Dyson Williams and the Meaning of No. 51

Dyson Williams was selected No. 1 overall in the NLL Draft by the Albany FireWolves on Saturday, Sept. 16. This story was originally published in March 2020.

Dyson Williams doesn’t remember a time without lacrosse. He attended his first game when he was a week old. You could say he was born into the sport. 

“He was with me at the rink and in the dressing room on every team I played for right from the get-go,” said Shawn Williams, Dyson’s father, who had a decorated 17-year career in the National Lacrosse League and is now the offensive coordinator for the Colorado Mammoth. “He's been around the game for all of his life.”

“Dyson is a little bit bigger, but just the way they shoot the ball both as lefties, the way they string their sticks, the way they carry themselves is very similar,” said Brodie Merrill, who played with Shawn Williams on several teams, including the 2009 MLL champion Toronto Nationals, and coached Dyson Williams at The Hill Academy in Ontario. “The apple doesn't fall far from the tree there.” 

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that the 6-foot-2, 200-pound freshman attackman who hails from Oshawa, Ontario, known as “Canada’s Motor City,” was the engine behind Duke’s offense this spring before the season was cut short by the COVID-19 outbreak. The third-ranked incoming freshman according to Inside Lacrosse, Williams led the Blue Devils with 25 goals through eight games while scoring on 54.1 percent of his shots. He registered at least two points in each game since an opening 14-13 loss to Air Force. 

“Certainly in the Air Force game, Dyson dipped his toe in the water, but after that things started to change,” Duke coach John Danowski said. “You certainly could see him become more comfortable each week with what we are trying to do.”

Williams looked more than comfortable during his breakout performance in a 13-12 overtime win against Richmond at Koskinen Stadium on Feb. 28. He scored seven goals on nine shots. 

“Who was that?” ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich asked despite knowing the answer, after Williams scored his seventh goal with 8:58 left in the third quarter. 

“Who do you think that is?” play-by-play announcer Chris Cotter shot back. 

“No. 51.” 

“He’s not afraid of the moment.”

— Brodie Merrill on Dyson Williams

“He’s just getting started,” Zack Greer replied on Twitter to a highlight package of each of Williams’ scores.

Greer knows more than most about finding the back of the net, particularly in Durham. The two-time first team All-American who spent four seasons at Duke and a fifth season at Bryant set the NCAA career goals record before another Blue Devils attackman, Justin Guterding, surpassed him in 2018. 

Besides their prolific output and the fact they’re both lefties, Williams and Greer share a familiar background. Like Williams, Greer, a native of Whitby, Ontario, played for the Whitby Warriors in the Ontario Junior A (Box) Lacrosse League. Greer played with Shawn Williams and Merrill on the Canadian national team and now plays with Merrill on the San Diego Seals. Greer leads the team with 50 points. Merrill and Greer room together on road trips. 

“I know he is really excited about Dyson,” Merrill said. “Dyson has looked up to Zack, being one of the first guys from his area to go and play high level D-I lacrosse. It's cool to see that connection.”

The connection continues in Durham. Williams is the first Canadian attackman to suit up for the Blue Devils since Greer in 2008.

“That’s the highest praise you can give one of our players, comparing them to Zack Greer,” Danowski said.

Danowski first caught a glimpse of Williams’ potential when he was a sophomore at The Hill Academy and played at the King of the Spring tournament in Durham. Williams scored a game-winning goal in overtime. He made a habit of that with the Pride. Williams also had an OT winner against Calvert Hall (Md.) last March and another against Brunswick School (Conn.). He finished with six goals in the latter game.

Williams has also produced 193 points over the last three summers for the Whitby Warriors, where he’s coached by his dad. Williams was so proficient, it became a running joke at The Hill Academy that he had already scored three or four goals by the time he rolled out of bed — before he made the hour-and-a-half commute from Oshawa to Vaughan each morning.

“He's not afraid of the moment,” Merrill said. “That comes from all the hard work that he puts into it. At The Hill, he was definitely one of the hardest-working players consistently in practice that I have ever been around. He was the same as a student.”

Though Merrill also called Williams one of the more college-ready players he’s ever coached, he still looked like a freshman at times this spring. Against Jacksonville, Williams committed a crease violation in the first quarter. There was the dropped pass on a fast break before the end of the half and an impatient shot late in the third quarter that led to a Dolphins goal. 

“There are always areas to improve,” Danowski said. 

Shawn Williams offers his oldest child “dad regards” before and after each game. He usually adds a couple suggestions, too. It comes with the territory of being a coach. There’s one area he rarely mentions. 

“I definitely don't tell him how to score,” Shawn Williams said. “He already knows how to do that.” 

Nestled in the game notes before Duke hosted Jacksonville was a telling statistic. If Williams kept up his pace of 3.43 goals per game, he’d finish the regular season with 51 goals. That’s Williams’ jersey number, but it’s so much more. 

Shawn Williams wore No. 15 until his first year with the Brooklin Redmen in 1996. The captain already had it, so Williams asked if he could flip the numbers around. 

“It just kind of stuck,” Shawn Williams said. 

It became the family number. Dyson and his younger siblings, Dylana and Tucker, all wore 51. The number took on an added meaning after Tucker lost an 11-month battle to Burkitt’s Lymphoma on Dec. 17, 2014. He was 8 years old when he died. 

When Dyson Williams was asked to introduce himself in front of all of his teammates last fall, like every Duke freshman does, his speech quickly turned to Tucker.

“He became a role model for transparency to not be afraid to open up to your teammates,” Danowski said. “He is so genuine, family-oriented and he has such a strong moral compass. In just a few short months, he has melted the hearts of everyone in the program. As good of a player as he is so far, he's an even better person.” 

A competitive sprinter growing up, Williams has not run away from his past and the unthinkable loss of his younger brother. He had to grow up fast. He said it still doesn’t feel real, but he’s committed to honoring Tucker’s legacy. 

“It’s bigger than a game to him,” Merrill said. 

There’s the TW51 Williams writes in sharpie on a piece of athletic tape attached to his chinbar. He tweets on the 17th of every month in remembrance of Tucker.

“I miss you and love you Tuckdog,” he often concludes. 

“He was so tough throughout it all, and I learned a lot from him,” said Williams, who was a bone marrow donor for his brother. 


Two days after his seven-goal performance against Richmond, he had an assist of another kind. When the Buffalo Bandits played the Halifax Thunderbirds on the last day of February, they wore original “Braver Than Brave” jerseys for the seventh-annual Tucker Out Lymphoma night. Williams first designed the uniforms with Tucker in 2014. 

This year’s jerseys featured several lime green ribbons, the “Braver Than Brave” animated figure in a Bandits hat and mask and an image of Tucker pursuing a ground ball. Williams talks with his dad about what they’d like to include in the design, then has free reign to choose what goes where. He enlists the help of Zachary Toll, who was Tucker’s best friend, to pick what’s written on the shorts. Toll, Hill grads like Jeff Teat (Cornell) and Sean Westley (St. Bonaventure) and a host of other players all wear 51 to celebrate the kid who taught everyone to “Live more. Laugh more. Love more.” 

“I feel like the No. 51 is part of my family’s name now,” Williams said. 

The phrase “Braver Than Brave” originated after Tucker had surgery at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto to remove a mass from his upper mouth. You wouldn’t have been able to tell by his spirit. When one nurse commented about how brave Tucker was, another interjected. 

“No,” she said. “He’s braver than brave.” 

The motto became a campaign and, like Tucker, an inspiration. 

There’s now a Braver Than Brave Memorial Fund for pediatric lymphoma research and a memorial lacrosse tournament of the same name in Oshawa. 

Before the Bandits hosted the Halifax Thunderbirds at KeyBank Center, Dylana Williams sang the Canadian national anthem. She does every year. Bandits forward Dhane Smith presented Tamara Williams, Dyson’s mom, with a pair of lime green Under Armour sneakers signed by the team. There was even a special ball with the Tucker Out Lymphoma logo along with other commemorations. 

All of the funds raised that night and a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales went toward pediatric cancer care. Started by Bandits senior director of lacrosse operations Scott Loffler, the initiatives have raised more than $120,000. 

“Our family couldn't be more thankful for the amount of support that we have received,” Dyson Williams said. 

Back in Durham or in Whitby or wherever lacrosse takes him, Williams tries to take a deep breath when he’s struggling at a practice or in a game. Then he’ll look down at his jersey and focus on 51. It centers him and gives him strength to push forward. 

“Lacrosse was Tucker’s favorite thing,” Williams said. “Since that was taken away from him, it made me realize how lucky I am to play this game and want to ensure that I play for those who can't.”


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