Matt Dziama, a former standout defensive midfielder for the Virginia Men’s Lacrosse team looks back on his college career with a smile on his face.
“Everyone that plays lacrosse, or knows anything about lacrosse knows that’s the game you want to get to and that’s the game that you want to win.”
Dziama speaks about that game positively, well, because he won that game. It was a 13-9 blowout of the NCAA’s #4 seed, The Yale Bulldogs, in the National Championship game. But now his career is over. He was at the pinnacle of the sport for 60 minutes, and now?
“The biggest difference is the daily routine.”
According to the Gallup Purdue Index for “Understanding Life outcomes of Former NCAA Student-Athletes”, college athletes are supposed to be better off having played college athletics. Former Athletes “place higher” in ⅘ well-being categories post graduation: Purpose, Social, Financial, Community, and Physical. Only one seems obvious to me, physical, because usually college athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger than a regular college student. While this data is robust, gathering information from many sports across DI, DII, and DIII institutions, I highly doubt this data is anywhere near accurate for lacrosse players. And in my experience, this data represents something very far from reality. The majority of my former teammates have either jumped into a career they don’t love or have already switched jobs.
Dziama is a Wellesley, MA native, a history major, member of the class of 2019, and a National Champion. Shortly after his final class at Virginia, he enrolled in a catholic school called Regis College. Here, he is taking pre-requisite classes to become a physician’s assistant. If he had the opportunity to in College, his pre-reqs of Chemistry and Biology would be knocked out. All he would have left would be a certain number of patient hours, becoming a certified EMT or ER technician before being able to apply for a PA program. He says classes not aligning with practice schedule is common for college athletes that want to enter healthcare.
“Although I was really interested in history, I think that by playing lacrosse, I wouldn’t say I was forced to be a major like history, but lacrosse influenced me to pick a major more like history instead of Pre-Med. Although I was always interested in healthcare, it literally wasn’t possible to be Pre-med at UVa with my lacrosse schedule.”
Perhaps a large reason why he is interested in healthcare is due to family. His mother is a psychologist, his sister is a Nurse Practitioner, and his grandmother was a nurse. Dziama did not pinpoint his path within that industry until his senior year in college. He wants to be a Physician’s Assistant. Because Lacrosse is so rigorous and time consuming, he was unable to fully dive into this interest.
Instead of waking up at 9AM to go to class until 2PM, going straight to practice until dinner, then doing homework, he finds himself with more free time as he is only taking two classes and does not have practice during the week.
On weekends, he plays for the MLL’s Boston Cannons. He was drafted and signed during the first weeks of June. While he says he has enjoyed his experience with the Cannons, there are obvious differences in the framework of an MLL organization when compared to an NFL, NBA, or MLB organization.
For example, Pro lacrosse teams only practice one time a week, the night before a game. There is also a possibility some members of the team miss the practice due to work conflicts ending later in the afternoon. Another large difference is that players will commonly miss games for other events they deem more important. This is largely due to the fact that you do not make enough money to sacrifice other important parts of your life.
“There is definitely some guys that will miss one or two games a season for something like a wedding, or a planned vacation, which you don’t really see Tom Brady or LeBron James missing games because they’re going on vacation, the league is more lenient on that because your not making enough money for it to be a full time commitment.”
For Dziama, this is a topic that will impact him over the next few months as his schooling becomes more demanding. If Pro lacrosse salaries were similar to the NBA, MLB, and NFL, it would be a no brainer as to what Dziama would pursue first. Becoming a PA would come regardless, because “That is something I really want to do, and you can’t play sports forever.”
There currently are two outdoor lacrosse leagues, the Major Lacrosse League (MLL) and the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL). The average salary in the PLL is around 35k, and give or take 10-25k in the MLL. There are 6 teams in the MLL and there are 6 teams in the PLL. Like most professional leagues, their rosters feature players from all over the country. Since their professional salaries are not able to support themselves year round, they often have to fly in from another city where they work a full time job. This also means that teams only practice one time a week before the games. Unless your are considered one of the best players in the world, you are unable to suffice on simply game salary.
College lacrosse is a sport that contains a very interesting paradox. The college level is far and away the most popular level of the sport. While it is certainly less attended than football and basketball, the attendance and popularity for the college game severely outweighs that of the professional level. Football and basketball at both the collegiate and professional levels provide players with less of a problem. They have more money, sponsors, fans, and talent that is more recognizable than what college or professional lacrosse has to offer. There are serious and extremely lucrative opportunities that wait on the other side for them. While they are few and far between, there are nonetheless large pay-days that drive these men to sacrifice it all to make it.
The reality is that becoming a professional lacrosse player comes with more stigma than dollars in your bank account. If you don’t have a job upon graduation or if you continue to pursue lacrosse as your primary source of revenue, you’re a bit unrealistic. There are some content creators and new brands that stem from former playing careers, but not so much sufficient funds from actually playing the sport. For all intensive purposes, lacrosse a niche sport: loved and played by a small number compared to other lucrative men’s sports.
There are 73 Division 1 college teams. Practice weeks are 20 hours. Monday-Friday, Saturday game, Sunday off. The season begins in the middle of February and ends in late May on Memorial Day. Preparation and training however begins in August. For 9 months, you see your teammates every single day. You eat with them, lift with them, joke with them, grind with them. You become one. The same type of preparation a first round draft pick in the NFL does is not much different than that of a division one lacrosse player. You are allowed the same number of hours as any big time money making sport. College lacrosse is also followed by the outside world a lot more. ESPNU covers at least one game every weekend, websites primarily dedicated to college lacrosse cover statistics, analysis, and predictions of upcoming games. Some lacrosse players boast anywhere from 4,000-8,000 followers on Instagram. One player even has 40.1k followers. Championship weekend this year reached over 70,000 in attendance and was held in the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field. Here at the University of Virginia, Klöckner stadium holds 8,000 people. Although we have not sold out in a while, the recent Men’s Lacrosse National Championship might help.
There is something college lacrosse has that Professional lacrosse does not have. It’s the tradition, familial ties and alumni base rooting for their colors. Its history. The first college lacrosse game was played in 1897. The first MLL game was played in 2001. The first PLL game was played in 2019. Student-athletes playing lacrosse know that lacrosse can’t be their life path. The second the clock strikes double-zeros on their senior season, most kids will never touch lacrosse stick in a meaningful way ever again.
But at the same time, lacrosse has previously been such an integral part of their childhood and college years. So how do you balance giving so much time and effort into something that you know is going to end without a lucrative or socially acceptable future with preparing for what is to come after College Lacrosse?
That’s the thing. People struggle with answering and dealing with that:
“”I have kind of questioned whether the PA path is what I want to do because it was so new going from playing lacrosse everyday to playing two days a week and being by yourself and not with people you’ve been with for four years. It’s definitely something your brain can’t comprehend because you’re in a brand new environment and your in a different stage of your life…definitely a shock.”
Over time, Dziama has gotten used to it, and has decided that he will not pursue lacrosse in the MLL anymore.
Dziama has found his routine, and he is set to enroll into a PA program next fall after he completes his class requirements. Like many other lacrosse players entering the “real world”, he has to put his lacrosse stick down.
He has played in the most important game in his life already.
And he won it.
The MLL will not pay him enough to miss valuable classes for his future career. For now his love for lacrosse might not be strong enough to pull him back to the game. Maybe that’s a good thing.
For now, guys like Dziama have to find another passion after their college career is over.
Dziama seems to have found one.
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