Community Profile: W̱SÁNEĆ’s John Etzel Jr. and his parents on competitive lacrosse, rapping for hope, and excelling in spite of discrimination.  

John Etzel Jr. is one of the many talented W̱SÁNEĆ youth excelling in their athletic endeavors, both locally and across Canada. 

Since he started playing competitive lacrosse at 12 years old, his career trajectory has been nothing short of incredible. In just a few short years, John has developed a reputation for being “a speedy transition and face-off specialist and perennial All-Star” that is expected to “continue to blow by the competition.” 

John earned his reputation for excellence by consistently delivering results, no matter where  he’s playing. In Peewee/Bantam divisions, John was named team captain and in more recent years, John has travelled to Toronto to play with Team BC for the North American Indigenous Games. He has earned bronze and silver medals playing in competitive tournaments with teams like the North Shore Indians, Vancouver Stealth, Team BC, the Peninsula Warriors, and Saanich Express. John was recently offered a college scholarship in the US. 

John has played with the Peninsula Warriors, Nanaimo Timbermen, and is currently practicing with the Saanich Express. 

We caught up with 19-year-old John and his family at home on a Thursday evening. On the phone was John Etzel Sr, his wife Samantha Etzel, and John Etzel Jr.

“Spent lots of money,” Samantha Etzel laughed when asked what she’s done to help her son accomplish all he has in his athletic career so far.

More seriously, Samantha told us about the work she and her husband have done to prepare their six children for success. She explained their values as parents and the actions they’ve taken to emphasize the importance of respect, hard work, family, community, traveling and education

“We’ve raised our children to understand that as First Nation individuals, life would not be easy. They all have to work twice as hard no matter what they do because their skin is brown. We believe in the importance of education, that it opens doors and provides the power to enable our children to become what they want as they get older.” 

Samantha continued,“There are a lot of sacrifices we have made since our children have become involved in different sports. From juggling our work schedules, to spending money on gear and travels. We ‘ve done a lot of traveling with them for canoe races, lacrosse, and soccer. We wanted our children to experience life outside of W̱SÁNEĆ and to find joy and happiness in what they choose to do.”

When asked, “How did you get to where you are?,” John Jr. replies: “I’ve always wanted to be a top player. The fastest or the most skilled, whether it was soccer or ball. Even in PE, I would try to beat everyone,” John Etzel Jr. laughs. 

When asked where John Jr. got his competitive streak from, John Etzel Sr. explained “It’s in our blood. I played lacrosse from five to sixteen. It’s been in the family as long as I can remember. There are news articles from the 1930’s of our family in the Fraser Valley playing against pro teams. I also played soccer and softball and my wife and I ran a co-ed slowpitch team for years.  We had a seven or eight-year winning streak.” Even over the phone, you could feel the smile on his face. 

“That’s one of the things we gave up for the boys,” said Samantha. “Our baseball. Once the boys started playing, it became a seven day a week sacrifice, between practices and games. The tournaments alternate every other weekend. Sometimes we’d need to be in two places at once, between John and Julius.”

“We would take a lot of the First Nations players in the community under our wing–in cases where they didn’t have money for travel or equipment–we’d just take them with us,” John Sr. says. “Samantha would register kids for lacrosse if the other parent’s didn’t know how to. We are completely for supporting our youth. If we support them doing this then they don’t go down the wrong path, so we try to support as many youths as we can. We’ve always been competitive. Our life is lacrosse and First Nations soccer. Julius plays highly competitive soccer and John plays lacrosse and First Nations soccer.”

John’s love of lacrosse didn’t happen right away, at first, he preferred soccer and lacrosse was his brother’s game. “I tried lacrosse when I was 8, but at the time I was more interested in soccer. Then I saw my brother Julius excel [at lacrosse]. I picked it back up at 12 years old. Ever since then, lacrosse has been attached to me, in my heart.”

John’s accomplishments haven’t come easy though. Even at his young age he’s had to weather his fair share of setbacks and disappointments.

“Being indigenous I don’t have the same opportunities because of my skin color. I have to work twice as hard to be as good as the next guy. To be better, I have to kill it. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. But, I try to not be big-headed when people ask me about my accomplishments, I try to be humble.”

John explained some of the difficult choices he’s had to make in order to feel like he belonged and to get the opportunity to show the world what he’s capable of. 

“I got into Claremont Lacrosse Academy, and at the time I wanted to make it, I had thoughts of scholarships, but once I got there I felt singled out and left behind because of my skin colour. I eventually left the school because I felt I was alone. I came back to Stelly’s with my friends. I thought it was over, that I’d be staying in the same spot, but I kept working hard and the opportunity came up and I tried out for the Nanaimo Timbermen which is an intermediate team. I made the team and it was a big accomplishment, but I didn’t get playing time. I was thinking . . . maybe it’s my skin colour? The coach told me I had to be taller and heavier and I just kept thinking like, how do I do that? I changed my perspective though. Now every time something bad happens I use it to fuel me.”

“I saw that coach again later and he was pissed he didn’t take the chance. I left that team to join the Saanich Express. The first year I played there I was the top goal scorer and then I got called up. Every time I played against the Timbermans I scored a goal and made sure I smiled right at the coach.”

Samantha agreed, “Standing there and watching him get treated that way, at Claremont was tough. I asked him ‘What do you want to do?’ We have to make these choices as Indigenous people. He has to work five times harder to be noticed. I watched him out there, he was small, at 13 years old getting hit and getting back up over and over again with a big smile on his face.”

John’s tenacity, hard work and big heart didn’t go unnoticed for long. Samantha continued, “John got called up from Vancouver Stealth and was playing in Calgary and Toronto and people were starting to notice him. The second year he tried out for Team BC to play at North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) in Kamloops, I was nervous. I thought, if they let him down again, it’s going to be a long drive home. He came out and had his head down, and he gets in the car and says “I didn’t make it” and our hearts sank, and then he looks up and says “I made it!” 

The joke John Jr played on his family that day provides a sliver of insight into how the Etzels have coped with the rollercoaster that has been John’s lacrosse career; together, quick to laughter, and with a determination to overcome obstacles, no matter how unfair. 

Samantha remembered the years John started accumulating his many accolades fondly “That year, John went to Toronto on the Six Nations Territory at the North American Indigenous Games and they came home with the bronze medal.  The next year he went back with the North Shore Indians to the Six Nations Territory and came home with a silver. He has a room filled with medals. He has many MVP medals, but he’s had to work really hard to get the acknowledgement.”

In addition to John’s athletic accomplishments, he’s also a talented rapper that performed at the reimagining masculinities conference. He performs under the name, Big Bad Brown Sugar and can be found on Soundcloud and Apple Music.

When asked where he finds time to rap, his dad, John Sr. was quick to respond, “In the shower,” and the room broke out in laughter.

John, on his rap career, said, “It’s a good way for me to express myself. My latest song is called Conspicuous Individuals. I rap about how resilient we are, intergenerational trauma, the importance of education and carrying on our culture and being proud of who we are. I want to give strength to the youth, give them a good message and hopefully give them some gratitude and confidence.”

John continued

I want to be a big role model in my community. Considering what has happened, I’ve seen some of my own relatives go down the wrong path with drugs and alcohol and suicide. Talented athletes, seeing them take the one wrong step and see their whole future disappear. It’s given me strength so I don’t become like that. My message is you can make it to whatever you wanna be. When I make it to my first pro lacrosse game, I want to put the community, my family and our culture on the map.” 

John Jr. is just one of the young W̱SÁNEĆ lacrosse players working hard, accomplishing great things and leading by example. 

In 2018, Charles Claxton, while playing goalie for the Nanaimo Timbermen,  made WLA history as the first goaltender ever to score two goals in a single game. Charles doesn’t let his success go to his head either.  “Charles played awesome. I got him to sign a game program and he nicely gave me one of the two balls he scored with signed. Real class act guy,” shares Dave, a fan at the record-making lacrosse game.

Charles Claxton has been playing for the National Lacrosse League since 2018, when he signed a two year deal with the Rochester Knighthawks.

“I am just trying to take the process as humbly as possible,” said Claxton. “I am very honored to be selected by such a sought-after organization like the Rochester Knighthawks, who have (won) multiple championships. There are such big names that play for this organization; I am just proud to be a part of it.”

Landon Underwood is another accomplished W̱SÁNEĆ athlete. Landon is currently playing lacrosse for the Seahawks at Kaiser University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

These young men are working hard, accomplishing great things and leading by example. We can’t wait to see how their lives and careers unfold.

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“I want to be a big role model in my community. Considering what has happened, I’ve seen some of my own relatives go down the wrong path with drugs and alcohol and suicide. Talented athletes, seeing them take the one wrong step and see their whole future disappear. It’s given me strength so I don’t become like that. My message is you can make it to whatever you wanna be. When I make it to my first pro lacrosse game, I want to put the community, my family and our culture on the map.