On the opening Thursday of the event, Elias Zacharopoulos played his first competitive lacrosse game.
Everyone plays a first game and experiences the jitters and nerves of testing your skills against people wielding metal weapons they’d love to break you with. Not everyone makes their lacrosse debut at a World Championships.
For the 17-year-old Greek midfielder and Greece’s only homegrown player at the World Championships, one of the biggest stages hosted his inauguration.
Zacharopoulos got in Greece’s game against Mexico on Thursday in the fourth quarter, something he’s unknowingly waited one-and-a-half years for.
“That was a really big moment for me,” he said. “I’m going to remember it for my whole life.”
In January 2017, Jason Pereles moved to Greece to help grow the game in the country. He went to Zacharopoulos’s school, Anatolia College in Thessaloniki, and laid out sticks during the students’ recess before going to gym classes for captive audiences. Immediately, Zacharopoulos was asking questions.
“From day one, (Zacharopoulos) came up to me. What is this? What’s this sport?” Pereles said. “During recess, everybody else isn’t really interested in lacrosse, but he’s with me learning how to pass and catch. Then when I introduced it to him in his gym class, he was hooked.”
For the next six months, Pereles trained Zacharopoulos in-person, starting from scratch with the most basic of skills. In July 2017, Pereles’s time in Greece ran out, and he boarded a plane back to America. But he and Zacharopoulos stayed in touch. The Greek teen wouldn’t lose his coach that easily.
“The amount of work he has put in on his own is impressive,” Pereles said. “When I left in July, we would talk on Facebook Messenger a couple times a month. He would tell me he’s playing wall ball. He’d ask, ‘Coach, what’s the next thing I should be working on? What’s another footwork drills, or stick skills?’ From when I left in July, a lot of this was on his own.”
After a year apart, Zacharopoulos and the man who raised his lacrosse love reunited as Pereles returned to Greece as one of the program’s executive board members and assistant coach. Pereles was on the sideline Friday, giving Zacharopoulos guidance and instruction much like he did on the fields at Anatolia College.
Zacharopoulos has of course come quite a long way from not being able to catch a ball during his first two weeks in the sport to being able to hang in the premier international lacrosse event, but it isn’t only about his improved on-field knowledge. Through lacrosse, Zacharopoulos’s English has improved immensely, opening up new possibilities in his life that would have otherwise been unobtainable, but it goes deeper than that. He has been introduced to new people, a new culture and a new lifestyle, all things that have changed his outlook.
Before finding lacrosse, Zacharopoulos spent 10 years playing soccer. His experience in the sport differed vastly from in his new love.
“I was watching (my teammates) say hi or hello to people from different teams who they didn’t even know,” he explained. “The first time, I was really surprised because for so many years I had seen all these fights between teams.”
He found the close-knit climate of lacrosse attractive, and as he became used to it, the teenager made some realizations.
“We are all humans,” Zacharopoulos said. “We have to be close to each other, we have to be friendly to each other. This is the most important thing, even more than winning a game, losing a game, winning the Championships, everything.”
Pereles said instilling these types of values in young people is exactly why he finds his work worthwhile.
“You’re coaching to teach these young boys how to become men, how to become better people and how to love each other,” he said. “To hear a 17-year-old, who 19 months ago didn’t even know what lacrosse was, say that is awesome. This is why we do it. I’m going to pass a lesson on to (Zacharopoulos), now he’s going to learn from this experience, he’s going to go back to Greece, and he’s going to pass his experience on to somebody else. If he can influence one person, then that validates the job of myself, the (Greece Lacrosse Association) and coaching staff.”
Zacharopoulos recognizes his role in the game in Greece and knows he’s the first of the first generation of the nation’s lacrosse players. Although he said finishing high school and getting a degree in economics comes first, he wants to play professionally one day. But simply showing the sport to his fellow countrymen would make him happy.
“Everywhere I go, I will try to inspire young people to play lacrosse,” Zacharopoulos explained. “My objective is to make the sport famous to Greek people. I think it deserves to be famous and played by all of Greece.”