, Ala., in 2022.
Although the Haudenosaunee Confederacy did not initially meet the eligibility criteria set forth by the Olympic charter and adopted by the International World Games Association, the IWGA approved World Lacrosse’s request to allow the originators of the sport to participate on the global stage — a victory for the international lacrosse community in light of an online petition that had more than 50,000 signatures. “This will require further agreement from other organizations involved in international sport,” a joint statement said.
“Everyone knows where the lacrosse game originated from,” said Williams, who scored five goals for the Iroquois Nationals in the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship final last fall against Canada. “There’s a lot of history there between America and Canada with the indigenous people, but to say the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois people, are not their own nation is just not right. To deny them the right to play in The World Games is simply not right.”
On the second weekend of play in Utah, the PLL dedicated the remaining games to the Indigenous peoples of North America. Many players wore LaxStraps with the Iroquois flag, unmistakable for its vibrant purple color and its representation of the Hiawatha wampum belt. A moment of silence was held before the Redwoods-Atlas group play game. Atlas midfielder Jeremy Thompson, a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, led a Land Acknowledgement during halftime.
In light of these events, Williams’ former coach said he isn’t trying to be too dramatic when he describes the significance of Williams’
MVP performance during the Championship Series.
“At this moment in history, with the Iroquois currently being excluded from The World Games and the way people rose up in opposition to that, it almost feels like the Creator has reached down and touched Zed,” Starsia said. “It’s the best thing that could have happened to our game.”
After the Whipsnakes cut down the nets and sang “We Are the Champions” in a spare locker room draped in plastic wrap, the players went around in a circle and talked about what the past three weeks meant to them. Williams expressed thanks for the Whipsnakes accepting him into the “room,” helping him win his first field lacrosse championship and told them he was a product of his environment.
Williams later excused himself from the celebration as Drake’s “Back To Back” blared from the speakers. He found a quiet space in a hallway and Facetimed Amanda.
After greeting everyone and commenting on Dani’s hair, he then told his entire family what his tears stopped him from saying on the field.
“We finally did it.”