Four years ago, Felix Wang was still feeling his way around life in Canada when a strange man made an even stranger request to him: Would you like to play football?
Wang and his family had moved to Canada from China several months earlier and young Felix was making the tough adjustments of a teenager in a new country.
"Everything was different here," he recalls. "Obviously the language was a big thing and also there were cultural differences. When I first came here it was hard to fit into the community. I didn't know my neighbours, I was in a new school and I didn't know anybody. The school system is different, the education system is different. I was like a newborn baby - everything was new to me."
So it's easy to understand the teen's reaction when Earl Marriott Mariners head football coach Michael McKay-Dunne singled him out with an invitation. Always on the lookout for potential new talent, coach Mac-Daddy spotted the husky teen idling with other international students in a science lab one day and felt compelled to do some spontaneous recruiting.
Wang's logical first reaction: Who is this guy? His second reaction: What is football?
"That was quite shocking to me because I didn't know there was a football team at the school," Wang says. "I didn't know anything about football and when the coach asked me to play, I had no clue who that guy was. It was an honour to be asked. I was in a science class so when a guy showed up and asked me to play football, that was pretty amazing.
"I never had that experience before, but that's how it goes. Life presents you with opportunities and you can either give it a shot or walk away. I gave it a shot."
Did he ever. McKay-Dunne was rewarded for his recruiting pitch with a player who turned into a cornerstone of the fledgling football program at Earl Marriott.
It wasn't always easy, of course. Wang was a huge basketball fan and had played one semester of rugby at Earl Marriott before he showed up for his first football practise in the fall of 2010.
The first problem he faced: getting dressed.
"It was literally brand new for me," Wang says with a good-natured laugh. "The first practise I literally had my shoulder pads backwards - the long pad on the back was on my chest. I didn't put a jersey over it because I didn't think I needed a jersey. Everything was wrong. The first thing I had to learn was how to dress up, put pads on correctly and find the right helmet size."
McKay-Dunne smiles as he remembers the tentative first football steps of a player who grow into what he now describes as "a dancing bear."
Wang was as green as could be, but because there was no junior program at Earl Marriott, he found himself on the field with the Mariners' senior team. To make matters worse, the size of the Earl Marriott school population meant the team was forced to compete in the toughest division of high school football - AAA.
"He didn't know anything about football so he was just copying everybody else," McKay-Dunne says. "He didn't understand much about the game, but he was keen to learn. There was no obstacle to playing the game in his eyes, he just found ways to get better and do it.
"It's not like he didn't undergo any learning curves - I mean, he got cooked a few times. He just bounced up and got back into the game."
Wang's experience with rugby prepared him for the rough contact of the football field. He admits he was way over his head at the AAA level, but is remarkably philosophical about the trial by fire he endured against bigger, stronger and more experienced opponents each week.
"We were playing triple-A teams and the they would either dominate me or push me away," he says matter of factly. "That's how my first couple of games were. I never got frustrated because I totally understood. It wouldn't be right if you've been playing a sport for 14 years and you got beaten by a guy who has only been playing for three weeks. That's how life goes. It was fair, I just needed time to learn the game and understand the strategy of it.
"By the end of the year I understood the game and decided to spend some time on my own to try and get better."
Wang attended summer football camps run by Simon Fraser University. He may not have been the best player in camp, but he used every opportunity to soak up information and learn from the experienced players around him.
He never developed into a provincial all-star as a player, but his impact has been felt on and off the field.
Wang excelled in the classroom and was always available to help when a new project arose. When the Mariners volunteered at the Peace Arch Hospital's Pumpkin Run fundraiser, Wang arrived on site at 5: 30 a.m. and stayed until the end helping out wherever he was needed.
He amassed more than 300 hours volunteering as a mentor for other international students. When somebody needed help, Wang was there for them.
He became somewhat of a pied piper among other international students at the school, with many of them following him onto the football field. When spring practise commenced earlier this month, the Mariners team included four players who had never picked up a football prior to arriving in Canada.
"I benefited from playing football, so when I see someone who is like me when I was new to this country, I say why not follow my steps?" Wang says. "It's hard to make friends with people who are walking by you. When you are on a team, your teammates are your brothers and you are all working together for the same goal.
"I tell them that I know they are green and new to the sport, but that's OK. I was the same way, but eventually you will get better. Remember, you will never be worse than you are before you start playing. Just believe in yourself."
All of Wang's efforts at school and sports have been rewarded in recent months. At the conclusion of the 2012 football season, Wang was honoured by Football BC as the winner of the Kevin Chin memorial award. The scholarship is handed out each year to the top graduating football player based on his commitment to academics, athletics and community.
Wang was also honoured at Earl Marriott's graduation ceremonies when he was named the 2012-13 winner of the school's Ulysses Award. That honour is handed out to the top graduating student who best exemplifies commitment to the school, academic, volunteering and sports participation.
"The Ulysses Award probably means more to me," Wang says. "The Kevin Chin award is given out by B.C. Football, which means it's only for football players. The Ulysses award is more about the kind of person you are.
"It's a recommendation of the person you are, what you mean to the community. I was really happy to receive that."
Sadly, Wang has probably played his last game of competitive football. Next fall he will attend school in Ontario where he will participate in a unique double degree co-op program. The five-year course of studies includes work experience and when he is finished, he will receive a math degree from the University of Waterloo and a business degree from Wilfred Laurier University.
Academics will dominate his life for the next few years, but he says the lessons learned on the football field will help him for years to come.
"Football will help me in business," he says. "It's all about working with a team, taking on challenges and not running away. Football helps shape your personality - it doesn't make you smarter or help you solve math problems, but it helps your personality. You have to work with your teammates to have success.
"Playing football was not time wasted - I don't think it's logically possible to waste time."
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