Moon Township, Pa. – Andrew Watt is proudly living out a lifelong dream as a member of the Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League (NLL).
He and his teammates play to crowds exceeding 17,000 at First Niagara Center, dubbed Bandit Land on lacrosse nights, for home games. Of the nine members of the NLL, Buffalo leads the league in attendance.
"It's unreal," said Watt, an all-time Robert Morris University lacrosse great. "Unreal."
The crowd support has helped the Bandits to the league's best record, a first-place spot in the East Division and a playoff berth.
Watt, a defender who overcame an early-season injury to notch his first assist April 9, is basking in the experience.
"To come out of that tunnel and hear the screams for you, it's really unbelievable," said Watt, an eight-year veteran who was taken eighth overall by Minnesota (now Georgia) out of RMU in 2008. "There's so much energy. The fans have chants when opposing players go to the penalty box. They have different types of cheers throughout the game. It's really hard to describe unless you experience it first-hand."
It certainly is a long way from 2005, when Watt was a freshman member of RMU's inaugural lacrosse team. Led by then-coach Bear Davis, the Colonials endured a myriad of growing pains. Watt recalled having neither the proper equipment nor manpower to compete with established Division I programs.
A trip to Ohio State remains ingrained in Watt's memory.
"We had 18 players, which meant we had nine on the field and nine on the sideline," Watt said. "Well, Ohio State had their nine on the field, and 50 guys lined up on the sideline. I remember it being 32 degrees that day. We had a space heater, and we're all huddled up around it in our sweats and hoodies. Meanwhile, Ohio State had their winter ponchos on. They had everything they needed. We weren't quite there yet."
Watt paused, before adding, "But I wouldn't change a thing."
Those early experiences ultimately formed an unbreakable bond among the 10 players who stuck it out for four seasons with the Colonials. It was that group that paved the way for a program that captured a Northeast Conference regular-season title in 2012 and played for an NEC Tournament championship a year later.
A native of Kitchener, Ontario, Watt was one of three players from north of the border on that first team. Sixteen Canadians dot the roster today. Watt played a major role in building the RMU brand in Canada.
FEATURE: North Of The Border
"I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish there," said Watt, who ranks among the top 10 all-time at RMU in goals (81) and assists (37). "To think that we started out at a little school in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, and we built things up the way they are is pretty awesome."
Robert Morris head coach Andrew McMinn, an assistant to Davis before taking over in 2012, said Watt had an indelible impact on the program.
"He helped to establish the standards that we have today," McMinn said. "We were fortunate to have him here."
Now 32 and a resident of Peterborough, Ontario, Watt and wife Tara welcomed their first child, daughter Grace, March 1. As fate would have it, Grace's birth did not conflict with a typical Saturday game night for the Bandits. She was born on a Tuesday.
"We had a practice scheduled for that night, but it got canceled due to a storm," Watt said. "I had already planned to not attend, but the timing was good. I didn't miss anything and I got to be there for the birth of my daughter."
An attacker and midfielder early in his career, Watt produced 17 points in 13 games as a rookie in Minnesota. He had 11 in his second season and a career-best 21 in year three. He spent five seasons in Minnesota before being dealt, along with teammate Ryan Benesch, to Buffalo three years ago in exchange for first-round picks in 2015 and 2016.
Bandits defensive coach Rich Kilgour said Watt provides a blend of toughness and leadership that is contagious. The coach pointed out that Buffalo started the season at 4-4 while Watt sat out with a calf injury, but has gone 8-1 since his return. That total includes a six-game winning streak.
"Watty has been around for a while and he knows the ins and outs of the game," Kilgour said of Watt, who has 76 points in 93 career games. "He can still produce. A lot of times, when you're eight years out of college and on the wrong side of 30, it's hard to compete with all of the young guys coming up. But he takes care of himself and he's in great shape. It's good for the young guys to see him overcome injuries and come back and play at a high level. That tends to make them play at a higher level, too."
For Watt, his approach is simple: He wants to enjoy every moment of the journey until it's time to walk away.
"Playing professionally has been such a great experience," said Watt, who plays for Peterborough of Major Series Lacrosse in the offseason. "I'd like to try to possibly play 10 years. That would be a goal. Having said that, I'm never going to complain when it comes time that I can't play anymore. I've had a great run in this league."
Watt added that Robert Morris and Pittsburgh remain close to his heart.
"Once my playing days are done, I'll be back to watch the team and to visit Pittsburgh," he said. "I love the city. I've taken friends there and introduced them to it. I had my bachelor party there. I've opened a lot of my people's eyes to it. I have so many great memories from my time there. I wouldn't trade them for anything."