For most of Zack Schilawski’s adult life, this time of year was the uncertain time. As a professional soccer player in the United States, especially one who had slipped below the MLS level, not only is there no money coming in, there’s no guarantee there will be a job for you where you played last year, or any guarantee that team will even exist.
By the time he hit his mid-20s, Schilawski knew this was the only place he wanted to play: Home. He grew up in Cary, played for CASL, won an NCAA title and scored a hat trick in his MLS home debut, but he was most comfortable playing for what was then known as the Carolina RailHawks and is now North Carolina FC, only a few miles from where he grew up.
There is no uncertainty in his life now. Four years ago, amid the turmoil of the offseason, he decided to apply to law schools. That fall, at 27, he walked away from soccer and enrolled at North Carolina. While his former teammates get ready for another new season, he’s a 30-year-old legal rookie, a first-year associate at Teague Campbell in Raleigh.
“I loved playing. I loved playing in Raleigh,” Schilawski said. “I loved playing for the RailHawks, now NCFC. I loved all the people. I don’t have anything bad to say about that. I just gradually started to feel like I was stalling out a bit, in terms of – the thing you enjoy about doing anything, at least what I enjoy about doing anything, is I’m improving all the time and I’m kind of getting better. Seeing that in your career is something that’s exciting.
“I started to lose that a little bit, maybe think that I was plateauing. Hopefully plateauing, maybe even worse. So then I started thinking about it, is this going to be what I do until someone else kicks me out? Or do I want to start already being proactive about starting that next chapter?”
Schilawski’s career was still going strong when he made the decision to go to law school. He even kept playing for the RailHakws into his 1L year in Chapel Hill, although he skipped road games and most practices. He had done a lot to that point: He was a first-round MLS SuperDraft pick out of Wake Forest, where he won an NCAA title, and claimed a couple little pieces of soccer history with the New England Revolution.
At one point, and perhaps still, the only MLS players with a hat trick in their home debuts in the team’s home opener were Schilawski and Didier Drogba. There are Revs fans who still remember that. Not as many remember Schilawski’s flub at the 2010 draft, when in a giddy haze he thanked Columbus instead of New England for drafting him ninth overall. (“In my head, I saved it pretty quickly,” Schilawski said.)
When he dropped down a level, he was instantly one of the RailHawks’ best players, a dangerous goal-scorer and creator. And he was home. His parents still live in Cary. There was something about playing for the RailHawks that energized him in ways he hadn’t expected.
Still, there was a nagging feeling: Schilawski thought there might be more out there for him. His entire soccer career was a surprise to him. At Cary High, he never imagined playing for an NCAA title. At Wake Forest, he never envisioned a pro career, let alone being a first-round MLS draft pick. A biology major and two-time ACC men’s soccer scholar-athlete of the year at Wake Forest, he thought medical school was a more likely career path, but he kept scoring goals and doors kept opening.
Then came that winter of 2013 and another season of uncertainty. His father is an attorney and something about law school sounded right to him. In the spring of 2014, Schilawski told the RailHawks his plans. They agreed to keep him aboard through the season, even after he enrolled at North Carolina. Most of his teammates didn’t really understand his decision – but not all of them.
“I think probably for a lot of guys they were confused by it, maybe guys that didn’t know Zack quite as well,” said NCFC midfielder Austin da Luz, who grew up playing against Schilawski and played with him at Wake Forest and with the RailHawks. “Because I have known Zack for such a long time and we lived together for such a long time, I wasn’t surprised. He’s always been super-driven, always had a real sense of where he wants to end up in life. For me, him deciding to take that step made a lot of sense. He went and did it just like he said he would.”
He’s no longer Zack Schilawski, F. He’s Zack Schilawski, Esq. He’s gone from trying to get the ball under the crossbar to passing the bar.
“He’s full lawyer, full corporate,” da Luz said. “Suits. He’s a suit now.”
Schilawski chose civil defense litigation because he liked the adversarial part of it, which did enough to feed his competitive impulses, even if only a few of his new colleagues really know or understand his background.
He kept a foot in the game while in law school by assisting with NCFC’s PDL team, a summer under-23 team of college stars, something he’ll continue this year. But he doesn’t play any more beyond kicking it around with those kids, not even in an adult league, where he’d be the ultimate ringer.
“If he decided to make a comeback and train for the next two weeks he could walk right into the team,” da Luz said. “That’s how good of a player he was. Hopefully that helps people understand how big of a decision it was to walk away from the team. He really was unbelievably talented.”
But Schilawski still goes to NCFC games at WakeMed Soccer Park, sitting in the stands, watching many of the guys he played alongside still plugging away beyond the age he walked away. He feels the itch once in a while to get back on the field, though never strongly enough to act on it.
“When I’m watching, I always want to get back out there. I don’t know if that will ever go away,” Schilawski said. “I don’t plan on acting on it. I’m happy with what I’m doing now. It was a good decision, but I think you miss it for sure.”
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock