ABBOTSFORD — Manpal Brar can’t look at the photograph above without feeling every step of his journey.
“Every time I do, all the pain, all the tough times, they all came out in that very moment,” relates the Fraser Valley Cascades’ battle-scarred third-year forward.
To pinpoint it precisely, we’re in the 36th minute of the Cascades’ Canada West match this past Sunday afternoon against the visiting UBC Thunderbirds at Rotary Stadium.
A turnover is quite suddenly placed at his charging feet, and within an instant, Brar’s right foot has slotted it to the back of the net.
Running to the near sideline, his hands covering his eyes in disbelief, he falls without fear to each of his surgically-repaired knees, blowing kisses to his family in the stands and pulling his jersey over his weeping eyes as he’s mobbed by his teammates.
“After all the sorrow and all of the doubt that I carried,” he would add, “for me, it all came down to that moment.”
For Brar, who would go on to add another strike just over two minutes later as part of a decisive 5-1 win over the Thunderbirds, that was his emotion-filled attempt at explaining what he’s been up to over the five-plus years since his high school graduation way back in the spring of 2016 from Surrey’s Princess Margaret Secondary School.
And what a journey it’s been.
From a brilliant Canada West debut as a pure freshman back in the fall of 2016 with, coincidentally enough, the UBC Thunderbirds, to walking away from the sport he loved in search of his academic purpose, to back-to-back ACL surgeries, to coming out of the pandemic with his identity restored this season at Fraser Valley’s Abbotsford campus.
“It was massive, so great to see because over the first five games he could have scored two, three, four times,” explained Cascades’ head coach Tom Lowndes after Brar’s breakthrough performance. “He’d just been a half-step off here and there. Just unlucky. So you’re happy for him because a lot of people would have thrown in the towel after that first ACL. He’s shown us all how mentally tough he is.”
More of the same is sure to be on display this weekend as the Cascades hit the road for Kamloops and matches Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (5 p.m.) against the Thompson Rivers WolfPack.
DISCOVERING HIS TRUE IDENTITY
In the fall of 2016, Manny Brar came to UBC without any kind of a plan, other than knowing that he loved to play soccer.
Playing within one of the nation’s most established programs, he lived up to his potential, earning 16 starts and playing in 22 matches where he logged 1,001 minutes and even scored four times.
“When I was at UBC, I was a 17-, 18-year-old who didn’t know what his career was going to be,” he says in remembrance, contrasting a love of his team with the questions he had about his place in the grand scheme of things. “My mom and dad are immigrants, and they’ve worked so hard that I wanted to make sure I was helping them. But they didn’t know what my career was. They asked me if I was trying to become a professional soccer player. They wanted to know my realistic goals and at that point, I didn’t have an answer.”
To try and find one, in the best way he knew how at the time, Brar walked away from soccer, enrolled at BCIT and decided to follow his older brother into the trades as a heavy-duty diesel mechanic.
Yet through it all, his love for the game could never be retired.
Late in the summer of 2017, before he had begun his classes at BCIT, Brar tore the ACL in his left knee while playing soccer.
Yet because he would no longer be a student-athlete while at BCIT, he elected to forgo surgery and get on with his academic-only life.
After one year, Brar attained his first certificate and had begun to do some work in the field when he realized he had mis-cast himself.
“I thought I would do the schooling (at BCIT) and get a good career so I kind of conformed,” Brar says in hindsight. “But it wasn’t me. I was kind of following a path laid out for me, but it wasn’t catered to what I enjoy and what I saw my life becoming. Through it all, I still wanted to help my family. The hardest part was sitting down and telling them that I wanted to get my knee surgery, play soccer again and finish my degree.”
When he informed family members of his new path, one which now has him majoring in psychology at UFV with the intent to get into social services and help the youth of his community upon graduation, he found support aplenty from his mom, his dad and his mentor/uncle Kiki Brar.
A HEARTFELT AUDITION
The next part of Brar’s plan, however, was a challenging one.
“A couple of months after my surgery, I was unfit, I was overweight and I didn’t even know if anyone would take me because university sport is so competitive and I didn’t know if I had the talent anymore,” he says. “I doubted myself.”
Yet making deep connections with some of his past teammates from a talented Surrey United youth team proved a lifeline to Brar just when he needed one most.
He called one of them, current UFV captain and fifth-year senior defender Ryan Donald, then asked his friend “What are the chances of UFV having me?”
By that afternoon, head coach Lowndes had called with an invitation, and from there Brar began his re-acclimation to the university soccer world, shaking off two seasons of injury and rust over a promising 2019 campaign.
He felt so good, in fact, that in the days which followed that season, he found himself unable to turn down any opportunity to play sports.
“I came back too fast,” he says now in hindsight. “I thought I was 18 again, a kid with a brand new knee who could run all day, play three games in a weekend and not care about his body. I became reckless. I would go play with anyone that would ask.”
Including, on a brisk winter day back Feb. 8 of 2020, the Surrey United men’s team, who were facing Coastal FC at South Surrey Athletic Park.
“I knew my legs were feeling heavy and stiff but I wanted to play,” Brar begins. “At one point, I continued to run after my stud got stuck in the turf, and this was my good leg, my right one.
“I get a little emotional talking about it,” Brar continues, taking a breath and then another brief moment to re-compose himself. “That was just the worst time. My team showed me support. Coach (Lowndes) really believed in me… that I could come back, and I wasn’t expecting that because this is career-ending for some players. I knew I had his support, but in my own head, I didn’t know if I could do it.”
“I WOULD BE HAPPY JUST TO PRACTICE WITH THIS TEAM, LET ALONE PLAY”
Along his pot-hole filled road, one which hit a smooth and rewarding stretch this past Sunday, Manpal Brar has learned one thing above all others: To be thankful for every moment he has on the pitch with his teammates.
After all, besides Donald, current teammates Nikhil Reddy and David Parfett also played youth soccer with him at Surrey United.
“I would be happy just to practice with the team, let alone play,” Brar begins. “Every time you see me step on the field with the UFV team, I have a smile on my face because I am so grateful to be back.”
That gratitude is so deep that when you ask the young man with the two scarred knees to describe his two goals from this past Sunday, what you get is more akin to ‘Thank You’ cards, each with a personal message.
“The first goal was really well done by Trevor Zanatta,” Brar begins of the team’s star play-making midfielder who registered four assists in the Sunday win. “Trevor has always shown his support for me. He’s younger than me. He doesn’t say much. But he lets me know he is proud of me and that he sees me like a leader on this team.
“UBC’s left-centreback was on the ball,” he continues, “and Trevor was the centre-attacking mid on top of me. He pressed that player and he won the ball, and the only thing I could think of was that my teammate worked so hard to win that ball, that I must score. It was something I had to do for him… for the work he had just done. I had to put it in the back of the net and that’s what I did.”
Fittingly, as our the photograph above shows, Brar is overcome with emotion as he is hugged by the blond-haired Zanatta, with the bearded Ryan Donald right there as part of the celebration.
The second goal, scored in the 39th minute?
“When I scored the first goal, it opened up for me,” Brar recollects. “I had a fresh breath. I could breathe.
“Charandeep Rangi, he got the ball, and I know him well, He’s from my neighbourhood (in Surrey), and we always played for fun on the weekends. So when he got the ball, he saw me peel off the other (UBC) centre-back and get on his back shoulder. So he sent me a perfect through ball, splitting both defenders. He put a little air under it, with some backspin on it, and he knew I would get to it. I saw the look in his eyes. I went full-speed ahead and I knew that this is what I do. I will put it in the back of the net. It is my bread and butter.”
As our university sports world in B.C. emerges from the shadows, that about says it all.
“When we finally got back to playing, to see these guys with smiles on their faces, for me to come to work and see that… it’s not work,” says Lowndes.
“To see these guys laugh, train, joke and rib with each other, all of that kind of stuff is bigger than soccer, bigger than wins and losses and winning medals.
“Let’s be honest, everyone was in a pretty dark place for a while.”
Brar agrees and that is why, for him, it is impossible to celebrate a soccer breakthrough without paying personal homage to the new direction he has found in the classroom, one driven in part by his love for the game.
“I am very interested in the human mind, and through the things I have gone through, I want to understand it more and gain more perspective,” he says of his studies as a psych major.
“I’ve met some new players this year who have come up to me and said ‘How can you be so happy?’ And ‘Why are you always smiling?’They don’t know my story, just like I don’t know their perspective of what they have been through.”
It’s the gateway to friendship, support and helping each other in times of need, and what better way illustrate that than an image that Manpal Brar has always kept close to his heart.
It’s one of former NBA MVP and No. 1 overall draft pick Derrick Rose, whose litany of knee injuries make him the king of comebacks over a career which is set to hit its 14th season in 2021-22.
In the image, Rose, from his later days with the Minnesota Timberwolves, is helping a younger version of himself, during his days with the Chicago Bulls, up off the court.
That both Rose and he have come back from multiple major knee surgeries, to Brar, is worth a thousand words.
“I just felt like I would never score, and that I didn’t have that factor of final finish anymore or whatever it is you need to get the ball across the line,” he begins.
“So the person that I am today and the happiness I shared Sunday with the goals that I scored… that’s why that picture gets me so emotional. That is me picking myself up from a year ago.”
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