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Craig Wende Took a Long and Winding Road to the National Lacrosse League

The story of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner has been well documented.

He played college football at Northern Iowa but didn’t get selected in the NFL Draft. Warner was stocking shelves as a supermarket when the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League came calling.  Then came NFL Europe and finally a chance in the NFL leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl championship.

He doesn’t have the championship ring just yet, but you could make the argument that Georgia Swarm goaltender Craig Wende is the “Kurt Warner” of the National Lacrosse League.

Goaltender Craig Wende was hoping to be selected in the 2012 NLL Draft, but it never happened.

“Out of Junior A lacrosse I was not drafted,” said 31-year-old native of Kitchener, Ontario where he still resides.

“I was projected as a later pick. I ended up going to the draft and ended up leaving disappointed because my name wasn’t called.”

Despite not being drafted, Wende went to a free agent camp with the Washington Stealth but was released. The following year, he had a tryout with the Toronto Rock and made it all the way to the last day of training camp before…you guessed it…he was released.

At this point, Wende was thinking that his time would never come.

“You’re two years older going on three and basically you kind of get the assumption that maybe the journey wasn’t for me,” said Wende.

Wende’s journey also includes his full-time job as a mechanic for “Central Automotive Services”, the family business started by his grandfather Walter Roth and now owned by his uncles David and Gary Roth. Growing up, Wende spent a lot of time around the shop and the idea of being a mechanic one day was something that he was interested in.

Doesn’t this sound like a scene out of the movie “My Cousin Vinny”?

“I had a fascination with working on cars and a fascination of fixing things,” said Wende. “Growing up, I thought it was a job for me.  When I got the chance to be in the auto shop class, I took full advantage of it doing it in high school.”

And then Wende, who did not play college lacrosse but could certainly explain what “Positraction” is, went to Conestoga College in Kitchener where he earned his mechanics license.

“I came to my family business here with my uncles and my grandfather,” said Wende. “My grandfather is now retired and now my uncles are the owners so it’s a small three-person shop. I work there full-time.”

Kurt Warner worked in a supermarket and was able to live out his NFL dream.

Craig Wende is a mechanic and is now also at the highest level of box lacrosse.

Their stories are certainly comparable.

“It sounds exactly like what I went through,” said Wende. “To get to where I am today took hard work, took perseverance and I had to show everybody that I was capable of being in the league so I’m happy that I’m finally here.”

Wende’s road to the NLL was a long and winding road.

After getting released by Washington and Toronto, Wende turned to other options playing for leagues like the Arena Lacrosse League and the Ontario Senior B Lacrosse League. He also went overseas to play for Team Germany in the Euro Box League.

While he wasn’t in the NLL, he was getting a chance to play and grow as a netminder.

“I was able to get minutes,” said Wende. “It took me a long time to develop into the goaltender that I am today and it took me six years to finally get on a practice roster.”

All of the hard work for Wende began to pay off when he was signed to the Georgia Swarm practice roster for the 2018-19 season, six years after he was draft eligible.  He was on a team that had Mike Poulin and Kevin Orleman, but the positive was that he was with an NLL club and it was a step in the right direction.

And then came the chance…

Mike Poulin was injured and was inactive for the regular season finale against the Philadelphia Wings on April 20th, 2019. Kevin Orleman would get the start and Wende would get his chance to dress as the backup. And then, with about a minute and a half left in the second quarter, Wende replaced Orleman between the pipes.

And emotional Wende was about to make his NLL debut.

“If anybody would have talked to me after that moment, I probably would have burst into tears,” said Wende. “It was one of the happier moments so far in my career.”

Wende then went on to sign with the expansion Rochester Knighthawks for the 2019-20 season.  He went to training camp with the understanding that he would compete for a spot on the active roster. Not only did he make the active roster, but he was named the opening day starter.

“That was seven years of hard work in the making to start my first game in the National Lacrosse League,” said Wende. “There were times throughout those seven years where I thought I should not even play lacrosse anymore and might be getting too old for it.”

Wende proved that narrative to be false by never giving up and finally reaching his goal.

The COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2019-20 NLL season early and wiped out the entire 2020-21 campaign. Wende was then traded by Rochester to Georgia for a draft pick so he was back with the organization where his NLL career began.

This season, Wende has a record of 0-2 with a 14.42 goals against average as the Swarm (0-5) get ready for Friday night’s home game against the Toronto Rock at Gas South Arena (7:30pm ET ESPN+/TSN+).

“We own our record…that’s for sure,” said Wende. “We’re just trying to make sure we’re coming into every game competing as hard as we possibly can. We just have to keep battling. It’s a grind to get wins in this league.”

Win or lose, Wende’s objective of being a goalie in the NLL has come to fruition. It took a little longer…okay a lot longer than he expected, but good things come to those who wait and Wende is trying to make the most of his opportunity.

Especially when you consider there were times when he was convinced it was a pipedream.

“As a kid, you dream about being in the National Lacrosse League but I never thought it would happen,” said Wende. “I would be lying if I said I told myself at ten years old that maybe one day you could be a professional lacrosse player.”

It really doesn’t matter if you’re a football player stocking shelves or a lacrosse player fixing cars.  If you have a dream, you follow it because dreams do come true.