By Megan Robinson for NLL.com
He has recorded 23 goals and 35 assists in ten games with the Toronto Rock in his debut season in the National Lacrosse League. He’s been acknowledged as the NLL Rookie of the Week three times and presented with the NLL Rookie of the Month for January after he scored 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points in four games. At 24 years old, he’s one of the older rookies in the league, but his experiences playing with the University of Virginia shines through, impressing the people around him time and time again.
If there is any question in your mind about how big of a star this rookie will be, rest assured, you’re only seeing a brief introduction to the innate talent and passion from Toronto Rock forward Garrett Billings.
In Langley, British Columbia, a small town with a population of about 120,000, Garrett Billings was around the age of fifteen when he began dressing his high school friends in goalie equipment. He would give them large snow shovels in place of goalie sticks as they stood – and feared for their safety – in a hockey net, as he held target practice in his backyard to better his shot. This practice helped in the making of what is now a prominent rookie in the NLL who is currently averaging just under six points per game (5.8). His mother, Sandy, would look on at her son, the third of four boys, and laugh at his attempt to convert his non-athletic friends into participants of a sport he loved.
Garrett, along with so many other boys in Langley, spent a great deal of time in arenas playing hockey and lacrosse. His father Al introduced his two oldest boys to lacrosse after his co-workers, who played in the Western Lacrosse Association (WLA), held a skills camp and invited the kids to come out. Garrett followed his two older brothers, Perry and Dean, to practice and quickly began playing lacrosse at the young age of five. Al would drive his sons to practice and games on weekends, and unlike most kids at a young age, Garrett just wanted to be there no matter what time of day it was.
“He was always Gung ho about it,” said Sandy Billings of her son’s passion for lacrosse. “It was a pretty big commitment but Garrett just liked what he was doing.”
That was evident when Garrett chose lacrosse over hockey at the age of sixteen, when he was playing Bantam ‘A’ hockey in Langley and quit halfway through the season to pursue field lacrosse.
“I knew lacrosse was going to be my future,” said the six-foot forward. “I was trying to get a scholarship and eventually wanted to play pro down the road.”
As his father describes it, no one expected Garrett’s success to happen the way it did. In Canada, where families push for hockey scholarships for their young athletes more so than that of lacrosse, it was a surprise to the Billings household when scouts from U.S. universities began calling Garrett with invitations to play field lacrosse for their schools. While in high school, Garrett played for the Burnaby Lakers Junior ‘A’ Lacrosse Club, winning the Minto Cup in 2004 and 2005 as well as the honor of most sportsmanlike player in 2004.
According to his father, who coached him until he advanced to the midget level lacrosse, it was when Virginia picked him up that he started to think Garrett had a pretty good shot at playing professionally thanks to his passion for the game.
“He’s very determined to be good at something,” said Al. “When he’s picked it, he’s determined to get it done.”
His integral determination to continually be successful as a player was unmistakable in his four years with the University of Virginia Cavaliers. In 2008 alone, Garrett was named an Honorable Mention All-American, recorded 36 goals and 25 assists for 61 points, was tied for eighth in the nation in points and led the team in numerous games in goals and points. Despite practice five days a week and a full course load, Garrett graduated at the age of twenty-two with an Economics Degree and a fire inside him to continue playing lacrosse.
What he called a sports culture shock in Virginia – with the intensity and grit that teams practiced and played – didn’t change his goals and dreams to play lacrosse professionally. It was the couple summers at home after Garrett graduated from Virginia that don’t receive much mention, but which speak volumes about the true character of Garrett and served as a foreshadowing to the type of unselfish player he would grow to be. Along with long-time friend and Langley teammate Brad Richardson, he founded and operated a kid’s summer lacrosse camp in which he shared with them the skills he possessed. Kids aged seven to twelve were taught how to play field lacrosse in a local park in Langley.
Garrett and Brad coordinated every aspect of the camp from its conception, including the paperwork and registration to the skills, activities and unintentional life lessons that are learned on a field. After two successful summers operating the camp, Garrett moved forward, looking to take his own skill to a professional level.
It was Toronto Rock Owner Jamie Dawick that initially made Garrett a part of the Toronto Rock franchise. Despite the hustle of 2009 Draft Day, Dawick was aware of his goal for the day before even stepping foot on the floor.
“Garrett was the guy we wanted. We were obviously very thrilled when we got the opportunity to draft him,” said Dawick, a businessman from Oakville, Ontario. “I told him that we were committed to him being here and being a part of rebuilding this franchise and the rest is history, really.”
Garrett made his NLL debut with the Rock at Air Canada Centre on Jan. 15, 2010 against the Boston Blazers, wearing the number 13. Few members of the team and the coaching staff were surprised at the numbers he recorded in his first game with the franchise: five goals – including the game winner in overtime – and two assists in an 8-7 win over the Blazers in front of 11, 502 fans. The team had watched him perform in rookie camp as well as through various weeks of tryouts and were well aware of his abilities.
What did surprise many members of the team – players who have been in the league for nearly a decade – was the consistency he would have as the season progressed. With the players he is surrounded with, it’s no surprise that he has been able to progress the way he has this season.
He’s been given the opportunity to grow at his own pace by the coaching staff and is constantly being fed the ball to take scoring chances. With the 58 points already under his belt, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.
His unselfish play and calm stride on the floor is reflected in the ease in which he takes a shot and passes the ball to his teammates. His father Al used a simple message, similar to that of Toronto Rock Head Coach Troy Cordingley, to teach his son how to be and remain a prominent player on a team.
“Team first,” said Al Billings of his son’s style of play. “He was always a pretty dominant player and I always made sure he used everyone around him, so he’s always been a team player rather than a selfish player.”
Garrett’s unselfishness is obvious to those around him, on and off the floor. Despite the rookie tag, he shows his maturity with the veterans in the dressing room and knows how to speak to the people around him.
He takes his game seriously, but according to his mother Sandy, will never speak about a game he’s played or an award he’s been acknowledged with.
“He does not like talking about it,” said Sandy. “He’s modest and I’m so proud of that part of his personality. His success is wonderful and I’m happy for him about that.”
Garrett’s personality is described as calm, unselfish, and modest, but Dawick thinks there’s a better word to describe Billings.
“Exciting,” said Dawick. “You never know what you’re going to get from Garrett. I’ve kind of come to expect some things but to me he’s always doing something that you don’t expect. I think more and more he’ll become a fan favorite around here and he’s someone we’re proud to have part of our organization.”
Three years out of the playoffs and after various changes in ownership and coaching staffs, the Rock have already turned over a new leaf, setting a new franchise record with six wins in ten games to start a season. Billings has been a part of this rebuild so far and along with the Rock and veterans Colin Doyle, Blaine Manning and Bob Watson, has the Rock back in the thick of the Champion’s Cup discussion.
A proud Sandy Billings made it clear why her son has made such an impact on the people around him in his debut season.
“It’s simple. Garrett just loves lacrosse.”