Indigenous youth face significant hurdles. Few go on to achieve what NLL Champion Zed Williams has. He wants that to change.
According to numerous studies over the last ten years, Indigenous youth face educational, socio-economic, suicide, loss of cultural identity, and substance-abuse issues at higher rates than the national average in the United States and Canada.
In 2018, a survey conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse found that by 8th grade, 44% of Native American* youths living on or near reservations in the United States had smoked marijuana compared to 13% of national American children. That same survey found that 40% of Native American* kids had consumed alcohol compared to 23% of American youths at some point in their lifetime.
Regarding education, data collected from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 74% of Native American/Alaska Native* youths graduated from high school compared to the 86% national average in the United States.
Furthermore, when it comes to home life, unfortunately for Native American* youths, according to 2019 data from Kids Count, 52% of American Indians* live in single-family homes, whereas the average among all races is 34%.
The environments that affect and create all of these challenges and distractions are, in many cases, facts of life that Indigenous youths have to deal with from a young age. Given the circumstances dealt to many Indigenous youth it can be difficult to break out of this recurring pattern, especially when looking at the media and you do not see yourself represented.
Indigenous lacrosse superstar Zed Williams of the NLL champion Colorado Mammoth knows how fortunate he was to have his dad – who passed away in 2017 – around to keep him focused on pursuing a career in lacrosse. William’s father understood the impact that sport, particularly lacrosse, could have on his son’s life.
“I would have football, lacrosse, or basketball practice – we lived about a half-mile down a dead-end road – and whether we were wearing flip-flops, spikes, or no shoes, we got dropped off at the end of the road and had to run home,” Williams said. “But, I think my dad always knew what it took to win something like [an NLL championship] even though I didn’t. Looking back at it, everything that was given to me was so I could be successful in those moments, to fight and rise to the occasion.”
“I didn’t expect to play at college and didn’t expect to play professionally, but winning a championship is what you work so hard for as a lacrosse player. It meant so much to me because my family (me, my siblings, my parents) we’ve been through a lot, so finally accomplishing that goal together was a great moment.”
As a proud member of Seneca Nation, Williams took full advantage of every moment possible to showcase his lacrosse skills for all of the Indigenous teens and children watching and following the NLL Postseason. The Silver Creek native posted 37 points (the most ever by an Indigenous player in the NLL Playoffs) over seven games.
But, Zed was already a high profile athlete way before this past NLL Postseason. Not only was Williams a Premier Lacrosse League champion in 2020, he was the PLL’s MVP as well. And before that, he was one of the best offensive players at the University of Virginia and a record setter for US high school lacrosse at Silver Creek.
When given the opportunity he has showed off his strength, athleticism and leadership when his team has needed it the most. In these moments he has set a wonderful example for up-and-coming lacrosse players for how to act on and off the floor. His display in each of the pivotal games is an inspiration for those who want to make a career out of playing lacrosse.
Sadly, Williams knows all too well that many Indigenous youths, some that he’s known personally, have struggled with various issues that have led them away from their dreams. For many of them, lacrosse was an integral part of their lives.
“I’ve seen so many kids, especially young teenagers, who love the game but face so many distractions in their lives,” Williams said. “I’m not going to lie, growing up, there were so many kids that were more talented than me at lacrosse – those kids were some of the best lacrosse players I’ve ever seen – but those distractions take over your life, and before you know it, you fall out of love with the game.”
“This has motivated Williams to take the initiative beyond sharing his story of perseverance, growth, and success. He has taken part in community activities all over North America, whether it has been as a mentor and liaison to Native American students at Silver Creek High School or participating in PLL training and education days. Williams can also sometimes be found helping out at FCA Upstate Lacrosse in Rochester or coaching with APEX Lacrosse Events as well as various lacrosse-related events in the Buffalo area.
Williams wants all Indigenous youth to know that it’s easy to fall in love with lacrosse if you give it a chance. Playing is not just an exercise; it is a medicine for the mind and the body. Lacrosse can be used to both connect and disconnect at the same time. When you play, you are playing for those who are no longer with us (as Williams does), but you can also play to set your mind free. Those who watch it will be in awe of its majestic rhythm and will feel the positive energy wash over them.
With that in mind, if there is one thing Williams would like Indigenous youth to do, it would be to give lacrosse a real chance to let it grab their heart. Lacrosse has transformed communities. Let it show you what it can do for you. It will not solve all of life’s problems, but if you can develop a passion and love for the game, lacrosse could change your life forever.
“You never know what’s going to come from playing lacrosse; you never know where it will take you,” Williams said. “I believe that with a sheer joy and love of the game, the sky’s the limit to where it can take you. I guarantee you that it’ll be worth it. Let it be your outlet for whatever you’re facing in your life.”
*Denotes the nomenclature used for the demographics within the cited studies