The Cattaraugus Reservation in western New York and the University of Virginia are in many ways worlds apart, and not only because of the 400-plus miles that separate them. Less than 1 percent of UVA’s student body is Native American.
For record-setting high school lacrosse star Zed Williams, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians whose close-knit family lives on the reservation, about 30 miles southwest of Buffalo, New York, the easier choice would have been to attend nearby Syracuse University or the University at Albany. Both of those schools have lacrosse programs in which Native Americans have played starring roles, most recently the wondrous Thompson brothers at Albany.
But Williams decided to spend his college years far away from the Empire State. He bonded immediately with the men who lead the UVA program – head coach Dom Starsia and associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale – after which the choice was clear to Williams.
“As soon as I met Coach Starsia and Coach Van, right away I knew,” said Williams, who arrived at UVA in the summer of 2013.
Now a 6-foot-2, 185-pound third-year student who’s in his second season as a starter, Williams ranks among the nation’s top midfielders. With 21 points (17 goals and four assists), he’s the Cavaliers’ fourth-leading scorer, and he’s second in ground balls with 46.
“It may take a little bit more sophisticated eye to appreciate the things Zed does on the field,” Starsia said, “but he’s one of the first guys that my peers talk about when they call, because they really admire all the things that he does for us on the field.”
There were those in the Buffalo area, Williams said, who predicted he would struggle academically and socially at UVA. He ignored them. Rob Genco, who coached Williams at Silver Creek High School and assisted him during the recruiting process, also heard criticism of Williams’ decision.
“The past has shown that a lot of our Native American kids in general couldn’t make it anywhere but certain colleges. I knew that wasn’t true with Zed, and I pretty much told them, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way. He’s a jersey to you, but I love the kid, and the decision wasn’t made to see him fail.’”
Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles at UVA, loved what he saw in Williams as a person, and Williams’ athletic ability was unquestioned. He also excelled in basketball and football at Silver Creek, but lacrosse was Williams’ best sport. In five seasons on the varsity, he scored a national-record 729 points, on 444 goals and 285 assists.
“The success he had here on and off the field is unmeasurable and will never be duplicated,” Genco said.
Even so, Starsia recalled, he had some concerns “early about whether or not this was going to be the right fit for Zed, whether or not he was going to be able to thrive here.”
Those concerns proved to be unfounded.
“The way he’s carried himself as an athlete and a student here has surpassed my expectations on so many different levels,” Starsia said. “He’s just a great kid, and it has been a joy for our program to have Zed in our community, and I think being at the University of Virginia has been good for him at the same time.”
Williams, who lives with teammate Jeff Kratky, is majoring in drama at UVA. His passion is not acting, but rather behind-the-scenes work such as stage construction. Starsia has followed Williams’ journey at Virginia with pride.
“I would tell you that I have never asked more of a young guy than what we’ve asked of Zed, in terms of study hall, tutors, mentors and commitment to the academic piece of this,” Starsia said. “It was really important that that part of it begin to get some traction before I really worried a great deal about lacrosse. I always knew he could play the game, but I wanted to be sure we were being fair to him by asking him to be here academically and socially.
“He has, again, well-surpassed my expectations, and I would tell you that he’s the magna cum laude of effort in my 40 years of coaching young men in similar situations.”
“To me, lacrosse, it is a spiritual thing.” --- Zed Williams, UVA midfielder
To ease Williams’ transition, Starsia asked one of the team’s veterans, Ryan Tucker, to serve as a mentor in Charlottesville. When Williams arrived in 2013 for a summer transition program, Tucker was waiting to help him move into his dorm.
“I think Ryan went out of his way to try to help Zed get comfortable here and be comfortable here,” Starsia said. “He’s so quiet that it was a little hard for guys to get to know him, but you could see that he was so sincere and so thoughtful. I think everybody in the program sort of took him under their wing and was looking out for Zed from the beginning.”
Still, it was a trying time for Williams, who has five brothers and two sisters.
“I remember the first summer, I struggled a little bit, just with everything,” Williams said. “I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know where my classes were. I guess I’m shy, and it takes me a long time to open up to people.
“That summer, I felt like I was by myself here, but I knew how great an opportunity it was. The whole time I’ve been here since that summer program, my brothers, the closest ones to me, my family, they’re always in my ear, saying, `Keep at it.’”
The Seneca are part of the Iroquois Confederacy, which also includes the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Tuscarora. Through their mother, Wendy, the Williams siblings are part of the Seneca’s Wolf Clan – their father, Dan, is from the Beaver Clan – and a friend gave them a nickname that stuck.
“He said, `Man, you guys are always traveling together, like a wolfpack,’” Williams recalled, smiling. “He started it when I was little, and then ever since then that’s what we’ve been called.”
On Williams’ right arm is a large, elaborate tattoo of a wolf. Other family members have similar designs.
“We were always hanging out by ourselves, we were always together, and when we would go places in public, we would all go together as a group,” Williams said.
At UVA, Williams’ background piqued the interest of his teammates, who because of the Thompsons’ exploits at Albany had some familiarity with lacrosse’s Native American origins.
“They would ask me questions,” Williams said. “They would ask me where I’m from, they asked a lot of questions, and they all took the time to get to know me.”
His older brothers all played lacrosse for Silver Creek High, Williams said, and they still play box lacrosse, the indoor version of the sport. To the Williamses and many Native Americans, lacrosse is more than a game.
“To me, lacrosse, it is a spiritual thing,” Williams said. “You can see that when you go home, and even here I feel like when I play lacrosse it’s a great opportunity to run for the people who can’t run anymore, to play for the people who can’t play anymore. So when I play, I think of that and I try to go as hard as I can go for the people who aren’t here and mean so much to me, and the people who can’t run anymore.”
At Brown University, where Starsia played football before picking up lacrosse, he majored in history. “One of the reasons that I think I fell so completely in love with lacrosse when I first was introduced to it was, I was fascinated by the Native American roots of the game,” Starsia said.
His lacrosse teammates at the Ivy League school included his roommate Dave White, a Mohawk whose daughter Jade later was a student-manager for Starsia at UVA. He and White became close friends, Starsia said, and “so I spent some time on the reservation in upstate New York – a different reservation than where Zed lives – and I think I appreciate the culture a little bit.”
Early in Starsia’s tenure at UVA, his players included Justin Giles, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Overall, though, few Native Americans have come through the Cavaliers’ program.
“I was really excited about the possibility of this happening for Zed,” Starsia said, “but I wanted to be sure that we were doing the right thing by having him here, putting him in a position where he could be successful. He had to make a total commitment to what was going to be required here in order for this to happen.”
Williams made that commitment, and it’s paid off. His UVA experience, he said, has “been awesome.” He trusted Starsia and Van Arsdale to look out for his best interests, and Williams’ faith has been rewarded.
“I followed my heart and I believed in them and I came down here, and I haven’t regretted any of it,” he said.