“One of the parents of a player came up to me and said, ‘You’ve basically given my son his life back because this has helped motivate him in so many other areas.’ I don’t take myself seriously enough to think that it’s because of me, but it is because of this whole package that we’ve put in place. We’ve got to make an impact the first year, not so much on the field, but in terms of building a culture in this community.”
Farhan Lalji was a rookie head football coach, complete with an 0-0 career win-loss record when he made that statement to yours truly, a Vancouver Province reporter, just days ahead of the program’s first game in early September of 2003.
Re-awakening New Westminster Secondary School’s high school football program from a 26-year slumber, in and of itself, represented major challenges at enough different levels to diffuse the focus of even the most time-tested veteran.
Yet through the gift of hindsight, it seems especially apropos to re-visit those words in the days after Lalji’s announcement last week that he was leaving the program he launched almost two decades ago, in large part to dedicate more time to his family.
Spoken at the time by a much younger architect, one still 15 seasons away from the Hyacks’ dramatic journey to the 2017 Subway Bowl B.C. Triple-A championship title, those words nonetheless seem testament to an innate understanding of what the journey’s ultimate goal actually was.
Well, yes and no, and that’s just another way of saying that in the pursuit of life’s most passionate quests, the most meaningful moments can reveal themselves unannounced in the re-discovery of things we may have lost along the way.
“I love coaching the kids, and that will never change,” said the 52-year-old Lalji, a husband to Mary, father to both Lukas and Nora, and know nationally as TSN’s Vancouver correspondent.
“But I thought to myself ‘I need to get off the cycle,’ and that was the single biggest thing,” continued Lalji, who spent 13 seasons as an assistant at Burnaby Central (1988-2000), and two more at Vancouver College (2001-02) before beginning his 17-year run leading the Hyacks, one which took him through the last completed season of play in 2019. “I needed to because you hear that quote about living the same year 75 times and then calling it a life. That’s what was happening. The cycle of trying to run a program at the highest level was burning me out, and causing me not to have balance. It never, ever left my mind… ever.”
“… I ALWAYS WANTED TO BUILD IT THIS WAY”
The most important lesson that high school coaches can take away from their time as what can only be deemed ‘essential volunteers’, is the soul-deep understanding that their part in being able impact kids for a lifetime will be both their greatest gift and their greatest reward.
Last week, as news of his retirement filtered through both the B.C. sports community and Hyack Nation at-large, Farhan Lalji had the honour of experiencing that very re-affirmation first hand.
A mom whose son had played under him many seasons ago was connecting with him to express her concern that he was not where he needed to be, seeking counsel, advice and most of all, a compassionate voice, all in the hopes that he could help her remedy the situation.
“When you have a moment like that… that’s the legacy,” Lalji remarked.
And then there was another former player, this one headstrong in many ways and with whom he had not been in contact with, reaching out upon hearing the news to express his gratitude.
“I hadn’t heard from him in years, and he played maybe a season with us,” Lalji began. “He was so wayward back then. He’s a successful realtor now with a wife and kid. I was like ‘Dude, I can’t believe you reached out!’ He wanted to thank me, but I wanted to thank him because I just felt a win that he had found his success.”
For coaches, especially the ones who volunteer to make all of this happen within the magical, challenging world of B.C high school sports, this is indeed your legacy… and if your career compass has ever veered off of true north, as it has been known to do, these are your grounding moments.
“I always wanted to build it this way… build something that people would take pride in, that people would want to come back to for Homecoming,” Lalji added.
If he can ever find the time to come back home, Matt Seymour would surely like to attend Homecoming at Mercer Stadium.
For the immediate future, however, the Class of 2015 Hyacks receiver will have to plan things around what he hopes will be a burgeoning law career.
In keeping with our theme of connection, Seymour has never lost touch with Lalji, including during his injury-riddled Div. 1 football career in the MAC with the Ohio Bobcats, and now, a year shy of his graduation from St. John’s University Law School in New York City.
And when reached earlier this week at his Big Apple residence, Seymour paid his old coach the ultimate compliment.
“I still remember that redshirt freshman year (at Ohio) when I had the worst of my leg injuries,” began Seymour, 23. “It was a mental struggle for me. I tried to play through it. (Lalji) was in constant contact with me, and the biggest thing he kept telling me was to keep my grades up.”
Seymour was forced to medically retire after his third season with the Bobcats, but he fashioned the highest GPA on the squad, and that was the ticket which took him to his post-graduate studies at St. John’s.
“If I had slacked on my grades, with my football going south, I don’t think I’d be in law school right now,” continued Seymour, who recently interned at U.S. Court of International Trade in Manhattan. “There’s so many layers to it, and it’s hard to pinpoint one thing, but his constant and continued support has been awesome.”
“HE’S A PERSON THAT I JUST WANTED TO BE AROUND”
Ask Darnell Sikorski about the installation of the Wing T offence for the start of the 2007 season at New Westminster, and the former Hyacks running back and its current junior varsity head coach finds a way to equate it all to the very fabric of Lalji’s team principles.
“I think it was just about putting the team first, and that was always the big component in everything he did,” began Sikorski, 30, and these days a personal trainer at his own Coastline Fitness Club near Burnaby’s Metrotown Shopping Centre.
Over that 2007 season, the Hyacks featured a triple-headed running attack in which each member of the trio — Sikorski (1,380 yards), Blain Cawkell (1,210) and John Drury (1,116) — rushed for over 1,000 yards.
Each time Sikorski revisits that season in his mind, his retrospective view seems more focused on what it said about a team willing to sacrifice for each other over everything else.
“Yes, we wanted individual accolades,” he said. “But it needed to run through the team, through the program. For me, I wanted to have a ton of success, but if it meant I needed to block more, fake more or do something else to help the team be successful, then that was what I was going to do. None of us cared about the carries or the yardage, as long as we won.”
In-the-details moments like these should never be underestimated.
In fact, when you add up the sum of all of the parts of Sikorski’s Hyack experience under Lalji, you are hardly surprised when you discover how each of these men cites, completely independent of the other, the exact same reason for answering their own inner call to coach.
Said Lalji who played his senior season under Reid in 1986, then spent 13 as his assistant or coordinator through the end of the millennium: “The reason I started coaching was purely to be around him. I didn’t want to lose that influence in my life.”
Said Sikorski, who played his senior season under Lalji in 2007, and joined him within the program in various coaching roles from 2010-19: “He’s a person that I just wanted to be around because he was that father-figure and role model. I just wanted to be around him as an individual, and not just for the football portion.”
“…HE ASSURED ME THAT LIFE WOULD GO ON”
Over the course of his first few seasons as a retired professional football player, Casey Chin has had those moments where, in reflection, he has been able to clearly determine the moments which have carried the most meaning for him.
“Even looking back now, on every team I have ever played on, it’s always been the people,” said Chin, the former Hyacks’ linebacker (2007-09) who would go on to star in the heart of Simon Fraser’s defence (2010-13) before embarking on a three-year CFL career with the B.C. Lions and Edmonton Elks.
“Even today, with my friends from high school, university or pro, when we go back we don’t think about that certain play or that big hit,” continued Chin, 28, who nonetheless certainly had his share, especially at SFU, where over his senior season of 2013 he led the GNAC in total tackles (119), solo tackles (68) and tackles per game (11.9), as well as setting a single-game conference record that still stands with 6.5 tackles-for-loss in a 38-17 win over Humboldt State at Terry Fox Field.
“I think about the locker room, going out after the game, times we were late or got lost… all the extra stuff and the time we spent together,” said Chin, who has stayed close to the game in his new career as a personal trainer.
“I remember (Lalji) always harping about us being together and enjoying it, and honestly, it’s something that only recently, since I stopped playing professionally, that I have gone back and really thought about,” he added.
Yet for Chin, there is an even deeper example of what a coach and a program can mean in the life of a young person.
Back in September of 2007, just as his Grade 10 season was about to get underway, Chin very suddenly lost his father Kevin to complications arising from a staph infection. Kevin Chin, a 28-year football coach and member of the Hyacks’ staff, was just 51.
“He shared a lot of lessons with me, and when my father passed away, he would check in with me… they weren’t pep talks, but he assured me that life would go on,” remembered Chin, who had just turned 15 at the time.
“On a personal level, that was huge for me, because at a point in time, where my life was literally upside-down, he was there to assure me that there were people around me that weren’t going to let it get out of hand,” continued Chin.
“Every sport is going to eventually end, so you need to make sure you are really enjoying it,” he added. “Not only sport, but the relationships you make because that is what lasts the longest. That’s something coach Lalji taught me, amongst all of the other things he’s done for me and my family. There’s a lot of young men who have been very fortunate to have had a coach like him in their lives.”
A SHINING TRUTH LOST, BUT THEN FOUND
The final 2:34 of the Hyacks’ dramatic, title-winning 80-yard touchdown drive to win Subway Bowl 2017 was a landmark moment for the program Farhan Lalji had launched from humble beginnings back in 2003.
Yet as the events of last week unfolded, so true to the words he spoke almost 18 years previous, that championship day became a point of light for even bigger reasons.
“I had to go through the win to realize that I was right all along… that it was the other stuff that mattered more and that’s why I was doing it,” Lalji explained of the very sentiments he was having expressed to him by grateful players, parents and friends last week. “At times (before the championship), I felt like I was convincing myself they were more important.
“I am glad we got to win it, just to see the end and to see a group celebrate like that,” he added. “But in the end, the biggest thing about the win was that it made me realize everything I was trying to believe was true… was true.”
Deep down, he always knew.
He said as much on the very first day.
It’s a message that may have gotten lost at various points along the journey, but to have re-discovered it, and then to live its very truth in the moment that you bid farewell?
It would seem that not too much else could mean more to the soul.
(Special thanks to Alan and Deb Wardle for all their help this week scouring the Hyacks’ football photo base!)
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