When Williamsville North boys lacrosse coach Rick Hopkins was forced to throw five players off his team for violating team rules over a decade ago, it seemed like a pretty bleak time in the program’s history.
Instead, there was a freshman goalie on the junior varsity who would leave a lasting mark because of it. Billy Wilson, a skinny kid light on experience, was penciled in as the JV starter. The varsity starter and his backup were part of the housecleaning, leaving an empty net.
Hopkins went to his JV coach, explained the situation, and inquired about his goalie. Would anyone be capable of making such a jump?
Hopkins said Wilson did what he considered to be a courageous act, agreeing to serve as varsity goalie just two weeks into his high school career. At times it wasn’t pretty.
“He let a lot of balls get past him, he didn’t take up much room in the net, but he used it as an opportunity to get better,” said Hopkins. “You could see the leadership skills as a freshman. He had a quiet confidence that you look for in a player.”
Wilson took that fighting attitude with him, joining the U.S. Army after graduating from North.
The Getzville native was a seven-year veteran of the military when he was fatally shot on March 26, 2012, by an Afghan security member who turned his weapon on Wilson. The Army staff sergeant was 27 years old when his life was ended in Eastern Afghanistan. At the time of his death he had led his squad on 200 patrols and missions.
Approximately 1,000 mourners attended his funeral service in Getzville that fell on Good Friday. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart and was recognized as a true American hero.
As the one-year anniversary of his death passed, Wilson was remembered on Monday by the current Williamsville North lacrosse team during a pregame ceremony. Family, friends and former teammates of the fallen solider all gathered before the 5 p.m. contest with East Aurora to pay tribute.
The Spartans’ three captains, Sam Sexton, Cameron MacDonald and Eric Steinwachs presented a check for $1,500 to the Wilson family for the Billy Wilson Scholarship Fund. The team has been selling air fresheners and bought Billy Wilson T-shirts to raise the money.
“He really seemed like a pretty amazing person,” said MacDonald. “He was a four-year starter, he stepped up for the team and stepped up for his country. He’s the kind of person who does whatever it takes when people need him, a real team player.”
The front of the T-shirts had a likeness of Wilson’s dog tags and the years he was born and died, along with the words: “You are not forgotten.” The back read: “Home of the free because of the brave.”
The team also had a patch sewn onto the breast of their uniforms with Wilson’s initials: “WRW.”
Hopkins used the ceremony to speak about Wilson as a player and a person.
After his freshman season as an accidental goalie, the spot was not available to him his sophomore year as one of the dismissed goalies returned. Wilson told Hopkins he would play anywhere he was needed, which landed him in the midfield and on defense. As a junior and senior he was back in goal. He was the overwhelming choice for captain his last two years.
“It didn’t surprise me when I learned he was going into the military,” said Hopkins. “He knew the importance of team, how to lead, being a soldier was pretty important. He had all the qualities for sure. He was willing to jump in and play varsity his freshman year. What he lacked in skill he made up for with heart. He was a pretty special kid, that’s for sure.”