Seeing the Light – Zack Wake
World Cup is just a few days away, and even though Zack Wake tore his hamstring and won’t be playing, he still has one of the most compelling stories in the game right now. He started out as a wonder kid, working his way up, and making a name for himself among the best players in the world, but he stumbled along the way and found himself without a pro team to play for midway through this season when he was cut from San Antonio X-Factor for getting too many penalties. Now, Wake has a rare opportunity: to reinvent himself and make a comeback.
Read below for a very frank and honest interview, as he talks with Matty Marshall about his history, what went wrong and how he plans on making it right.
It’s an important time in your paintball career right now. You’re heading back to the Infamous lineup. You’re only 24. You’re a very talented player. If you’re willing to deal honestly with your deficiencies, you could redeem yourself, and go on to become a top player once again. But before we get into that, tell me, in your own words, how you got into this position.
Matty, I think honestly I got to a point in my career where I got complacent with things. I looked more for a good time with paintball than continuing to put in the hard work it takes to stay at the high level I felt I had reached. I let my work ethic fall off more than anything.
From the time I was 14 years old, I had put in a lot of work. My Dad would drive me 30 minutes away two days a week after school to workout with Adam (Smith) and Kevin (Fillers) who really taught me how to play the game.
So I was playing CFOA and some local tournaments and played my first national tournament at 2005 World Cup with Ultimate’s D3 team. That offseason I was put on the Pro roster. But leading up to that time we did 42 weekends in Atlanta for practice. So I was playing paintball four days a week for close to two years.
From that point over the next few years I accomplished some things like winning a Pro Tournament, making the All-Star team and gradually I got lazy with it. I just rode off my talent and skills that I had instead of continuing to develop those skills both physically and mentally.
As my work ethic leveled off the bad attitude and penalties came to light. When you’re playing well and winning, performing at a very high level, your teammates and the coaches are going cut you some slack. Those mess-ups or penalties are lived with because you’re doing work and making things happen.
But once I got to where I’ve been the last two years where I haven’t been performing at that level, now those penalties are just hurting the team. So I think that’s what has gotten me to where I am now, fighting to get my spot back.
When you first came into the league, it was quite the success story. Young kid from the Tennessee, fast, aggressive, not scared to get up there and attack. Give us a bit of insight into your mentality when you first came in league; what type of mentality did you bring with you during your early rise?
You know, I had something to prove. I was a young high school kid in the NXL at 16, playing against a lot of older, more experienced players. Not only on the field, but they had life experience. So I wanted to show I deserved to be there and that I could hang with these guys and not just be some kid who somehow landed on a Pro team. To do that, I had to show that I could handle business on the field and earn their respect.
How did you get your start? How did you find yourself playing for some of the best teams in the world? Because it’s not like you came from a giant hot bed of paintball competition.
Going back to the two guys I mentioned, Adam Smith and Kevin Fillers, really molded me on the paintball side of things. They put me on a fast track to becoming Pro. What they had learned over a decade of playing, figuring out what it took to develop to that level they gave me an intensive Cliff Notes version. So they trained me to get to the Pro level. Snap shooting, running and shooting, huge amount of offhand work, crawling around the snake to make sure my pack didn’t show. They put me through the ringer, but looking back on it, it was a lot of fun.
What they taught me mentally and honing the physical skills helped me play initially for Ultimate, then the Naughty Dogs. That led to Mike Hinman and Aftermath. From there I met Bobby (Aviles) and Marcello (Margott) and we ended up moving over to to Infamous. After two seasons there, I went to Dynasty in 2012, got hurt early in the season and missed most of it. Near the end of last season, Marcello called me about playing World Cup with Red Legion, so that happened. I played because Marcello was my friend and I really wanted to win Cup, but also see him get that Top Gun award which he barely missed, and that a whole other story. But he had an amazing year and he came really close.
After that Ryan Brand hit me up in the off-season and I told him honestly I’m trying to get back on Infamous. Travis told me it’s not a good time, we have what we want for the year. So I went to X-Factor after a tryout. We played pretty well early on, we won an nppl tournament. But I just was more inconsistent than anything. I think the layoff hurt. My shots, running and shooting, all of it seemed off a bit. All the skills I was used to having in my arsenal just weren’t that sharp. I got some penalties in Chicago and it came to the point where Alex (Martinez, the owner of the team) and I had a conversation and we both agreed it was better to part ways. No hard feelings, I’m still friends with and talk to those guys.
So yeah, I’ve bounced around with some teams. It’s pretty crazy to think coming from Knoxville, Tennessee I was never going out to the field and see Dynasty and Ironmen play on the weekend…that seemed a million miles away. We were going out playing two on twos. So guys like Mike Hinman (coach of the LA Ironmen, ex-Aftermath owner/coach), I owe him a lot; he always looks to get the best out of you. So those are the people who really put me on the fast track coming up.
My parents also were very supportive. My Dad always helped put me in the right direction and getting me around the right people and the right atmosphere to reach that goal of playing Professional paintball.
It seems like it’s important, especially for front players, for the 1s, to have a bit of chip on your shoulder, a rough and angry side, in order to do what they do. But that seems a double edge sword, because the fire that keeps these players motivated, the voice who tells you you’re better than everyone so you can go out and try to make that thought true in the world, can also be your undoing. The beast inside can either make or break you, depending on how you harness it. It can alienate you from your peers, and get you in trouble with coaches and captains. What are your thoughts on this?
Yeah I agree. You hit it on the head. The front player position, the “1”, you’re dealing with the game being so in your face, so fast paced. You have little time to react. So you absolutely have to have that ‘moxy’ to believe you’re the best and you go out their believing “there is not a guy on the other end of the field that can match up with me”. But at the same time, you can get to comfortable believing “I’m the best, and I don’t have to work that hard.”
So like you said, you have to take that chip on your shoulder and harness it. You have to use in a way that keeps you hungry and motivated. I think I allowed that to bite me in the ass. I think the way I should have handled it was to have used what I had accomplished to drive myself to stay there as a top player. Be the best snake player, the best 1, the aggressive guy that changes the outcome of games.
Instead I got lazy, got too comfortable. I’m a prime example of letting yourself get too complacent and not continuing to work at it. I assumed that what I had accomplished yesterday was going to be there tomorrow. Plus you have players like Jrab (Justin Rabackoff), Marcello, Mouse (Alex Goldman) these guys work at it. These guys are in the gym, working out and playing paintball all the time. That’s where I am now. I get it; it’s not just relying on natural ability but earning it every day.
Are you happy on the road to redemption?
Yeah, it’s not the best. I’m not saying I’m enjoying it (laughs). It’s not the easiest thing I’ve ever done. At the same time I’ve always loved to compete, that’s why I love playing paintball, playing sports. Especially when it comes to competing in paintball. It’s a test, your will to win, your skill over theirs, your determination and smarts against the players on the other side of the field.
It’s also a competition with myself. Can I really fix this penalty problem? Can I get to where I can step out on the field with Infamous and really help win games and tournaments like in the past? Being able to stand alongside the guys I really want to play with and who are truly friends of mine means a lot, especially now. I’m going to help them win and that’s what I’m here to do.
When it’s all said and done I do believe I will ace it. That’s just how it has to go. I won’t let anything get in the way of that. I’ve done it so long now that I just can’t let it be known that, “Well, he was good for a little bit or he was one of the better players, but then he fell off and partied too much.” That’s not the legacy I want. I’m not going to be told I can’t or that I didn’t give it everything. That’s where my head is right now. So it’s not the easiest, but I am having fun, it’s a challenge and I have a newfound love and respect for the game now that I haven’t had since I since I was 14-15 years old.
Are you scared you might not be able to eliminate your penalty problem?
Not scared. It’s not one of those things where you can look into a crystal ball though. I can’t know that in six months I’m going to go out there and never get a penalty. So I don’t dwell on it, but it will creep up on you. I’m doing work now, come home from the gym eating some dinner, watching TV and there’s that little thought.’ What if it doesn’t work, what if doesn’t happen?’ But that’s a lot of what ifs. You can’t ‘what if’ everything. At the end of the day, I’m doing everything I can to fix it. The way I see it, I’m going to put that to the side and get back to being one the best players in the world, again.
Did you think about hanging it up, not playing the game anymore?
100 percent. When the whole thing happened with X-Factor Alex called me and told me they weren’t taking me to LA. I apologized for not doing what we all expected me to do for the team, performance wise. But when you look at how much money he was putting out to bring me in for practices and tournaments, etc I couldn’t justify it. I was not helping the team, I was hurting the team with the penalties I was getting.
So after that I talked to my Dad and I told him I think I’m going to hang it up. He told me to think about it, don’t make a rash decision, but whatever I decided, he had my back. So about a week later, I had been thinking on it, I hadn’t made a decision. But finally I decided that I could NOT walk away from the game I love, the competition, my friends, and the travel.
There’s something about a comeback that appeals to me, it motivated me to think about it. It’s another challenge that you lay it out, you think on it, you dream about it, but you just don’t know until you do it.
I knew I wanted to play with Infamous. I don’t regret leaving to play with Dynasty, but Infamous feels like home. My travels and experiences have made me stronger. I got to play with guys I had looked up to for so long: Yosh, Oliver, Ryan, Alex, all those guys. Then playing with the Russians, Red Legion, seeing from how they operate from the inside.
I also made a lot of friends on the X-Factor team, but that whole time I knew something was missing for me. It was the fact that for me especially, Infamous was like a family. As much as Damien and I or Bobby and I will get on each other, give each other a hard time, or Travis and his Tigers and my Cardinals, it always felt like family. It was comfortable and I missed that.
So the plan was first stepping back and looking into the mirror and accepting that it was me that got myself into this situation. Not the refs, not the paintball gods, no one is trying to screw me over. I had to man up and say this is was on me. I had to work on things and I had to fix things. If I wanted a shot again I had to prove myself. So I decided to play with Infamous’ D1 team, earn my way back to the pro squad. I paid my way (bought my first ticket to fly anywhere ever for paintball. I have newfound respect for all the ball players who give up so much to play this game!) for L.A and World Cup. Then work my way back onto Infamous in the off-season.
So I called up Bobby and ran it by him, “What do thing Travis would say?” Bob said he liked it and that I should call him. So I talked to my Dad about it after I got off the phone. He was like, “That’s good Zack, I think you’re owning up to it and taking responsibility for it. I’m proud of you for that.” So the two guys I really trusted to give me honest input both gave me the go ahead, and had my back.
I then waited several days, still worried about calling. What if Travis doesn’t go for it? Then Bobby calls me a week later and asks me, “What are you doing? Call Travis!” He was encouraging and he told what he thought of me and said this can get done, we just have to fix the penalty situation.
I did get a penalty in L.A., and played alright, but not great. My Dad reminded me it’s a process. Travis called me a few weeks later and said we want to bring you back on the pro squad for World Cup; you won’t play many points but we will get you back into the system. So I did and played with Infamous in Milan, Italy a few weeks ago and here we are. I’m back where I want to be, with my boys.
There are probably a lot of players who have been through the same issues you’ve been through, been labeled as “Hard to work with” or who just can’t seem to stop getting penalties. What you would you say to them, any lessons you feel you’ve learned on this hard road?
To stay humble. Regardless of how serious we want to take it and we do. There is money involved and pride and time and resources, but still, we get to play a game, we get to travel all over, making friends in different countries and here at home. This is something most people never get a chance to experience. Never take that for granted.
I’ve been hard to work, yeah, and I’ve gotten the penalties and I’ve taken it so seriously and gotten so emotionally involved to the point where it’s affected me. Like you said, that double edge sword really got to me. At this point I’ve come to realize I just have to calm down and enjoy the game, enjoy the experience. I need to play my game, but relax into the moment.
Sometimes I’ve needed to bite my tongue; you’re not always right no matter how much you think you are. Refs are human, coaches are human, and so am I; I make mistakes too. Trying to hold someone to a standard they can’t live up to is discouraging and disrespectful. It’s not the end of the world if a ref makes a questionable call, they do a great job and it’s a tough job.
We play this game because we love it. When you step back and look at WHY we play, that has made me appreciate the game more. Enjoy the ride. For all of us there will come a time come when you’re not good enough to play at this level or you’re just too old and you’re done with it. It’s not going to be here forever, so enjoy it while you can.
The 2013 PSP World Cup kicks off this week at the Fantasy of Flight, in Orlando, Florida! The best teams in the world will be fighting across multiple divisions of competition to determine who’s the best. Paintball Access will be bringing all the action live starting Friday, October 18th-20th. Don’t miss it!
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