CHARLOTTESVILLE — On an August day in 2013, Zed Williams’ parents headed back to the Cattaraugus Reservation in New York after dropping him off for his first semester at the University of Virginia. Their departure filled him with trepidation.
A member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Williams had grown up on the reservation, about 30 miles southwest of Buffalo. Now he found himself in a strange city at a school whose student body was less than 1 percent Native American.
“I didn’t want my mom and dad to leave,” Williams recalled this week. “I wanted them to stay.”
Wendy and Dan Williams drove away confident Dom Starsia and Marc Van Arsdale, then the head men’s lacrosse coach and associate head coach at UVA, respectively, would help their son navigate unfamiliar territory. They saw their faith rewarded.
Starsia and Van Arsdale left the University after the 2015-16 academic year, but Williams had come too far to turn back. Next month, he’ll become the first member of his family to graduate from a four-year college. He’s no longer the unsure young man who throughout his first year at UVA doubted he’d ever graduate.
“I’ve [gained] so much knowledge, and I continue to learn here,” Wiliams said. “But not just that. [UVA] helped mold me into who I am today. When I came here, I would say I was not a positive person, but I came out of here a different person. I always think positive and see the bigger picture in life.”
There have been setbacks and heartache along the way. At the end of his first year at UVA, Williams was placed on academic probation. He worked his way back into good standing academically and hoped his father, the head of an extraordinarily tight-knit family, would see him walk the Lawn. But Dan Williams, who had been in declining health, died unexpectedly late last month.
Zed returned home and stayed with his family for about a week after his father passed away. He returned to Charlottesville on April 9 and played that night against North Carolina at Klöckner Stadium.
“It was tough, especially just leaving my mom,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to leave her. Even now I’m anxious to see her and get back to her. But she wanted me to come play in that game.”
This season has been Williams’ most productive as a Cavalier. After taking over as UVA’s head coach last year, Lars Tiffany, who played for Starsia at Brown, moved Williams from midfield to attack, with impressive results.
With one game remaining, the 6-2, 185-pound Williams is first on the team in assists (25) and second in points (50).
“It’s wonderful to coach Zed Williams,” Tiffany said. “He’s eager and excited to make everyone around him love the game as much as he loves it. He plays with passion both in practice and on game day, and he plays with a creativity and freedom that his teammates enjoy seeing.”
He’s also “willing to do the dirty work,” Tiffany noted. Williams, who’s profiled in this Chasing Uncompromised Excellence feature, is second on the team in groundballs, with 50.
“He certainly is a joy to coach,” Tiffany said. “My only regret is I wish I had him for a few more years.”
The Seneca are part of the Iroquois Confederacy, which also includes the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Tuscarora. UVA has had few Native American lacrosse players through the years, and Williams’ presence, Tiffany said, strengthens the program.
“It’s wonderful for me, personally,” he said, “and I believe it is great for [Williams’ teammates] to play with a Native American, to play with someone whose people gave us this game and can share their wisdom and insight into why it’s more than a game.”
Tiffany and Starsia remain close, and Tiffany knew how important it was to Starsia that Williams continue moving toward graduation. To that end, working with Heather Downs, UVA’s director of academics for Olympic sports, Tiffany constructed his team’s practice and travel schedules so they would not conflict with classes Williams needed for his degree.
“So he’s definitely taken care of me while I’ve been here too,” Williams said.
Williams came to UVA from Silver Creek High School, where in five seasons on the varsity he totaled a national-record 729 points, on 444 goals and 285 assists. He could have gone to a college, such as Syracuse or Albany, where Native Americans have had prominent roles in the lacrosse program, but Williams forged strong bonds with Starsia and Van Arsdale during the recruiting process and chose Virginia.
In his hometown, many questioned whether Williams could survive academically and socially at UVA, and he indeed struggled as a freshman, after which Starsia urged him to attend summer school to help prepare for his second year.
“But I wanted to go home,” Williams said, a decision that Starsia accepted, however reluctantly.
“Even though I said no [to summer school], he said, `All right, come back in the fall and we’re going to get it done anyway,’ ” Williams recalled. “He just always believed in me, even when I didn’t.
“And then when I came back in the fall for my sophomore year, I knew if I got on probation again I would be suspended for a year, but I said, `From now on I’m going to give it my best shot. If I can do it, that’s awesome. If I’m giving it my best shot and I can’t do it, at least I know I tried my best and I can live with myself after.’ “
Williams succeeded, to the delight of those who have been part of his journey at UVA, whether they be teammates, coaches, professors or academic advisors.
In his 24 seasons at UVA, Starsia captured four NCAA titles and became the all-time winningest coach in Division I history. He spoke recently to the men’s lacrosse team at High Point University. When a player there asked him what he was most proud of in his career, “I said I’d put the measure of Zed Williams’ career alongside anything else that I’ve accomplished as a coach,” Starsia recalled this week.
“I feel strongly about that. We’re in a people business, and that’s one of the great successes of my life, that he’s going to graduate on time.”
Final exercises will be held May 20 and 21 at the University, and his mother will be in attendance, Williams said, as well as “both my sisters and probably five of my brothers.”
Had Virginia’s season unfolded differently, Williams might still be playing that weekend. But the Cavaliers finished 0-4 in ACC play, with two of those losses coming by one goal, and will miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.
For Williams, a college career in which he’s totaled 73 goals and 56 assists ends Saturday. At noon, UVA (8-6) meets Penn (6-5) in Durham, North Carolina, where the four-team ACC tournament begins Friday.
“One more game to play with my best friends,” Williams, who’s roomed with face-off specialist Jeff Kratky for three of his four years at UVA, said of his teammates. “I’ll miss playing with all of them.”
After graduation, Williams said, he’ll head back to New York, and he and his fiancée, Amanda, will be married in July. Eventually, Williams would love to work in law enforcement, perhaps for the FBI.
He’s not putting away his stick. He’s looking forward to playing box lacrosse, the indoor version of the sport, with his brothers Jon, JoJo, Zach, Cornbread and Sherman.
Williams hasn’t ruled out putting what he’s learned about drama — he focused on behind-the-scenes work at UVA — to use on the reservation.
“I’ve always got that in my pocket now,” Williams said. “I learned so much from the drama department, and I know the kids back home, they don’t have any theater experience. It’s all box lacrosse or basketball and stuff. I think kids would enjoy that back home if they got the opportunity to do it.”
If nothing else, Williams hopes his experience at UVA will inspire other Native Americans to pursue their college dreams.
“That’s why I’m here too,” he said. “After being here for four years, I can go back and I can help the kids back home and give them a different way of seeing things.”