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Virginia lacrosse player Ben Wayer holds his hand over his heart during the national anthem before a game against Maryland.

Into the Wilderness: How Ben Wayer Got Sober and Back in the Game

May 17, 2024
Patrick Stevens
Jamie Holt/Virginia Athletics

There cannot be many college lacrosse players savoring the typical rhythm of a season as much as Ben Wayer.

The winter work in crisp weather. The camaraderie of the locker room. The segue to games, each one building on the one before. The anticipation of tournament play in May. And everything in between.

Wayer, Virginia’s ace long-stick midfielder, wasn’t with the Cavaliers last season. By November 2022, he reached two conclusions. He had a substance abuse problem, something that was causing fissures in just about every corner of his life. And he couldn’t fix it by himself.

He withdrew from classes, left Charlottesville and enrolled in a wilderness therapy program in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He was there for three months, living under a tarp and moving his campsite every three days.

“There were so many hard times there and so many times I was like, ‘This isn’t worth it, I’m throwing away my lacrosse career, I’m throwing away my college education,’” Wayer said this week. “Looking back on it now, it changed my life. I can’t even describe how. Lacrosse was one example of a gift I got of going through that process and learning about myself and making some changes for the better in my life.”

Most of those changes extend far beyond athletic competition. But lacrosse is a part of it. The LSM position is arguably as important as any in coach Lars Tiffany’s scheme. Creating transition opportunities off faceoffs and turnovers is a hallmark of his teams. Think Larken Kemp at Brown and Jared Conners at Virginia.

And now think Ben Wayer, he of the 81 ground balls (two behind Colgate’s Max Yates for the most by a non-faceoff man this season) and 24 caused turnovers, who has helped propel the sixth-seeded Cavaliers (11-5) into Sunday’s NCAA quarterfinal against third-seeded Johns Hopkins (11-4) in Towson, Md.

“He’s a different lacrosse player,” Tiffany said. “He’s running around most of the game, with little rest. He’s able to get to balls and make plays. He looks like one of the faster guys on the field, whereas before that wasn’t the case. For me, there was a photo of him up in the mountains in Georgia with a full beard, splitting firewood with a Bowie knife, living with a group of people cooking their own food and living in tents. I was like, ‘Wow, Ben Wayer. He’s a mountain man now.’ And he’s playing like it.”

Virginia lacrosse player Ben Wayer during wilderness therapy in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Virginia lacrosse player Ben Wayer during wilderness therapy in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Wayer spent 93 days in the program.

WAYER DIDN’T JUST REALIZE ONE DAY he had an unhealthy relationship with substances, most notably cocaine. He struggled with anxiety and depression.

“I need to make a change,” he thought. “I need to start behaving better and acting like an adult.”

Part of the problem was location. Wayer points out now there is an endless list of things to do in Charlottesville, a college-centered town with a variety of experiences available.

Some of them are constructive, fulfilling, healthy. Some aren’t. And he couldn’t extricate himself from the ones that weren’t.

“It finally got to the point I just couldn’t do it anymore and I needed to make a change,” Wayer said. “It was showing up in my relationships with my friends and family. I was like, ‘Enough of this, I need to make a drastic change. I’m not the person I want to be.’ Not even thinking about lacrosse. It was about me as a human.”

Tiffany admits he was startled when he learned Wayer would be leaving school, but he urged him to do what he needed to do and assured him he would still have a spot on the team.

Others in Virginia’s program were also supportive, with Wayer crediting athletic trainer Rebecca Vozzo for being especially steadfast.

“The day I left school, probably one of the worst days of my life, I’m leaving school and the next day she drove to my house in D.C. to come visit me and make sure everything was OK,” Wayer said. “She stayed in touch with me the whole time.”

Some of the toughest times were still to come. As he and a group of other students, staff members and therapists moved from site to site along the Appalachian Trail, he had nothing of his own. The program provided clothing, and he had no phone. Each person in the program was given a backpack, which would be resupplied once a week.

His early thought? This is ridiculous.

But the longer Wayer was there, the more he learned to appreciate it. He learned about being present, in the moment. He spent time carving, making fires and bow drilling. He wrote letters — pretty much the only outside communication he was permitted — to his parents, something he and his father continue to do in addition to more immediate means of maintaining contact.

And he spent time thinking. A lot of time thinking. 

“All these little things, that became my day-to-day,” Wayer said. “It was therapeutic. It was relaxing. It was a complete reset, figuring out who I was and what I enjoy.”

Lacrosse was part of that. Since he was in high school at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes (Va.), Wayer said external validation had taken a larger role in why he played. People told him he was a great lacrosse player, and it became a bigger part of his identity.

While away, he came to recognize the joy he derived from the sport that had nothing to do with praise and the regard of others. He liked the game. He enjoyed being around teammates. He found fulfillment in competition.

“There were a lot of difficult times I went through. But knowing that I was working toward something and working toward getting back to this team, it made it that much easier,” Wayer said. “A lot of kids I was with were really struggling because they were so lost in their life. I was obviously lost, too, but knowing I had this end goal of getting back to the team and getting back to school really made my day-to-day easier.”

There was a photo of him up in the mountains in Georgia with a full beard, splitting firewood with a Bowie knife, living with a group of people cooking their own food and living in tents. I was like, ‘Wow, Ben Wayer. He’s a mountain man now.’ And he’s playing like it.

Virginia coach Lars Tiffany

Virginia men's lacrosse player Ben Wayer during pre-game warmups before a game against North Carolina
After missing the 2023 season, Ben Wayer returned to the Virginia lacrosse team in the fall — the mental and physical benefits of his sobriety readily evident to his coaches and teammates.

HIS 93-DAY STAY IN WILDERNESS THERAPY complete, Wayer set out for a halfway house program. He’d always wanted to go out west, so he chose a place in Utah.

There was drug testing, and he had a therapist. But Wayer was largely free to do what he wanted. An avid skier, he lucked out. The area he lived in received its most snow in 30 years. And he worked at a gym, saving up money for his eventual return to Charlottesville.

By the time he got to Utah, Virginia’s lacrosse season was underway. He kept tabs on a year that would see the Cavaliers reach the NCAA semifinals — to a point.

“I was tuning in and would watch the first half and then get pretty bummed I wasn’t there and I wouldn’t normally make it to the second half,” Wayer said. “I was supporting the guys watching from afar. It was super hard being apart from the team and it was difficult. Obviously, I wanted them to win, but there’s also that part of me that really missed being there.”

Wayer left Utah around Memorial Day weekend and was back on campus over the summer. A few more months sailed by, and the rest of the redshirt junior’s teammates reconvened for classes and then fall practice.

It didn’t take long for Virginia to recognize it had something special.

“You started seeing it in the fall,” Tiffany said. “Someone who is so focused and so sober and just completely all-in. You witness a man on a mission in practice. We started realizing this was the LSM we hoped we were going to get in the recruiting [process].”

Part of it was the obvious — Wayer was putting the right things in his body. But the way he thought about his work on the field changed, too.

In the fall of 2020, when he first enrolled at Virginia, Wayer was excited to show up to practice every day even if there were pandemic restrictions in place. As his career progressed, it began to feel tedious, a four-hour obligation to get through rather than savor.

“This fall, I approached every practice like this could be my last day playing lacrosse and I wanted to prove to everyone I deserved a spot back on this team,” Wayer said. “I’m good enough to play and I’m still the same player I was before I left. I took that gratitude and appreciation toward lacrosse into the season and something I focused on.”

It’s made him nearly impossible to take off the field, the sort of thing once said about Kemp and Conners. He has seven goals and five assists and is tied for seventh on the team with 12 points.

Wayer is coming off arguably his best game. He assisted on two goals, caused four turnovers and collected eight ground balls in the Cavaliers’ 17-11 defeat of Saint Joseph’s in the first round.

“What a weapon he is,” Tiffany said. “Honestly, we probably play him too much. We have Mitch Whalen and Tommy McNeal and I think I’m constantly telling the box coach Logan Greco, ‘Make sure you play Mitch and Tommy.’ It’s just so easy to keep putting Ben out there because his fitness is fantastic right now. He’s such a playmaker.”

There are other meaningful improvements. Wayer said he believes he’s much better at connecting with people on a deeper level, empathizing with them, having conversations that go beyond the surface level. He recognizes there are plenty of ways to have fun without drugs and alcohol; a hike, a round of golf, a game of pickleball will do just fine.

But most of all, he feels fortunate to make the most of his second act in Charlottesville, for reasons that include (but go well beyond) his level of play.

“I’ve played a lot better this year than I’ve ever played in my life,” Wayer said. “I was lucky. It’s a little bit of a different team. Everyone embraced me coming back. It was kind of the perfect fit with everyone being so supportive of me taking the year off, welcoming me back and wanting to support me in any way so I could contribute. I’m so grateful for that.”