en Williams’ friends were taken aback. They were tossing the lacrosse ball around on a field when Williams finally voiced his improbable dream for one of the first times. It was one that, considering where they stood, seemed highly unlikely. He wanted to play Division I lacrosse.
“Impossible,” said one friend.
“No way, Benny,” echoed another.
“We can’t play NCAA, only club.”
“We” meant Minnesotans. But his assessment at the time, in the late 2000s, applied to a majority of high school students outside of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. In 2005, when Williams was 10, Minnesota had zero state-sanctioned high school boy’s lacrosse teams and no competitive base to attract players or scouts. Eight years later, when he graduated from St. Thomas (Minnesota) Academy, the state had 76.
Deep down, Williams knew his friends had a point. He only began playing the sport in eighth grade, when a friend suggested it as a more physical alternative to track. A few months after he started in 2009, rain forced a Memorial Day party inside at the Williams family cabin in Spooner, Wisconsin. There, flicking through the TV channels, the bored eighth grader happened upon the Cornell-Syracuse men’s lacrosse national championship. Williams, his father David and half of the party sat enraptured as Syracuse erased a three-goal, fourth-quarter deficit and won in overtime. Williams went to Google.
He didn’t know then that he’d make it to Syracuse himself. He didn’t know he’d overcome injuries, a “bad” high school program and the reputation of Minnesota lacrosse to become one of the nation’s best faceoff men. He didn’t know that he’d be one of the No. 2 Orange’s (8-1, 3-0 Atlantic Coast) best chances at snapping an eight-year title drought. Back then, he didn’t even really know how to shoot.
On Google, Williams found hope. He’d searched both team’s rosters and found that Cornell attack Ryan Hurley was from Minnesota. In the next five years, Williams watched more games and investigated more teams.
“A lot of roster checks,” Williams said. “Not a lot of Minnesota guys.”
There on the St. Thomas field that afternoon, playing catch, Williams still had unsaddled hope. He thought about his dad, who’d quit basketball his senior year of high school to weight-lift and prepare for a tryout with the University of Minnesota football team. The basketball coach said, “I don’t know why you’re trying. You’ll never play in college.” David walked on and earned a scholarship his last three years.
“I wanted to find another example of a guy who played at the biggest level but wasn’t a stud his whole life,” Williams said. “I wasn’t a great athlete or dominant, really at all, when I was younger … I was looking for a story like that, so I could have a chance to live it.”
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If Williams were to overcome Minnesota’s inherent lacrosse disadvantages, St. Thomas didn’t seem like the place to do it.
“They were bad,” said head coach John Barnes, who took over the fifth-year program in 2010, Williams’ freshman season. “They had no discipline, no structure, no nothing in their program. These guys didn’t do squat. Inmates ran the asylum. It’s amazing to say, but my first (program change) was starting the practice on time and making them give 100 percent effort.”
Williams had transferred from Kenwood Middle School to the Catholic military school before eighth grade because it had stronger athletics. Then, though, he specifically thought about football, because any athletic success seemed destined to originate on the gridiron. But when Williams tried out, he was put on the B team for the first time in his life.
David picked him up that day and felt Williams smoldering. He told his son it was a matter of when, not if, that he’d make the A team. The next day, at 5:30 a.m., David went downstairs into the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee when he noticed a basement light on. David clambered down and saw his son at work with the dumbbells.
During the workout, Williams thought back to a football game from the third or fourth grade.
“I got drilled and I was down real bad,” Williams said. “Right then, I thought about my dad, who was always like, ‘You don’t lay down. You get up and get off the field. Don’t sit and be a baby.’ That really resonated with me, because even though I had tears in my eyes, I stood up and dragged myself off the field. That still resonates with me when I think about being tough.”
Williams was promoted within three weeks and played both as the A team defensive back and B team quarterback. The same work-more mentality later propelled and torpedoed Williams. He always juggled something else in addition to year-round football and basketball, but lacrosse stuck because he liked the physicality and fast pace.
St. Thomas lacrosse might not have been very good — the Cadets finished 5-7 in 2010 — but Williams played more than most freshmen. On his team the summer before, fed up with the nine-midfielder rotation, he realized the surest avenue onto the field ran through the X, where two players faced off after every goal. In an average game, Williams estimated, that meant about 20 extra chances.
He volunteered to face off, and the reward arrived immediately. He skipped the entire midfielder line and earned more minutes. He enjoyed the pad-crunching hits and individual challenge. Swiveling the hips was hard, but as he took more faceoffs they slowly synced with his hands, feet and shoulders.
The refusal to take days off, to stop tapping his dad’s forehead for extra early morning workouts, strained his still-building teenaged body. St. Thomas improved to 6-6 in Williams’ sophomore year, but injuries, including knees and hips, cropped up. David credits overuse while Williams partially cites puberty. Either way, the pain put Williams in agony but never on the sideline. He took ice baths in between and after football two-a-day practices, and head coach Dave Ziebarth said he never saw Williams not in pain.
“Running was …” Williams said, trailing off. “I had to bank on the adrenaline of the game to play.”
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In his junior year, doctors ordered Williams to stop everything, running included, for about three months. He missed five games and had a minor surgery to remove bone fragments floating around in his right knee.
It was about then that Williams decided he would play lacrosse in college, wherever that meant and whatever it took. He’d taken few faceoffs since the summer before, when he played for a former Maryland defenseman named Joe Cinosky. Williams by then had developed his faceoff specialization to a level he thought may be a ticket to Division I. Knowing that, David approached Cinosky and asked for an evaluation.
“If he works really hard,” Cinosky told David, “he might be able to make a D-III team.”
David subtly relayed that to his son on the way home, and Williams considered it carefully. He thought about his dad’s Mukwonago (Wisconsin) High School athletic hall of fame induction. Williams wasn’t there that night in 2003 because he had a Pop Warner game, but David ran into his old basketball coach, who said he’d never make football at the University of Minnesota. David shook his hand and said, “Thank you.”
After Williams’ rehab, which mostly entailed finally resting, he returned midway through the lacrosse season and helped the Cadets finish 11-3. But the program’s rejuvenation mattered little. It was still in Minnesota.
For his senior year, Williams worked out with a new strength trainer to gain muscle and prevent injury. His growth spurt stopped. Back to full strength, Williams totaled 35 goals and 25 assists as St. Thomas went 11-2. He won 82 percent of his faceoffs. But it wasn’t enough to overcome the injuries and lack of recruiters, who focused on freshmen and sophomores because early recruiting sometimes filled classes years in advance. All of it froze a D-I recruiting process already in amber.
So, with nothing else to lose, Williams climbed on the computer he had so often used to search for D-I Minnesota players and tried to become one himself.
He emailed dozens of schools, including Jim Morrissey at Holy Cross, which played in the Patriot League. He started with his frame (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) and grades (3.74) before listing stats, injuries and accomplishments. Then, Williams departed from things you can measure.
“I pride myself on my physical play as a midfielder,” he wrote. “I would like to wrap it up by saying that my football, basketball, and lacrosse coaches all describe me as a great athlete, who is a very hard worker and a person that has a very positive attitude towards sports and school. … Thank you for your time coach and please let me know what I have to do to be recruited by your lacrosse program.”
Morrissey now estimates that email represents 80 percent of the reason he gave Williams a shot. The other 20 was because he needed size and toughness to contend with Army at the X. For Williams, it was a chance at D-I.
“You get a million emails,” Morrissey said, “so I was lucky to open that one. I had never seen him play, but … he passed the handshake test, so I went with my gut. He didn’t need a lot of coddling and he didn’t disappoint.”
Williams won 53.1 percent of his draws in 2014, including 11-of-17 against an Army faceoff specialist that Morrissey respected. At the season’s end, the Crusaders coach called John Desko to recommend the SU head coach look into Williams. The improbable dream became possible.
“The only reason he’s at Syracuse is because of Jim Morrissey,” David said.
In 2015, Williams’ first year at SU, he finished second nationally in faceoff percentage (67.4) and was a Tewaaraton Award nominee. Junior year, he was nominated again and won 62.2 percent at the X. This season, though he missed his first collegiate game with an undisclosed injury, he set the Syracuse program record for career groundballs (298) and won the overtime-opening draw against Johns Hopkins on March 11 to set up the game-winning goal.
Williams’ one constant at SU, whether he’s winning or losing at the X, has been his pregame ritual. It’s added and subtracted steps in his three years, but he’s always wrapped the handle of his stick in pink tape and written the initials of everyone who’s helped him get to this point. There are too many to count. Inevitably, once the game starts, the symbols smear and swirl with heat and friction into one long, black streak.
From the stands, you cannot see the stick’s tattoo, or the stick-owner’s face, or the trail from lacrosse’s shadows to its brightest lights. You can see only No. 37 pretzeling at the X, steering the hips and knees mangled and mended, bracing mind and shoulders to employ his greatest gift.
Published on April 9, 2017 at 11:56 pm