SURREY — Look at the picture above as you read the first few paragraphs of this story.
Train your eyes on the kid wearing No. 7, the kid chosen to carry the flag and lead his Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers football team onto the field last Friday in front of what was the largest home crowd in school history, a 54-0 win over Mission.
By anyone’s standards, Thomas Box has grown into the all-Canadian kid: Starting wide receiver on one of B.C.’s top high school football teams who harbours the hope that one day his love of physics and calculus ultimately helps shape his professional career.
Listen to his back story, however, and quite suddenly, the picture gains the power of perspective.
What if you knew that in order for him flee the African nation of South Sudan in 2005, just as a 20-year civil war was ending, that he and his younger sister Kristina, now a 10th grader at Tweedsmuir, would have to leave more than half of their brothers and sisters behind on the other side of the world?
And what if you knew that these days, with his father back in Africa tending to family, and his mother a shut-in at their Cloverdale home due to a horrific war-related injury, that the 17-year-old high school senior does everything he can to help supplement the family’s welfare cheque?
Since coming to Canada, Thomas Box learned a new language and later enlightened those who once bullied him.
And when you look him straight in the eye, you see first the fire and then a smile.
“You figure it out pretty quick when you when you talk to him,” says Lord Tweedsmuir co-head coach Kurt Thornton. “He’s a 17-year-old, but you can tell that he’s had some life-experience under his belt. He’s just got a spark to him, a positive energy.”
Says Box: “It’s always better to be living a happy life than a sad life.”
Take that simple axiom to heart, think about his journey, then take another look at the picture.
All you can say is ‘Wow.’
PANTHERS TO THE RESCUE
It can’t be repeated enough just how pivotal a role high school sports and its accompanying mentors can play in the life of an at-risk student.
Thomas Box fit that category to a tee on a day back in the spring of 2013, when as a rising Grade 8 high school freshman, he attended Lord Twedsmuir’s elementary school football camp.
That was the first day Thornton saw the special energy and the ominpresent smile.
It was also the first day he learned that inside of Box, just below the surface, some darkness lay simmering.
“I can remember the skinny kid with the big energy,” Thornton says of Box. “You could tell he was a kid who appreciated getting a lunch and a free t-shirt.
“But after the camp, we were cleaning up and we’re in the cafeteria and he was going through the lost-and-found looking for clothes. It was an image that stuck with me. So I went over and talked to him about it. He asked me if he could have some of the clothes. School was out for the summer, so it was all going to be moved out anyways so I said ‘Of course.’”
I asked Box if he was OK with me mentioning the moment, and he nodded his approval. In the grand scheme of things, that nod told an even bigger story because at no time has he tried to hide the hard-scrabble moments which have shaped him.
These days, Box has gotten a job at a nearby pub/eatery called The Henry where he is mostly involved in putting meals together — “I cook back there, but when it gets slow, they put in me dishwashing. I don’t like it when it gets slow.”
And so between school, football, homework and helping younger siblings Samwel, Benjamin and Wilson, he crams in shifts at The Henry.
“I work a lot to get money for myself and my little brothers when my mom can’t pay for them,” explains Box. “We mostly get money from welfare, but I still try my best to help by getting shifts.”
He even saved up enough to buy the family a car, a 1999 Honda Civic.
“It’s a manual (transmission) and it cost a grand,” he says. “The first day I got it, I didn’t even know how to drive it. I just sat in the car trying to figure everything out.”
GROWING UP FAST
Thomas Box was about three, back in South Sudan, when he found out one day how close the horrors of war could hit home.
“Before we came to Canada, my mom (Elisabeth) stepped on a land mine and her leg pretty much got blown off,” says Box. “She still has the leg. I don’t know how.”
Just a few years after the accident, the two youngest children, accompanied by their parents, an uncle and an aunt, made the trip to Canada.
“I have 14 brothers and sisters in total,” says Box. “But only a few of us were able to come to Canada. We didn’t have enough money to being everyone.”
Box had played some soccer back in South Sudan, but once he landed in Cloverdale, he quickly developed a love for North American sports.
In fact he is now a true three-season, three-sport athlete at Lord Tweedsmuir, playing football, basketball and rugby from September through June.
In the classroom, he admits he is not to the standard of younger sister Kristina, a straight-A student.
“But I love math. Numbers. I just find it easy to calculate. It comes to me quickly and I like that.”
Bullied by a few fellow eighth graders in his first year at Tweedsmuir, he experienced some harrowing emotional moments, but in the end, told those who bullied him his life story.
Quite suddenly, they discovered compassion, and as they end their high school careers, some are involved in leadership initiatives around the school.
TOUCHDOWNS, ON AND OFF THE FIELD
Thomas Box started off on special teams as a Grade 8, and he worked his way up through the ranks.
Yet it wasn’t until this season that he finally earned a starting role on offence.
And then, in the team’s Eastern Conference opener on Sept. 22 in Kelowna, he had his biggest moment yet.
“It was dog-boot-left and it was my first-ever touchdown,” Box says of opening the scoring in his team’s 48-0 win over host Mt. Boucherie by catching an 11-yard strike from quarterback Walter Dingwall.
The challenges just keep on coming.
On Friday at Burnaby Lakes (7:30 p.m.), the Panthers (4-1) get their toughest league test of the season thus far when they play the No. 5 St. Thomas More Knights (5-0), featuring the same group of athletes that beat Box and Tweedsmuir in the 2013 Grade 8 final.
No matter, when you have started a new life on the other side of the world, and through the sheer force of your will, you have helped make a better life for you and your family, you can’t help but smile.
Ask Box about it. Ask him what his mother’s daily struggle means to him when viewed through the largest prism of all.
“It represents to me, faith,” he says. “Every time I see her, it just reminds me that I have to work harder and to make sure that I am doing things for the right cause. After high school and after university, I have to make sure that my mom and my family are happy.”
None of that is lost in translation to Thornton, a counsellor at Lord Tweedsmuir.
He knows that the young boy he saw all those years ago rummaging through the lost-and-found has discovered what matters most in life.
“To me, his story encapsulates what public school should be about,” says Thornton. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, how much money you have or who your parents are. This is supposed to be the great equalizer, right? A kid should be able to come into this building and end up right where they need to be. Thomas is such a good example of that.”
And after what to him, at age 17 is a lifetime, Thomas Box will fly to South Sudan over spring break to visit the family he has missed for over a decade.
“It’s been 12 years since I left,” he says. “They can’t speak English and I can barely speak the language I knew back home. But I want to see them. They are my brothers and sisters and I miss them. I want to see their personalities.”
They will certainly see his.
And maybe over the course of the discussion, Thomas Box will show them the picture, the one of him holding the flag and running to daylight.
It’s been such an incredible journey that at times even he might wonder if it was all just a crazy dream.
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