Watching last weekend’s Carolina RailHawks game in Cary, you wouldn’t know that Zack Schilawski might be nearing the end of his professional soccer playing career.
With Carolina down two goals to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Schilawski led an early second-half charge, scoring one goal and assisting another. As the RailHawks again surrendered the lead late in the game, the Cary-born striker could be seen trying to fire up his teammates. And after the eventual loss, he stood at a podium in front of the media and obligingly answered their questions, but he visibly wore an agony of defeat that made you think nothing else in the world mattered to him.
But others things do matter to Schilawski, and they about to collide with soccer.
Schilawski will play for the RailHawks this Saturday, Aug. 16 at WakeMed Soccer Park against FC Edmonton. The following Wednesday, he enters law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Speaking to INDY Week, Schilawski says he began pondering this next phase in his life last off-season.
“I still love playing and still have a great time,” Schilawski says. “I still think I can help teams win games. But it gets to the point where you’re not sure if it’s really sustainable long-term to keep playing, especially in the off-season. The off-seasons can get hard, and this past off-season I just decided I’m not doing anything except working out, so I may as well take this time to study for the [LSAT], shoot some applications out there and see what kind of feedback I get.
“The test went well, the feedback from the applications went well, and I got some good offers that came in around April or so. I sat on it for a little bit, but in the end I just felt like I couldn’t turn it down.”
The 27-year-old Schilawski, whose father is a long-time attorney in Wake County, admits he could have deferred his entry into law school until next year.
“I feel like I’m playing really well, like I could certainly keep going for a number of years and still be competitive and help whatever team I’m on win games,” Schilawski contends. “Having said that, I’ve always felt like there’s more to me than soccer. I think I have more talents and abilities that I’d like to explore, and I’m excited about turning the page on a new chapter.”
Coincidentally, Schilawski becomes the third member of the RailHawks organization to enter law school this year. Midfielder Nick Millington left the RailHawks after the NASL spring season to also enter UNC law school. And team vice-president David Vaught starts classes at North Carolina Central University Law School this month.
Schilawski approached the club several months ago to present them with his intentions. He particularly remembers informing RailHawks manager Colin Clarke for the first time.
“Colin has been awesome,” Schilawski says. “When I went in the first time to tell him I was pretty nervous—things could go well or they could go poorly. But since day one of our conversations about it, he’s been nothing but supportive and understanding. He’s made it easy on me.”
Schilawski’s playing status beyond this weekend remains uncertain. Both he and the club are still exploring whether he can remain active with the club in some capacity during the RailHawks’ regular season stretch run.
However, it’s also possible that both are not yet willing to concede the logistics of Schilawski’s new situation. Even under the most optimistic circumstances, Schilawski will not be able to practice or travel full-time with the team, which ends its regular season playing four of its final six games on the road.
“I need to get to school, get settled in and get my rhythm before I make any decisions about how realistic it is to drive back and forth and how often I can do it,” Schilawski says. “At this point it’s a conversation worth having. We’re not ruling anything out. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. And that might end up being the case.
“I have to be in Chapel Hill on Aug. 20, and that’s when I’ll get a sense of whether it’s possible or not. I’m probably going to miss some time until I get into a rhythm and get my schedule. Are there enough hours in the day to do it? If it’s possible—which is a big if—it’s going to be tough.”
For Clarke’s part, he continues to harbor hopes that Schilawski can remain a contributor for the club through the end of the season.
“Hopefully we can work around [classes],” Clarke says. “We’ll see what we can do as far as keeping him involved. It’ll come down to his timetable and what he can and can’t do. If he gets into practice once or twice a week, I will keep him involved as much as possible. He’s our leading goal scorer, and he’s one of our leaders on and off the field.”
Nevertheless, this Saturday may also be Zack Schilawski’s final game in a RailHawks’ uniform. If so, it’s an abrupt end to a season in which Schilawski leads Carolina with six goals and three assists, tied for third in the North American Soccer League (NASL) in both categories. He was named NASL Player of the Month last April.
It’s also the finale of a playing career that began with four decorated years at Cary High School. He later scored 40 goals in an All-American career at Wake Forest University, including the game-winner in the 2007 NCAA Men’s College Cup. During summers, Schilawski returned to the Triangle to play amateur soccer with the Cary Clarets and Carolina RailHawks U23s.
After being drafted ninth overall in the 2010 Major League Soccer (MLS) SuperDraft by the New England Revolution, Schilawski scored a hat trick in his home debut, only the third rookie in MLS history to accomplish that feat.
However, the remainder of Schilawski’s two years with the Revolution never kept pace with that early promise. After the club released him in 2012, he eventually returned home and signed with the RailHawks, hoping to revive his playing career and earn another chance at MLS.
“Your first couple of years here you still think you can get a sniff and get into camp with MLS teams,” Schilawski explains. “And I had a couple of looks [in 2012], but it didn’t work out between them and the RailHawks. In 2013 there were a lot of conversations with Chicago [Fire] … and I was going to go into preseason with them, but I broke my foot. So it just seems like that ship had sailed for me.”
Still, the 2012 signing of Schilawski, a hometown star, remains an important moment for the RailHawks.
“He was a player that came out of college with a big reputation and went to MLS and did pretty well,” Clarke says. “He just couldn’t find that right fit. He came back to us, and he’s been a leader. He’s been that player in the locker room who has kept everybody together.”
Although Schilawski is eager to embark on this next step in his life, preparing to leave the sport he’s played since childhood hasn’t been easy.
“It’s been a nightmare,” he concedes. “I don’t want to stop playing; I love it. But I think it’s the right decision and the most practical thing for me to do.”
Even the parts of playing soccer that Schilawski won’t miss are already tinged with nostalgia.
“I don’t know if I’ll miss the trip to Edmonton to play on some terrible field a continent away,” Schilawski admits with a laugh. “But 10 years from now sitting in a cubicle or something, I might be like, ‘Man, I wish I was on those old fields.’”
However, when asked about the parts he’ll miss the most, Schilawski’s answers come quicker—and conspicuously couched in the past tense.
“Just not being in the locker room. Not having fun with the guys, not joking around every day and things like that … [Carolina’s] been an unbelievable place to play. In my pro career, it’s been the most rewarding soccer-wise. It’s been a lot of fun, a great place to play in a great town, my hometown.”