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Stories/Op-Ed

Gloves Off: Jake Withers

Jake Withers is a defenseman. Sure, he’s pretty good at faceoffs (his average tends to hover around 73%), but first and foremost the 28-year-old from Peterborough, Ontario is a defenseman, and he’d be happy if you referred to him that way, thank you very much.

Regarded as one of the best face-off men in the game, if not THE best, Withers never had an affinity for the position growing up. He was pigeon-holed into it and it’s all Zach Currier’s fault.

Kidding. Withers is incredibly grateful for all the opportunities that faceoffs have given him, so really, he is incredibly content with how things worked out growing up with Currier in the Peterborough minor lacrosse system. The pair are still great friends, and won the 2022 PLL championship together with the Waterdogs.

“It was either me or Zach, we always shared the position back then. He’s become a little more athletic than me, I will admit,” Withers chuckles. “He even played attack for a while. I was maybe a little better than him at faceoffs so I kept taking them when we would travel for tournaments and got good at them.”

As a kid, he saw them as a game within the game but didn’t place much overall importance on them.

“You do them because you have to. You just try and get the ball and if you don’t, who cares, you play defense.”

Now he relishes the chance to be a contributor to his Halifax Thunderbirds in a critical position.

“If that’s what the team needs, and it gets me on the floor, I do it wholeheartedly. I love the position,” he emphasizes. “I love being able to get the ball as much as possible and give the defense a rest. It helps the team get more possessions and puts us in a better position to win games. It’s always a good feeling when you have a good game at the dot but it’s also one of the worst feelings when you have a bad game at the dot. All eyes on you, right?”

Luckily, Withers doesn’t have too many bad games at the dot.

He has yet to have a perfect game in the NLL, but he’s come close. He’s not the only face-off specialist and Trevor Baptiste even broke his rookie record for number of faceoff wins a year after Withers set it. In Halifax’s most recent battle with Baptiste and Philadelphia Wings, the pair each won half of their draws.

He had two perfect games for the MSL’s Peterborough Lakers: August 16, 2018 in a game seven playoff win, and May 31, 2019, and he was a big part of three consecutive Mann Cup Championships.

The nickname “Wiz” is apt: watching him win a faceoff is like watching magic.

Part of his ability to be the best comes from specialized gloves that are created especially for his position. Taking faceoffs requires more protection for Withers’ hands.

“The glove itself is very protective and it fits very well,” he says of the prototypes he’s tried on. “I like gloves that protect you first and foremost but that don’t feel like you’re wearing anything. There are little differences in the thumb and how my thumb reacts to certain scenarios when I’m facing off. It’s really hard to get right. You want movement but you don’t want movement, and you have to be protected the entire time.”

Withers also uses a different stick when taking faceoffs; it has a factory-made head specifically for the position. It snaps back into place, has different flex points and a shorter throat. All things that give one an advantage versus a normal stick.

When he isn’t taking face offs, Withers works for the Thunderbirds doing virtual events for schoolchildren and running community coaching programs. He’s in the process of becoming a firefighter, and taking care of his rescue dog takes a lot of attention.

Withers attended The Ohio State University for economics, not sure of what he wanted to do in addition to lacrosse either before school started or when it ended. Now he’s found his calling in firefighting, and he thanks Paul Dawson for inspiring him.

“Dawson is one of the best people I’ve met through lacrosse. Not only is he a great competitor on the floor, but a really nice dude off the floor,” Withers explains. “He’s a firefighter and I really look up to him and respect him. He told me some stories. It’s a very intense and at times dangerous job but it’s very rewarding, and it’s the perfect job for a professional athlete and a young guy trying to start a family. You work 7-8 days a month, 24-hour shifts, but it’s no walk in the park. You see things that no human being should be exposed to.”

Dawson and Withers played together in Rochester for a year-and-half when Withers was just beginning his NLL journey.

“Jake is a guy that brings so much energy and life to the change room,” Dawson said.

“He’s known for being such a good face-off player but he’s one of the all-around defencemen in our game. As a teammate, he’s a guy that keeps the room loose but he’s such a competitor.”

He has no doubt Withers will make a great firefighter: “It’s got a very big sport and team mentality so coming from lacrosse or hockey he’ll fit right in. The one thing is, you have to put the work in. A guy that’s played DI lacrosse knows how to get that done. If you’re going to do it, put all your eggs in and go for it.”

Withers completed a firefighting course at Training Division in Crowley, TX, which he says that a lot of athletes attend. He just got his truck driving licence and is finishing up some final qualifications before he can start applying for jobs.

“Driving the truck is tough!” he laughed. “My dad is a truck driver so this gave me more of an appreciation for what he does. I’m glad that part is over with! Overall, it’s been enjoyable, and competitive and sometimes stressful trying to piece together this certificate and do this course between practices and travel and games,” he said, but acknowledged he has a good support system that includes teammate Austin Shanks, who was recently hired on at a fire hall in Darlington.

The course in Texas was eye-opening:

“We did two days of live fire training and it was intense. I like to think that I’m a reasonably healthy guy, in good shape, but the live training in full getup is nothing you can prepare for in the gym or playing sports. It’s a totally different kind of stamina and perseverance… The first couple of hours were a big wakeup call. I battled through it but it’s really hard keeping your brain calm when you’re in there, with fire and smoke all around you so you can’t see anything. You have to control your breathing so you don’t run out of the pure oxygen in your cylinder. It was a fun, enjoyable experience and a unique one doing it for the first time. It was tough, but I am passionate about it and hopefully I can get on with a department in the next year or so.”

Staying by his side while he completes his qualifications is his boxer mastiff, 14-month-old Eddie. Withers and his partner Claire adopted Eddie from the Peterborough Humane Society, where he had been rescued after he and his two siblings were left on the side of the road in a cardboard box.

“When we first saw him, Claire started crying and Eddie jumped on her and that was it. They let us take him home and he’s been just a joy ever since. Adopting him was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Withers says proudly.

Eddie is 120 pounds and comes up to Withers’ chest when he stands on his back legs.

“He’s a good boy.”

He’ll miss Eddie when he travels for lacrosse this coming season, but at the same time he can’t wait to get back to Halifax. The Thunderbirds missed two home in 2021-22 games due to Covid restrictions, and Halifax isn’t a place you want to be away from for long.

“It’s very simple, very happy and the people there are very down to earth,” he says. “It’s a very quaint place, kind of slow, but happy. Time moves more slowly and you don’t have a worry in the world out there. The city is busy, but not busy. You go downtown on a Saturday morning to get some breakfast and there are barely any cars out. But then you go into a restaurant or little diner and it’s buzzing. With that said I’ve still only seen a very small part of Nova Scotia.”

He and Claire travelled around the province in April when she came out for a game. Their favourite activity was walking the board walk, which is most beautiful as the sun rises. Withers says spring or summer is better for travel because the snowy and cold winters can be grueling.

And you can’t beat the seafood on the east coast, he says.

“After just one bowl you fall in love with the clam chowder.”

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