WEST VANCOUVER — Out of nowhere, he established his high school’s new gold standard for raw rookies.
Now, West Vancouver Highlanders’ graduating senior Simon Li is headed off to a university career as a diamond in the rough.
Only 15 months ago, midway through his first year at the school, the then-Grade 11, Li had never before played a team sport, let alone one in which there was even remote physical contact.
Yet the international student from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 305 pounds, decided to go out for the rugby team.
Things went so well that Li decided to strap on a football helmet for the first time this past fall, and in just one season, he flashed so much potential and showed so much character that he is set to begin post-secondary life as an offensive lineman later this summer with the Canada West powerhouse Calgary Dinos.
“We don’t have tackle sports in China, plus my parents said I was too young and that it was too dangerous,” began Li, 18, who came to Canada in 2014 and spent three years at Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Secondary, where he didn’t play sports.
“When I was nine, back in China, the sport was ping-pong,” he continued. “My classmates were good at it but I wasn’t. I played badminton. I think it made me quicker.”
Ask anyone who has seen the behemoth Lee move around in a pair of cleats and they will tell you that there is both a natural stride to his mechanics, and a base of absolute raw strength and athleticism, all of which defines a diamond in the rough.
THE ATHLETE WITHIN
West Vancouver senior boys head rugby coach Paul Welsh remembers just how new Simon Li was to the entire concept of team sports when the neophyte 11th grader attended his first practice.
“Even from how quickly, when the whistle blows, that you run to your next drill… he’d had none of that before,” says Welsh. “Everything was brand new to him.”
Yet it didn’t take long for Welsh to see the silver lining.
“He’s not the first large kid to come out and play rugby because someone looked at his frame,” continued Welsh. “But there was something about him right from the beginning. He’d never caught before but we threw him ball, and right away (assistant coach) Chris Lasher said ‘This kid has hands.’ Then all of a sudden he started to move and you could just tell he was an absolute athlete.”
In fact Li, who quickly found a home at the prop position, got thrown into the fire that first year, getting starter’s minutes following an injury to a teammate, then giving an inspirational account of himself in a loss to the Quad-A powerhouse St. George’s Saints. Earlier this month, Li closed out his rugby career by helping the Highlanders place second at the B.C. Triple-A Tier 2 championships.
That game against St. George’s, however, not only inspired Li, it opened his ears to suggestions of West Vancouver vice-principal and football program head Shawn Anderson to give football a try.
Anderson had initially approached Li about playing football the first day he had set foot on campus back in the fall of 2017.
Li decided instead to wait until spring and give rugby a try, and by this past September, it was clear he was much more comfortable strapping on a helmet and learning yet another new sport.
“The first thing I noticed is how well he moved for a big man,” confirmed Anderson. “I’ve had some big guys before, the 6-foot-2, 285-pound types who run well and have good hands. But Simon? He’s 6-5, and about 300 pounds and he’s got a lot of those same package pieces. Plus he’s more mobile because he has some fluid hip movement. Usually, players his size are more lumbering. He looks more like a large basketball player.”
Although his refinement and level of athleticism is nowhere near that of Holy Cross’ Jonathan Kongbo, who back in 2013-14 at Surrey’s Holy Cross Secondary took up football for the first time as a high school senior and eventually wound up as rush-end for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Kongbo, a first-round pick in last month’s CFL draft by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was also a highly-accomplished basketball player throughout his high school career.
Yet what we has accomplished — playing one year of football and getting recruited to a perennial U Sports national-title contender — is rare enough that it’s still the closest comparable.
And verification comes from one of the most seasoned university coaches in Canada: New Dinos’ offensive coordinator Pat Sheahan.
“First of all, something you can’t teach is 6-5, 300 pounds,” begins Sheahan, a 30-plus season U Sports head coach, who won a Vanier Cup over his 19-season run at Queen’s University.
“I’ve worked with a lot of great ones, and Simon is a bright kid, a big kid, and a kid who is now very passionate about football,” Sheahan continued. “He came out here for spring and he not only impresses you with that size, but also in how ready he is to learn the game. We thought that this was a great opportunity to take in a diamond-in-the-rough.”
Whether that foot speed was badminton-borne, or just a natural part of his skill set, Sheahan saw it in spades at Dinos’ spring camp.
“He had good feet,” said Sheahan, who personally worked him out along the offensive line. “He exploded into people. What you want to see from a big kid is to see if he can play fast. But what I also learned is that Simon enjoys playing against bigger kids. Sometimes that doesn’t happen when you get used to being the only big guy. Obviously, he will be the architect of his own career.”
LEARNING TO DREAM BIG
It’s a sentiment that is so often echoed from this corner, but again, where else but in high school sports is the necessary support network in place to allow such an against-the-odds story like this to actually take root and grow?
“It was my chemistry teacher, Mr. Stefanon, who told me that he thought I could play rugby,” Li says of Moreno Stefanon, the former West Van rugby coach who this past season led Burnaby’s expansion Byrne Creek program to the B.C. Double-A Tier 2 championship final . “At first, I thought it was too dangerous. But now, I give Mr. Stefanon a 10-out-of-10.”
What Li has gotten in return is a focus to his future.
“I would like to try for the CFL,” Li begins of a goal that while still a long-shot to come in, is nothing like the pipe dream it would have been 15 months ago.
If that doesn’t work out, he can see himself working in his dad’s manufacturing business, or perhaps even becoming a police officer, the latter a recent area of interest after visiting with a recruiter who was on site at the recent B.C. high school rugby championships.
What has he liked most about his two sports?
“The friends,” Li says. “The teammates. We play together. We try together. We cry together. We laugh together.”
That’s no small feat.
Often times, international students struggle to find the full high school experience as they attempt to learn a new language, adjust to a new country, and struggle to gain social acceptance.
Welsh is quick to point out that Li was able to gain the confidence he needed to be himself through sport.
“Rugby has a place for everyone and he kept at it,” Welsh said proudly. “This season, he started every game, he scored tries, he spent time talking with coach Lasher and myself about how we could make our system better. But most importantly, he became one of the boys.”
Welsh would see this unfold daily, especially when it came time for the physically demanding runs which brought a close to practice.
“He might be struggling to finish them, so the other boys would run extras and finish with him,” said Welsh. “At the the football banquet last fall, he asked to speak. He talked about what rugby and football meant to him, how it made him feel Canadian and a part of the school. And he thanked Moreno for pushing him to play.”
Anderson couldn’t help but notice, too.
“At our awards banquet, he was recognized for being an inspiration,” the vice-principal said. “It wasn’t the largest award being handed out that day, but he still got the largest applause.”
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