“It was like coming this close to your dreams and then watch them brush past you like a stranger in a crowd. At the time, you don’t think much of it. You know, we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening.”
Dr. Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham – Field of Dreams
After the Albany Great Danes fell to Yale in the 2018 NCAA semifinals, a heartbroken Connor Fields took time to thank all of the friends, family and fans in the crowd. Playing on a torn ACL, sprained MCL and an injured meniscus, the East Amherst, NY product gave everything he could to help the program that gave him everything.
But when things don’t go your way, it’s often how you respond that shows your most authentic character. For Fields, there was no questioning his.
Growing up just thirty minutes from Buffalo’s BanditLand, dreams of playing in the National Lacrosse League took ahold of a young Connor Fields instantly. As a ten-year-old die-hard of the Buffalo Bandits, Fields immediately found himself drawn to arguably the greatest indoor player of all time.
“I was a big John Tavares fan! He’s not the big guy out there, he’s really quick and so smart. He always knew what to do with the ball.”
Like any young fan, after every game he would head to his backyard and try all the moves he saw his idol do effortlessly. “Being able to use what you had and shoot the crap out of the ball,” were two early tips he picked up, but watching players like Tavares and Josh Sanderson (on the rival Toronto Rock) showed him that size didn’t matter as long as you played with speed and smarts.
Smaller players are shifty and nimble, they get under your skin because they never stop moving. These players also tend to have an incredibly high competitive drive. Seemingly always with something to prove because of their size. For Fields, that hunger to be the best started in the backyard during daily battles with his older brother Peter.
“Lacrosse, basketball, hockey, whatever it was, I wanted to beat him. Early on I always wanted to beat Peter, then it was whoever I was playing against. It’s always been built up in me, and it’s who I am today.”
Classic younger brother syndrome.
When dad took Peter across the border to Fort Erie, Ontario, to join a minor lacrosse team, the coach planted the seed that the younger Fields should play as well. With no minor lacrosse in the area, the trio would make the trip north frequently to give the young boys a chance to play the game they both loved so much. A rarity for an American to start playing indoor lacrosse before outdoor, but in this case, Connor learned the valuable skills of the indoor game that would allow him to excel at both versions of lacrosse.
Maybe the most significant influence was when he was a member of the Seneca WarChiefs Jr. B lacrosse team coached by another Bandits-great and lacrosse legend, Darris Kilgour.
Anyone who grew up watching the early Buffalo Bandits knows who Kilgour is and what he meant to the Bandits. Now getting a chance to play for the intense and passionate Kilgour was an incredibly special moment for Fields. “How much knowledge he has about the game and how he goes about the game was really cool. I learned a ton playing for him”
By the time he got to high school, the travel back and forth to Canada had become too much, and he would begin to play the field game, becoming a primarily off-ball catch and shoot player.
Early childhood dreams of playing at Syracuse University quickly faded when they didn’t recruit him, but it all worked out as he would go on to set the college game on fire while at the University at Albany. Playing a fast high-tempo style of lacrosse under coach Scott Marr was a perfect fit for Fields’ game.
It wasn’t until he went to the University at Albany and was taken under the wing of star attackman Lyle Thompson that he started to turn into the well-rounded player that would see him become one of the NCAA’s best-ever.
“He taught me to be comfortable and confident with the ball. He showed me a lot of moves and tricks of the trade but having that confidence in yourself and trust in my teammates really helped.”
“How he approached the game of lacrosse and respected it was really cool to learn and soak it all in. It was a dream come true to play with someone of his caliber – he was an idol of mine, so to get a chance to play with him was incredible.”
In his freshman year, he would set an NCAA record with 66 goals, and by the time he ended his four years as a Great Dane, he would be a three-time All-American and Tewaaraton Trophy finalist. Unfortunately, MCL and ACL injuries would slow him down in his final two years and slow his path to the pro game. He wasn’t going to let this slow down his dreams.
However, a traffic delay en route to the 2018 NLL Draft almost made him miss hearing his name called by the San Diego Seals. “We drove up from Buffalo that day and got stuck in traffic in Philly ‘cause there was a car on fire on the thruway. I snuck in the door after missing the first five picks. So, it was probably good I didn’t go earlier ‘cause it really would’ve sucked if we drove all that way and missed it.”
He made it in time to walk the stage on draft night and shake hands with Patrick Merrill, Bill Greer and Josh Sanderson. After years of childhood respectful dislike for the Toronto Rock legend, he would now get to learn from another of his idols.
The majority of that first year as an NLL player was spent in the press box and on the sidelines watching as he recovered from knee surgery. He was included in all aspects of the team and was at every game. “You see different things on and off the field, whether it’s learning or observing.”
“Coach Merrill has been awesome. To see how he handles his business, how serious he is, how much he cares for this team, and how competitive he is, that was the first thing I noticed.”
After seven months of rehabilitation and playing the waiting game, he finally got the tap from Coach Merrill that he would be in the lineup. It was bittersweet, though, as his insertion came at the expense of rookie sensation Austin Staats who had been injured the night before in a game against Georgia. It may have been the plan all along to have Fields play in the second game of a back-to-back, but this forced the Seals’ hand.
While there were some nerves early on, Fields was right at home once he got into the flow of things. “I tried to stay confident and play my game. Everyone was supportive of me, and that helped.” It took him nearly three quarters, but when an outside shot slipped past the Black Wolves’ goalie, he let out a major sigh of relief and would go on to have a three-point night in his debut.
During his second season with the Seals, he was fully healthy, playing without the brace and had complete confidence in his game. When dreams come true, it almost feels surreal, and when the 2019 season kicked-off for the Seals, they would open up inside BanditLand versus the team he grew up watching.
“It’s always awesome playing in your hometown, let alone the place you grew up watching games, so having it go full circle was a dream come true. It was cool to walk out onto the turf but once the game started, it slipped my mind. It was a lot of fun.”
Fields would score the first Seals goal five minutes into the game on the power-play with dozens of family and friends in attendance.
Battles inside NLL arenas may be a little more rough and tumble than the backyard battles with his brother, but there is no doubt that Connor Fields is still having tons of fun playing lacrosse.
“The pace, the shot clock, there’s no stalling. I like indoor more than outdoor for those reasons. I love it, it’s fun. I miss it a lot right now, but I’m itching to get back at it.”
With the NLL returning to play in December of this year, there’s time for him to dream of sunny nights at Knockaround Field and championships with the Seals. It seems he’s pretty good at making those dreams come true.