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Dox Aitken has been a welcomed re-addition to the Atlas roster.

Dox Aitken Turning NFL 'Fail' into Career-Best Pro Lacrosse Season

June 24, 2024
Phil Shore
Premier Lacrosse League

Dox Aitken spent a year away from the Premier Lacrosse League in pursuit of an opportunity to play professional football. When the news broke at the end of May that he was returning to the league and the New York Atlas, head coach Mike Pressler received a text message from his friend, former Virginia head coach Dom Starsia, who had initially recruited Aitken to Virginia.

“Watch out,” Starsia wrote, knowing Pressler was getting a new weapon to unleash on the rest of the league.

Even that text couldn’t prepare Pressler for just how impactful Aitken would be.

“He has,” he said, “without question, exceeded our expectations.”

Since he was 6 years old, Aitken remembers having two dreams: to play college lacrosse for Virginia and to play in the NFL.

At Haverford (Pa.) High School, he starred in both sports. As a lacrosse player, he was the Inter-Ac MVP, a two-time All-American and Inside Lacrosse’s No. 2 recruit. He verbally committed to play lacrosse in college, but a strong senior year on the gridiron — he was the Inter-Ac Player of the Year and a 3A All-State selection — earned him some late recruiting looks in football.

That was the first time he remembered coming to the fork in the road choosing between lacrosse and football. Lacrosse was his first love, and it ran in his family. His mom and dad played in college. He had two uncles and one aunt who played in college, too, including Scott Growney, who played in the National Lacrosse League for the Philadelphia Wings. Six cousins of his cousins went on to play in college, too.

He also grew up idolizing Starsia, Steele Stanwick and all things Virginia. The chance to live out one of his childhood dreams was too strong to turn down.

In three seasons at Virginia, Aitken accomplished a lot. He was a three-time USILA All-American and scored the most goals by a midfielder in program history. His 44 goals in 2019 helped the Cavaliers win an NCAA title. He also formed strong friendships with his teammates, including Xander Dickson.

“He was Dox Aitken at the time, and I was a freshman, but it didn’t matter,” Dickson said. “We just hit it off right away. He was super nice and approachable and easy to get along with. I remember thinking like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ That’s Dox Aitken. As amazing as he was, he is like the most humble, nicest guy ever.”

Virginia midfielder Dox Aitken.
Dox Aitken has the most goals from the midfield in Virginia history.
Rich Barnes

At the onset of the 2020 season, Aitken committed to play football for Villanova in the fall. Those plans fell through due to uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and he returned to Virginia for the 2021 season. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder, “What if?”

Aitken was a first-round selection in the 2021 PLL Draft by the Atlas, the team’s second pick following No. 1 selection Jeff Teat. He played in five games as a rookie and totaled seven points on four goals (including one two-pointer) and two assists.

He followed that by playing eight games in 2022, scoring eight goals and adding two assists, while helping the Atlas finish 6-4, one of the four best records in the league. In February 2023, he played all five games in the inaugural Championship Series and scored 13 goals with two assists. The Atlas lost in the championship game to the Chrome.

Unexpectedly, the opportunity to live his other dream, a chance to play professional football, presented itself. A family friend who was an agent approached Aitken and said he thought he could get him some looks at NFL rookie minicamps. The midfielder — remembering the missed opportunity to play at Villanova — jumped at the opportunity.

“There was a void in his life to give this football thing a shot,” said Pressler, who had recently been hired as the new Atlas head coach. “Obviously, I was bummed. I knew what kind of player he would be for us, but you certainly understand the passion to follow that dream.”

Pressler wasn’t the only one disappointed to find out Aitken wouldn’t be playing that season. Dickson and Aitken had been texting for months about the possibility of reteaming in the PLL. He was drafted by the Atlas in the second round of the 2023 PLL Draft, but at that point, knew Aitken wouldn’t be there.

“I was pumped for him,” he said, “but I was a little disappointed that we were so close, and we finally made it happen with the Atlas.”

Aitken was invited to tryout at rookie minicamp for both the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots as a safety.

The aura surrounding the Patriots, specifically, reminded him of his time at Virginia.

“It was great just being in the coach’s room there and hearing them talk about the way they play defense and some of their standards that they have all over the walls,” he said. “Then you, obviously, just feel like you’re in the presence of the New England Patriots. It’s just that tradition, history, the championships, so that was really cool.”

He was excited for the chance, and while he was familiar with the drills, he hadn’t done them in a number of years. Aitken said his head was spinning trying to keep a clear head while consistently wondering how he stacked up against other elite athletes.

He was reminded, though, that the coaching staff knew he was coming from lacrosse and didn’t expect him to know everything. All he needed to do was always go hard. He also learned how important attention to detail was. At that level of professional sports, everyone is a freak athlete. The ones that separate themselves are the ones who can take in the most information without being overwhelmed.

Dox Aitken.
Dox Aitken attempted to play football at Villanova before the COVID-19 pandemic skirted those plans.
Villanova Football

For all he learned, it came in a short amount of time, as Aitken’s tryout with the Patriots ended prematurely. He went to minicamp with a small quadricep strain and aggravated it early, partially tearing it and knocking him out of action for the entirety of the summer.

While the injury was a disappointment, he enjoyed the experience and the process of healing and working out to stay in shape. He took solace in the fact that he was truly living life as a professional athlete, which is what he always wanted, and he was going to take the bad with the good.

“If you’re going to be successful, you just gotta chip away at it and use it as motivation,” he said. “You just try and zoom out in moments like that because you know what the process has to be if you if you wanna get the goal. … I’ve had a couple moments where things might not be going your way, but how do you overcome that? I think you’ve got to be able to look at the whole picture and not just focus on a couple of things that are not going your way.”

While he trained and worked for more professional football tryouts, Aitken was missing lacrosse. He was missing the locker room atmosphere. Pressler also felt that, deep down, Aitken knew he could help the Atlas turn their fortunes around after a two-win 2023 season.

Aitken had good conversations with Pressler and aspired to play for another coaching legend. He wanted to team with Dickson again, as well as another pair of former Virginia teammates the Atlas added. Connor Shellenberger was selected with the second-overall pick in the 2024 PLL Draft, and Payton Cormier was claimed through waivers.

With a couple hours before Pressler had to submit the team’s 25-man roster to the league, Aitken called to ask about coming back. Pressler had to call assistant coach Steven Brooks, and with 10 minutes remaining before the deadline, he called Andrew Manning, the PLL’s Senior Manager of Lacrosse, to make it official.

“At the end of the day, when you get a Dox Aitken-type of guy that comes across your path again,” Pressler said, “you’re going to do everything in your power to make that happen. That was an absolute no-brainer for us.”

Even though Aitken hadn’t played in a year, and the team he was rejoining featured plenty of new faces, his performance has been one that looks like he never left.

The Atlas started the season 4-0, and Aitken has played a large role in the team’s early success.

His nine one-point goals — already a new career-high — are tied with Shellenberger for third-best in the league, behind only Dickson (13) and Teat (12).

Pressler and Dickson said it was easy to see how much the team missed him.

“[Last year], teams could gang up on Bryan [Costabile]; you can game plan for Bryan because we didn’t really have a secondary guy to go to at the same position,” he said. “We traded for Myles Jones mid-year. Myles Jones was solid, but you know, having Myles go through camp, having Dox go through camp, now you look at Costabile, Dox, and Myles Jones, there’s no team with three bigger, stronger, better, more physical two-way midfielders that I think we have right now.”

When asked about his own success, though, Aitken couldn’t help but pass the credit to others. He said he wouldn’t be able to score first if Trevor Baptiste wasn’t always winning the first faceoff and that Dickson doesn’t get the credit he deserves for how he brings teammates together and impacts the Atlas on the field.

What Aitken will give himself credit for, however, is taking everything day-by-day and making the most of every opportunity, whether it’s ended with living his dream on the lacrosse field or coming up short in his attempt to make an NFL roster.

“If you get hurt or if you fail, it’s about learning,” he said. “Losing gets a bad rap because that’s how you win at the end of the day. You gotta lose a lot, too. I think working hard is a huge part of that, so persistence and hard work is kind of my biggest thing.”