Connor Fields was 6 when he got started. His brother, Peter, who was 9 at the time, was playing box lacrosse in a league in Fort Erie. Their dad, Peter, drove over the border two or three times a week, and little Connor would tag along. 

The president of the league told Connor’s parents that since he was coming to all the games, he might as well play, too. That’s all the kid needed to hear.

“He was three years older, so I looked up to him a lot,” Fields said. “I was like ‘If he’s playing, that’s what I want to do’. That’s how I got into it.”

He was hooked, part of a generation of Western New York kids who grew up idolizing the Bandits and their superstar, John Tavares. Connor was a natural. He spent hours playing out in the family’s backyard in East Amherst, imagining a time when he might get to play before a full house in the Arena. 

“That was my dream,” Fields said I wanted to do everything I could to make that happen. The best I could do at the time was pretend to be a Bandit in the backyard, pretending to be John Tavares and doing some of the stuff you’d do in the game.”

Fields grew up to be one of the best lacrosse players ever to come out of Western New York. He was the area’s best high school player at Bishop Timon-St. Jude and an all-American at the University of Albany who left college as the second-leading scorer in Division I history and went on to a career in the pros.

Twenty years later, Fields finally realized that little boy’s dream. Last August, the Bandits acquired him from San Diego in a draft-day trade. At 26, he’s having the best year of his National Lacrosse League career for his hometown team — oh, and with his boyhood hero, Taveras, as the team’s head coach.

Heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale at KeyBank Center, Fields is third on the team in scoring with 32 goals and 67 points. He’s had a breakthrough season for a Bandits team that leads the NLL with a 14-3 record and will enjoy home-field advantage through the playoffs, which begin next week. 

Fields, who was a 12-year-old cheering from the stands when the Bandits won their last NLL championship at the Arena in 2008, has a chance to be part of a long-awaited fifth league title. It’s an exciting time in Banditland.

“I think we’re all really excited,” Fields said Thursday in the Bandits dressing room in the Arena. “Being from Buffalo, I grew up going to all these games and the playoff games. So I know the Banditland atmosphere really well. 

“The fans are great in the regular season, too,” he said. “But come playoffs, they’re going to be a huge boost for us and hopefully give us the extra edge we need to be successful in the playoffs.”

Winning an NLL title would be a storybook ending to Fields’ season. It has been a long and at times painful ride, one that saw him lose most of his rookie NLL season after knee surgery and miss an indoor season when the NLL canceled the 2021 campaign due to the pandemic. 

Fields played his freshman year at Williamsville North, playing one year alongside his brother. But he transferred to Timon midway through his sophomore season.

“It was tough,” he recalled. “Obviously, growing up you have your friends. I didn’t know anyone at Timon. But at the time, it was the best option for me, and I don’t regret it at all. I love Timon.”

As a senior, Fields was the top player in the Buffalo area and rated as the 15th-best prospect in the entire country. He also played box lacrosse in Canada during the winter months, staying true to his indoor roots. 

At Albany, he was a four-time all-American, finishing with 199 goals and 364 points in his career. In 2017, he had 117 points, the fifth-most in a season in NCAA history. But as a senior, he played on a knee that he’d first injured as a junior. By the second half of the 2018 season, he was playing with a torn ACL, a sprained MCL and an injured meniscus. 

Connor Fields and fiancee Lara Podvin (Courtesy of Fields)

It was around that time that he began dating Lara Podvin, who played for the Albany women’s lacrosse team. The relationship clicked and they’re engaged to be married next New Year’s Eve at the Sterling on the grounds of the Arrowhead Golf Club in Clarence.

“The boys and the girls’ team always hung out,” she said, “so we were like a little lacrosse family. It was easy to cross paths once I got there.”

Podvin knew her boyfriend was playing hurt. But she knew better than to suggest that he maybe take some time off from lacrosse. 

“Telling Connor not to play lacrosse is, like, impossible,” Podvin said with a laugh. “That never crossed our minds. I was new to him and the relationship, but I also knew that lacrosse was his life. So, I let his family have the serious conversations with him. I was there for support. 

“It was probably one of the hardest things he ever had to go through,” she said. “But when he was playing, he was honestly happy. He was able to play through it. When it would give out, that’s when it would hit him hard. I call him a robot. I’d say, ‘You’re a robot for being able to do that’.”

Despite the damaged knee, the Robot led Albany to its best season ever, reaching the quarterfinals of the NCAA championships. Fields was sixth in the country in points that season. 

But he paid for it later. After college, Fields was drafted third overall by Charlotte in the Major Lacrosse League draft. He played a couple of games in the outdoor season but had to shut it down because of the knee. On Aug. 1, 2018, he had knee surgery with Leslie Bisson, the Amherst orthopedic sports specialist.

That September, Fields was taken 10th overall in the NLL draft by the San Diego Seals. The Bandits had the third and fourth overall picks and took Matt Gilray and Ian MacKay. If he hadn’t hurt his knee, who knows, maybe he goes to Buffalo then.

“They got two great picks at the time,” he said. “I don’t know how it would have played out. Come draft day, you’re excited to go anywhere you’re drafted to play, but inside I was really hoping for Buffalo. But it ended up working out.”

Fields had taken a cortisone shot before the NCAA tournament. He found out later that he needed to wait three months for surgery, which took him into August. The recovery time prevented him from being ready for the NLL season in 2019. He played only three games for San Diego, one in the playoffs. 

In 2020, Fields played 12 games for San Diego, finishing with 18 goals and 44 points. Then the 2021 NLL season was wiped out due to the pandemic. Fields played outdoor last summer for the Archers of the Premier League. Then came the trade to his hometown Bandits in August. 

Tavares couldn’t recall what the Bandits traded for Fields. They acquired him from San Diego for the 13th overall pick and a second-round choice in the 2022 NLL Entry Draft.

“I had nothing to do with the trade,” Tavares said from Ontario, where he still works as a math teacher. “I just said, ‘OK, do it.’ Steve Dietrich (the Bandits’ general manager) was responsible for that trade, and it turned out to be a very, very good trade for our side. Connor wanted to come back at play at home.”

“So, we took a chance on him,” Tavares said, “and man, he’s really produced for us! I would say he’s definitely gone beyond expectation, what he’s offered to our team offensively. I would have been happy with 15 goals.”

Fields scored four goals in each of his first two games for Buffalo. He has been remarkably consistent, scoring at least one goal in 11 straight games heading into Saturday night. He had assists in eight of his last nine games.

“I think I’m still growing as a player,” said Fields. “With each game, I’m getting better, getting more comfortable out there, just getting used to the speed of play and being in different situations. 

“I’m playing with new guys, building chemistry,” he said. “You always play with great players, but the guys in this locker room are unbelievable players. You might not be open, but they still find a way to get you the ball. It’s a very unselfish team, a very talented team, too. You play better when you’re having fun. I haven’t had this much fun playing lacrosse since the college days.”

Tavares said Fields is getting smarter as a player. He said the same things about Dhane Smith, the NLL’s top scorer. “There’s not a lot of set plays for him, but he finds a way to produce,” Tavares said. 

Fields is 5-11, 160 pounds, though the website lists him as bigger. His slight build was likely one of the reasons he didn’t go higher in the draft. But he says being small can be an advantage, allowing you to insinuate yourself into better scoring chances and using defenders’ size against them.

“The game slows down a lot as you get used to the pace,” Fields said (Smith said the same thing). You’re seeing things a lot slower and being able to see the bigger picture, the full field. I think it separates the good from the great players. It’s something I’m continuing to work on.”

At 26, with the injuries and the pandemic behind him, Fields is in his absolute prime as a lacrosse player. He’s healthy, happy and productive. He and Lara, who both work in pharmaceutical sales, will be married at the start of the New Year. 

This year couldn’t get much better for Fields. Unless, of course, the Bandits win that elusive NLL title in his first year as a pro in Buffalo. 

“Yeah, it would be a dream come true,” he said. “I was there for the last time they won it. I grew up in my backyard, pretending I was a Bandit. Now I play for them. If we win the championship, I don’t think I’ll have words to describe it.”