'A different sense of purpose': How a family tragedy changed Dyson Williams’ outlook on lacrosse and life

Dyson Williams is tied for Duke's all-time goal-scoring record.
Dyson Williams is tied for Duke's all-time goal-scoring record.

Tucker Williams knew it wouldn’t be good news. It rarely was.

Well past midnight, still waiting to see “the big doctor” and with more than a dozen other doctors gathered outside, that was torturously clear. His dad, Shawn, paced wall-to-wall. 

A neck-deep, sudden-onset battle with a rare, aggressive and lethal form of cancer would break most spirits, but Tucker was calm. He had a knack for staying level-headed, even optimistic, in these types of situations, even when he knew his condition could only worsen. 

“He was already saying ‘what's next’ right away,” Shawn told The Chronicle.

That’s one of the many lessons the Williams family thanks eight-year-old Tucker for teaching them: Being able to look forward, to acknowledge the bad and then ignore it. Another is to not abandon doing something one loves because others cannot.

Just 14 at the time, Tucker’s older brother Dyson was old enough to understand the gravity of what was happening with Tucker but not old enough to know how to deal with it. He calls it that “young, but getting old, age.”

Ten years on, Dyson — a recent graduate of Duke’s men’s lacrosse team from Ontario, Canada — has tried his best to emulate Tucker’s ability to say “what’s next” and find peace in his passion for the sport. Tucker’s teachings have made him a better athlete and a better person, Dyson says.

His success on the field speaks for itself: He’s tied for the Blue Devils’ highest all-time goalscorer and a two-time captain, as well as a soon-to-be professional attackman in both the National and Premier Lacrosse League. It’s tougher to discern the personal side of things through pads and a helmet, but the pride in his voice is clear when he talks about the people that got him to where he is now. That’s Shawn for his guidance as a former player and mentor; his sister Dylana for her ambition to play lacrosse at Pittsburgh in its first year as a program while studying to be an oncologist; his mom Tamara for alway finding time in her busy career as a teacher to attend all his games. And, of course, that’s Tucker, whose boundless love of life and lacrosse even at death’s door encouraged Dyson to shun any guilt of playing at an elite level. 

“I don't feel guilt, I feel a tremendous amount of heartbreak that [Tucker] can't play anymore and that he's not here with us playing the sport that he loves,” Dyson said. “But I know that he would want me to be playing and I just hope he's proud that Dylana and I and our entire family are doing our best to carry on his legacy.”

For Dyson and the rest of the Williams family, lacrosse is a crown, not a crutch. He wears it proudly — just like the TW51 taped on the grate of his helmet and the lime green “braver than brave” band on his wrist in his brother’s memory.

* * *

Dyson never skipped practice. It was one of the few ways he could make things feel normal as Tucker shuttled in and out of the hospital.

Vague signs that something was wrong one day in January 2014 snowballed into a doctor’s visit and rapid diagnosis of Burkitt’s lymphoma, a malignant form of blood cancer that targets the nervous system and bone marrow. Shawn and Tamara had to tell Dyson and Dylana the news that night before Shawn had to drive three hours to Buffalo, N.Y., for his regular pro lacrosse practice.

“I was devastated, but I'm like, ‘I'm going to practice,’” Shawn said. “Tucker's battling and well, I'm going to show we have to battle ourselves here, and me not going to practice, that would set off a lot of alarms.”

“They didn't miss anything for sports, we didn't allow that,” Shawn added. “I think that helped them, being around their teammates, getting to practice, playing lacrosse.”

Lacrosse was the “medicine game” for the Williams family. Tucker bolted for the field in between cycles of chemotherapy and remission when he felt strong enough. The nights he was most upset about in the hospital weren’t the surgeries or consultations, but the unplanned stays that stopped him from picking up a stick with his buddies. Dyson and Dylana’s many hours of practice served as much to continue their development as to relieve themselves from the trauma of their brother’s worsening condition.

The other medicine was family, who flocked to the Williams’ and Tucker’s side in support. He was always a good sport about visitors — even when dozens of people wanted to see him right after he finished invasive care — and nobody was ever turned away. Shawn’s cousin and aunt moved in with them to lend additional hands during Tucker’s final month of palliative care. A rotation of family members took turns looking after Dyson and Dylana at home while Shawn and Tamara were needed at the hospital in Toronto.

Dyson_Tucker 1 1.jpg
Dyson Williams and his younger brother Tucker.

“Always feeling support and love made certainly the toughest thing that my family has had to go through as easy as possible,” Dyson said. “Obviously, it wasn't easy, but it definitely helped having those people there for us so that my parents could be there for Tucker at all times, and we could be there for Tucker when we could.”

The combination of lacrosse and family kept Dyson going. The wounds have scabbed in the decade since, but that tandem is just as vital now as it was then.

* * *

The Williamses tried their best not to force the sport on Dyson once he was born, but Shawn’s professional obligations made that hard. Within a week, Dyson was in the stands at one of his dad’s games and found his way back — and into the locker room — countless times throughout his formative years. 

He finally picked up a stick for the first time when he was three. It took a year to convince him to wear a helmet, but he immediately took to the speed of the game.

“He loved grabbing the ball and just running,” Shawn said. “He was very quick and fast right away. So you could tell — all of a sudden he scores his first goal and something just kind of hooked him. And he's like, okay, I’m in.”

Even in head-clunking peewee leagues, cradling and shooting came easily to Dyson. He was also naturally bigger and quicker than most of the other kids his age, meaning he often played up a level. It was actually a tournament in the Carolinas, where Dyson was playing up a year, that he scored an overtime winner in front of the Duke coaching staff, who quickly reached out. Shawn — who coached Dyson on-and-off for 15 years — first thought lacrosse might take his son somewhere serious when he was five or six. 

“He's easy to be around and usually has a smile on his face. But he also really backs it up with a relentless work ethic,” said Brodie Merrill, Dyson’s high school lacrosse coach at the Hill Academy in Ontario. “He was very consistent with that — he would never miss days, he always brought that energy to practice.”

For all his skill and even more goals, Dyson’s greatest assets were his motor and discipline. His little brother’s was competitiveness.

Six years separated Dyson and Tucker, but Tucker always competed like they were the same age. Mini hockey, mini lacrosse, basketball, FIFA or NHL video games, it didn’t matter. Shawn stopped playing with him because he’d get beat so often.

“Tucker at eight years old was not losing and didn’t want to lose to anybody,” Shawn said.

Especially not cancer. After Tucker’s first surgery, the doctor told Shawn and Tamara that their son was “braver than brave” for the way he handled it. That’s where the line Dyson and his whole family has engraved on a lime green wristband — the cancer’s ribbon color — comes from. It’s also an eternal reminder that no matter how terrible something feels, Dyson can push through it, since he and his family have endured far worse.

What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?

Tucker’s ability to look at the good — and more importantly look forward — in the face of the worst adversity someone can experience has helped Dyson accept the triumphs and heartbreak inherent in elite lacrosse. 

Dyson has endured his fair share of punches on the field. His freshman year was cut short by the pandemic. As a sophomore, he was shifted into midfield and like the rest of his “superteam” never quite found his groove, falling short in the semifinals after a 15-6 obliteration by Maryland. His junior season ended with an unceremonious exclusion from the NCAA tournament and his senior season with heartbreak in the national title game. And just last weekend, his final shot at a national championship was killed by a seven-goal fourth quarter, again by Maryland.

But on the way, he scored 212 goals, a figure that jumps him to third all-time in the NCAA and joint-first at Duke. He had six in that last loss to Maryland, a team-high.

“I think his ability to move on, whether it was a bad loss or maybe a rough game or whatever,” Shawn said, “it's like, ‘Hey, what's next? We're still here. We're still alive. Let's go.’”

The “what’s next” philosophy took a while to entrench itself, but the idea of playing for Tucker, who had to give up lacrosse altogether the summer after his diagnosis, sped it up. It added purpose to Dyson’s game and made those mandatory practices he already enjoyed even more meaningful. Tucker wasn’t necessarily living through Dyson. Dyson was just living that part of Tucker’s life for him.

“I have over the last almost 10 years now struggled with [guilt] … but I just realized [I] can't because being that he can't play the game anymore, I have to honor him by playing the game to the best of my ability, as hard as I can, because he can’t,” Dyson said. “He wouldn't want me to not play because he can't. He’d want me to play even harder and play for him.”

“You can just see it in how he worked and his consistency and can tell that he’s at a different level with a different sense of purpose,” Merrill said.

Dyson has gotten more comfortable talking about Tucker’s battle with teammates, coaches and the media, but during the year of his brother’s illness, he preferred to process through the game. Across high school and college, after Tucker passed away, the iconic No. 51 on the back of his jersey became just as much about continuing a family tradition as preserving Tucker’s spirit. “TW51” became a quick addition to his game-day helmet tape. In a perfect bit of poetry, Dyson had 51 teammates on his final Duke team.

Dyson Williams wears TW51 on his helmet, in honor of his brother Tucker. 
Dyson Williams wears TW51 on his helmet, in honor of his brother Tucker. 

“I'm sure it's a place where he can feel that connection, and I'm sure he still does to this day when he steps on the field at Duke. He’ll feel that relationship,” Merrill said. “That's kind of the cool thing about sport is that [there are] very few things where you can feel kind of all your senses that way.”

The same weekend Dyson got drafted first overall into the National Lacrosse League, Shawn was inducted into the NLL Hall of Fame. There’s a good chance Shawn, the head coach and GM for the Las Vegas Desert Dogs in the NLL, is on an opposite bench to his son this season. Dyson got to see Dylana play and score when Pittsburgh visited Duke a couple years ago. His mom was in the stands for as many games as she could be. Dyson played with, not for, Merrill last summer on Team Canada at the Lacrosse World Championships. 

Tucker’s legacy is predictably vibrant. The sense of humor, boundless energy and contagious smile live on in Dyson’s demeanor; the love of lacrosse on his jersey, his helmet, his wrist, his annual social media posts and his high-octane style of play; the fight in how he approaches obstacles with vigor instead of fear.

“It's one of the things I really respect most about Dys, and it's just how he reacted to that and how he responded to it, I think very much in a big brother kind of way,” Merrill said. “I think he has made it his mission to represent his younger brother and to be that example and honor his legacy.”

“[Tucker is] just the toughest human being I've ever met,” Dyson said.

* * *

Tucker’s passing hasn’t gotten easier with time — the hard part just changes.

“I think the torture of ‘where would he be right now,’ we're in that one,” Shawn said. “I think it’s a different kind of feeling and it's hard. It's hard not to do that to ourselves.”

Many of Tucker’s friends he played with in the Ontario youth ranks are committed to play Division I lacrosse, and both Dyson and Shawn are adamant that he was better than all of his teammates. Way better. Even better than the two of them.

“He was truly one of the most amazing eight-year-old athletes I've ever seen,” Dyson said. “I'd hoped that he'd be committed to Duke and follow in my footsteps, but I'm sure he’d be at some top program for sure.”

“I've been around a long time,” Shawn said. “Tucker was the best lacrosse player I’ve ever seen.”

Not seeing Tucker live out his dream was the hardest part of his diagnosis, his battle and his eventual death. That won’t ever go away. But neither will his family, even if they have to speak about him in past tense.

“I was his older brother,” Dyson said, “but I truly did look up to him and still do every day.”

“The way he handled all this shit that was in front of him each day, man. I think I'm tough, I've been through a lot, I've had to deal with a lot of injuries and stuff like that,” Shawn said. “Being in those hospitals with all those kids that are going through that, they are the true warriors and the true leaders.”

Dyson has done his best to be a leader in his own way — conversing with freshman parents after early spring games, taking new recruits under his wing, rushing with open arms and an ear-to-ear smile to celebrate with teammates, pointing to the guy that assisted every goal he has scored. His job is to finish the job, but that’s not a task he’s ever been able to do by himself.

Dyson Williams celebrates with teammates during Duke's win against Princeton.
Dyson Williams celebrates with teammates during Duke's win against Princeton.

“That's the first and foremost thing is how much you care about your teammates, who will take you places that you want to go. If you want to win a championship, those are the things that pay off in the end,” Shawn said. “You're not gonna win all those big games, but push comes to shove, you love each other. When you truly love each other on a team, you're gonna be able to get the job done more than not.”

All parts of Dyson’s life synthesize nicely in that way. Through lacrosse and family, tragedy and triumph, there has always been someone by his side, behind his back or leading him forward. Sometimes that’s his family, sometimes that’s his coaches, sometimes that’s his teammates. Sometimes that’s the spirit of the world’s best eight-year-old athlete telling him to “get at this.” 

He’s never alone. 

Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Recruitment/Social Chair

Andrew Long is a Trinity senior and recruitment/social chair of The Chronicle's 120th volume. He was previously sports editor for Volume 119.


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