In lacrosse and in life, Dave Wodynski’s indelible legacy
It’s Homecoming Weekend 2010, and members of the USD Men’s Lacrosse alumni squad are arriving at Manchester Field in a steady stream, shouting greetings, exchanging hearty hugs and handshakes, and ribbing each other mercilessly on topics ranging from widening waistlines to suspect sartorial choices. They don’t have names so much as they have call signs – Troll, Shark, Sugar and Vegas for example – and you can’t help but notice how genuine the sense of affection is between this reunited band of brothers.
Yet, amid the laughter and regaling of days gone by, there is also a shared burden of loss, as one of their own, Dave Wodynski ’92, tragically passed away last July at the age of 40 due to complications associated with an enlarged heart.
In celebration of the life and memory of their beloved teammate, the assembled participants in the annual USD lacrosse alumni game don Wodynski’s No. 29 jersey, and ascribe a simple, yet poignant phrase on the back of their helmets that encapsulated his philosophy on life.
“He considered the guys on the team his brothers, and would always sign off his conversations and correspondences that way,” remembers teammate and close friend Mark Romero ’93. “That really symbolized Dave, he was just really peaceful and committed to the idea of building a better world.”
It is indeed a fitting tribute to a towering personality – literally and figuratively. Standing 6’5″, Wodynski was a study in contrasts; an intense and imposing on-field presence, yet a serene and compassionate individual off of it. On a few select occasions, his lacrosse opponents would be privy to both – much to their chagrin.
“I remember one time, we were playing a local club team that had this loud-mouthed forward, man the guy would not stop talking!” laughs Matt Smith ’90, Wodynski’s former USD lacrosse teammate and coach. “Dave came across the crease right when this guy received the ball and just decleated him, one of the better hits I can remember. Dave helped him back to his feet and patted him on the shoulder, but needless to say, the guy didn’t do any more talking once he got his wind back.”
Eventually, Wodynski’s hard-nosed style and leadership-by-example approach would earn him the team’s captaincy, as well as the respect of each and every Torero who picked up a lacrosse stick in the early 1990s.
Not too shabby for a guy who didn’t even play the game until he arrived at Alcala Park in 1988.
“Lacrosse was not on Dave’s radar at all during high school,” notes older brother John. “He never played until he came to USD, so it was pretty amazing to see how quickly he picked it up. I think Dave was really intrigued and motivated by learning something new.”
In lacrosse, and in life, Wodynski never shied away from a challenge – be it checking an opposing team’s best offensive player, or building homes as a member of the Peace Crops for the indigent citizenry of Sidi Thabet, a sand-swept community in the North African country of Tunisia.
“You had to love that about Dave, he was always so focused on getting the most out of any type of situation he was involved in,” says Smith. “The guy just really lived life to its fullest, and it’s no surprise to anyone that he went into the Peace Corps after school considering who he was as a person.”
His two-year Peace Corps tenure opened Wodynski’s eyes to the daunting obstacles developing nations such as Tunisia face on the road to modernization … and, in the process, helped him map his own life course: “He walked away from those Peace Corps years with a whole new sense of purpose and drive toward public service,” recounts Torero lacrosse teammate Erik Swain ’92. “He definitely had a much more global perspective, and I think it really lit a flame in him.”
The flame would become a fire; one that would illuminate Wodynski’s path to the hallowed halls of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Management, where he earned a master’s in public administration. An Ivy League graduate business degree carries a lot of weight in the white-collar world of Wall Street, but earning big bucks and working banker’s hours just didn’t jibe with Wodynski’s M.O. What did was a position as manager of the City Hall Budget and Performance Management Bureau for the city of Long Beach, Calif. It was a job that allowed Wodynski to do what he loved; create and execute policy designed for the common good.
“He was so principled that I think he really made a positive impact on the people he worked with,” says wife Michelle Vizurraga. “At the funeral, the mayor of Long Beach said that he never had met someone in a professional capacity who made him want to be better in all facets of his life – until he met Dave.”
Prior to game time, the gathered tribe of USD lacrosse alumni form a circle on bended knee, hand-in-hand and heads bowed low. In the silence their thoughts wander where they may, savoring memories of a leader, a teammate and a friend. A quiet prayer is offered to the cerulean sky above, and while their words are not easily understandable from afar, their message is.