Welcome to our 2016 - 2017 Student-Athlete of the Week feature!
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Tough? You want tough? Sure. No problem. The life athletic is full of stories of toughness, and Salisbury’s athletic program has had plenty.
Add Mason Evarts’s story to the list.
When Evarts sat down for this article, he was four games into the varsity basketball season. Usually the first player off the bench last year, he was the classic “sixth man,” giving the Knights a jolt with his defensive tenacity and his lethal three-point shooting. He began the 2016-17 campaign as one of the starting five. Although his long-range accuracy was down, he made up for it on the offensive end by developing his repertoire of drives to the basket and dish-offs in the paint. And so the early season continued through three more games at the BasketBull Hoop Fest in Springfield, MA, a three-day showcase at the start of Christmas vacation.
Turns out Evarts was playing with a broken hand. Had started the season with a broken hand and played seven games broken-handed – his shooting hand, by the way. He had broken the hand back in early November, toward the end of the varsity soccer season. Evarts played a key role on this fall’s team after receiving the MVP Award for the j.v. soccer team as a fifth former. This year, by mid-season he had worked his way into the starting line-up as the Knights rang up their highest win-total of the past four years.
“Yeah, it was hurting,” Evarts, a native of Austin, Texas, would say upon returning from Christmas vacation with his hand in a cast, “especially when I tried to tee up from the [three-point] arc.” Didn’t you have it x-rayed? he is asked. “I didn’t think it was broken,” Evarts responds, matter-of-factly, “so there was no reason for x-rays.”
Evarts will be missed. No one knows that better than varsity basketball coach Harlan Dodson. “Mason is tough as nails,” the second-year coach describes the player who had been responsible for keeping opponents’ best outside shooters at bay, “and is not intimidated by anyone that we’ve played against, matching up in his time at Salisbury against nationally ranked players as well as many opponents who are five to six inches taller than he is. He’s a tremendous competitor who leads by example with his dedicated work ethic and dogged determination. He’s everything you could want as a coach.”
While healing and rehabbing will shut Evarts down for the rest of the basketball season, he should be ready for the varsity lacrosse trip in Florida, marking the start of his third season on a varsity roster. The versatile Evarts is one of the last such: the three-sport varsity athlete. Only five other members of the Class of 2017 are members of what has become an increasingly exclusive club over the years. And small wonder: with college admission as well as financial aid often riding on an athlete’s prowess in a particular sport, it pays to specialize nowadays.
Lacrosse, in fact, is Evarts’ main sport. He is part of the first generation of lax players emerging from Texas, a state far better known for its high-profile football programs. Evarts dutifully performed the Texas rite of passage, playing six years of youth football before deciding to focus on other sports. “It’s been pretty much in my lifetime,” Evarts affirms, “that lacrosse has spread to Texas.”
Indeed, Evarts’ family has played a small role in the sport’s growth in the Lone Star State: his mother helped start the first women’s lacrosse program in Austin. In turn, both of Evarts’ older sisters (he also has a younger sister) play Division I lax (at the University of Michigan and William and Mary). While neither of Evarts’ parents played the game growing up, both have impressive athletic resumes. His mother was a four-year member of the Dartmouth College women’s tennis team. Her mother, Evarts’ grandmother, had been a top-ranked tennis player in Texas during the 1940s. And his father played football and wrestled at Amherst College.
Evarts himself was introduced to lacrosse in gym class as a third-grader. By the sixth grade, he had decided to concentrate on the game. By ninth grade, looking for a higher level of lacrosse than he could find in Texas, he had joined the New England Storm, where one of his teammates was Zach Chandler. He even trained with the Storm here at Salisbury in the summer of 2013, a full two years before enrolling as a student on the Hilltop. While a member of the Storm, Evarts played in four tournaments between mid-June and mid-July.
Other summers, he honed his skills at programs in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. His family supported him every step of the way, joining him in the Northeast to drive from camp to camp and from tournament to tournament. When he wasn’t playing lacrosse, Evarts and his mother would stay with relatives in Pennsylvania, waiting for the next camp or tournament to start.
During the school year in Texas, Evarts eventually earned a spot on the Iron Horse team, one of the top programs in the state. Iron Horse is based in Dallas. Dallas is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Austin. Each way. During the week, Evarts played on his school team. Friday afternoons, April into early July, he and his father climbed in the car and headed to “The Big D,” where they would stay the weekend so that Evarts could join Iron Horse for Saturday and Sunday practices, games, or tournaments.
“Many of the tournaments Iron Horse played in after the school year ended,” Evarts points out, “were in New England. While that gave us an opportunity to face the top players in our age group [based on birth year, as in so many youth sports], there was a downside. I missed ‘normal’ summers – hanging out with my friends in Austin, checking out the Austin City Limits Music Festival, going to Lake Travis and Lake Austin. As much as I love the game of lacrosse,” he asserts, “I’ve had mixed feelings about what I missed out on. But if you want to get seen by lacrosse coaches,” he sighs resignedly, “it means getting out of Austin.”
That’s not all, travel-wise. Evarts also played two summers – after 8th grade and again after 10th – for the West Coast Stars. Yes, “West Coast” as in “Los Angeles.” Tryouts for the Stars required Evarts’s trekking to L.A. in December, making the team, and then rejoining his teammates in June for a big, national – international, counting a team from Canada – tournament. In Philadelphia. But of course.
And, by the way, during grades 5, 6, and 7 – incredibly, almost inconceivably – Evarts was also playing basketball for the Austin Wildcats, who played tournaments as far away as Wichita, Kansas, where Evarts participated in a 64-team event. From there, for grades 8, 9, and 10, he moved up to the Austin Rain, whose basketball travels took the team not only to Kansas but also to locations as bifurcated as Brooklyn and Las Vegas.
“There were 64 teams in our age group in Las Vegas,” Evarts recounts, “and there was another basketball tournament going on at the same time in another age group with another 64 teams. It was crazy!” And what did Evarts think of “Sin City”? “It was great the first couple of days we were there,” he says, “but it got old quickly.”
As remarkable as have been the sacrifices Evarts’s mother and father have made, year after year, to nurture his lacrosse (and basketball) talent as well as his sisters’, more and more parents of elite athletes are doing much the same thing and have been doing so for at least two decades. Seeing the U.S.A. from sideline to sideline, coast to coast.
Not that his athletic talent is the only ticket Evarts holds in his college quest. Since arriving on the Hilltop in the fall of 2015, he has achieved Honors or High Honors in all four of his trimesters at Salisbury. This past fall, he earned High Honors with a course load that includes AP English Literature, AP Calculus, and AP Biology.
With that kind of academic pedigree, elite Division III schools were bound to take notice. Among other schools, Evarts found himself pursued by long-time rivals Haverford and Swarthmore. Evarts’s appearances in a series of regional events proved key to that attention. Coaches from the two Philadelphia-area schools saw Evarts perform at a lacrosse showcase in Delaware. (The Delaware event was one of five showcases around the Northeast at which Evarts had the opportunity to perform in front of college coaches.) Phone calls soon followed. Evarts will attend Swarthmore in the fall. At Swarthmore, he will likely major in engineering or economics. He will bring a strong interest and base in math to both areas.
An injury toward the end of last spring’s lax season at Salisbury sidelined Evarts for most of the summer. The silver lining was that he finally had a chance to spend time in Austin during the summer months. In addition, for the first time, he held down summer jobs. He worked with five-, six-, and seven-year-olds as a counselor in a day camp. “We gardened, we played different sports, we made music,” Evarts reports. He also worked at a lacrosse camp in Austin, “Discover Your Game,” geared to third through tenth graders. “Stressful,” Evarts says of the experience. “It gave me new respect for my coaches and teachers, especially those when I was younger.”
At St. Stephen’s, the school in Austin that he attended before enrolling at Salisbury, Evarts was involved in the community service program. “With the other guys on the basketball team,” he shares, “I worked with kids in the Special Olympics. It was a lot of fun and definitely gave me a different perspective on life and on kids with special needs. It made me appreciate more keenly the physical, emotional, and intellectual gifts that I have.”
In parting, Evarts shares two favorite memories. “My sophomore year at St. Stephen’s,” he warms to the first subject, “I was the sixth man for the basketball team that won the league championship. When one of the starting guards was disqualified for two games, I took his spot and then ended up starting in the championship game. That was a very special team, unlike any other I have been part of. One of my teammates,” Evarts adds, “was 6’10”, which is pretty dang tall. [Ed. Note: Yes, Evarts really did say “dang.”] He is now a 6’11” freshman and a starter on the basketball team at the University of Texas, leading the team in rebounds, second in scoring.”
The second memory: “While I was at St. Stephen’s,” Evarts reveals, “I was a member of the drum-line.” The drum-line? “Yeah. Snare drums, bass drums, and four-tom sets.” Four-tom sets? “Yeah. Small tom-toms,” he explains, “clamped together and strung over your neck. I played in all three sections and developed a lot of technique, switching among the different types of drum. We performed at games or concerts every other week and put on a big show in the spring to finish the school year.”
Mason Evarts: athlete – scholar – drum-liner. Sure didn’t see that one coming. Tom-toms, anyone?
- Procter Smith
“The three most important selling points for a house,” so goes common wisdom in the real estate business, “are location, location, and location.” If only location were as important in hockey goal-tending. The agile Jonah Capriotti, who covers the crease with the tenacity of McGruff the Crime Dog patrolling property lines, might get more of the attention and respect he deserves. After all, last season he led all netminders in the Housatonic League – one of the toughest high school conferences in the country – in the composite of goals-against average (a scant 1.33 goals allowed per game) and save percentage (.937). His 28-save shutout of Taft last Wednesday in Salisbury’s season opener suggests that Capriotti intends to pick up right where he left off last season.
But despite his evident talents, Capriotti, a native of Mount Hope, Ontario, has struggled to grab the attention of Ontario Hockey League scouts. In their eyes, he lacks the three key traits for a hockey goalie: height, height, and height.
While the 5’11” Capriotti clearly stands tall among his peers minding nets around New England, scouts, he says, “are looking for guys 6’2” and up.”
6’4”, 6’5”?? “So much the better.”
6’8”??? “Better still,” Capriotti remarks, a trace sardonically.
What is a goalie on the edge of scouts’ vertical range of vision to do?
As a sixteen-year-old, not drafted until the 15th round by the OHL’s Kitchner Rangers, Capriotti already had the answer: head to the United States and play prep-school hockey. The only remaining question was where.
"The level of hockey," Capriotti says of the American prep school game, “is as good as under-20 leagues anywhere, and they’re not obsessed with a goalie’s height. The three qualities that interest prep coaches,” Capriotti continues, “and college coaches as well, are skills, character, and academics.”
Regarding the academic component, Capriotti has demonstrated his considerable abilities during his two years on the Hilltop by achieving the Honors List in all three trimesters of his fifth-form year and by starting his sixth-form year by achieving High Honors for the fall trimester. No surprise, then, to learn that schools such as Yale (the 2013 NCAA National Champions), Cornell, Brown, and Holy Cross have all shown interest.
“All four schools,” Capriotti points out, “need freshman goalies for their entering classes in either 2018 or 2019, which fits perfectly with my plans to play junior hockey in the British Columbia Hockey League for one or two years before I start college.” The BCHL is Canada’s pre-eminent junior league, on a par with the USHL, where many of Salisbury’s top players have competed before going on to college and collegiate hockey careers.
Ironically, the amiable and down-to-earth Capriotti never set out to become a goalie. At age two, he learned to skate. By age four, he had started playing competitive hockey as a defenseman. When he registered as a seven-year-old, however, having capably and happily manned the blue line for three seasons, the coaches told him the team needed a goalie, and he was that guy.
Capriotti scarcely knew a catching glove from a blocker, but he was willing to take a shot. Mrs. Capriotti, though, had other thoughts.
“My mom objected strenuously,” Capriotti recalls, smiling about the unexpected turn of events that landed him between the pipes. “It took her half the season to buy in. She saw that I was having fun and developing skills. She also liked hearing other people at the rink talking about ‘the new kid in the goal’ and how well he was doing. My dad was nervous at first but got over it right away.”
A sidebar here: Capriotti has quite an athletic pedigree. His father quarterbacked his college team (Canadian-rules football), while his mother was a talented soccer player in high school. In addition, both parents play, currently, in a baseball league comprised of thirteen car dealerships. Mr. Capriotti plays on the left side of the infield; Mrs. is the team’s catcher. That’s right – catcher. Hardball. Think about it. If there is any position in sports more merciless than that of a hockey goalie, it’s the catcher in baseball. And by the way, Mom also played in a touch football league until Capriotti and his younger brother – the kicker-punter for his high school football team – came into the picture.
Not only that, but Capriotti’s grandfather played ten seasons for the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League. “And my great-grandfather,” Capriotti effuses, “who lived to the age of 99 and was one of the biggest influences in my life growing up, played twelve seasons as a right wing for the New York Rovers, the Rangers’ minor-league affiliate.”
For good measure, Capriotti’s aunt and uncle both hold double black-belts. His aunt was on the national judo team and represented Canada in two Summer Olympics. His uncle was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings but dropped hockey to pursue judo after meeting his future wife.
“I have a good line of genetics,” Capriotti deadpans.
His first season in goal (age eight, 2006-07 season), Cpriotti made 32 starts in his team’s 65-game season, improving game by game. His team, the Hamilton Bulldogs, made the playoffs but were eliminated in the opening round.
When a new Bulldogs coach arrived the following season with his girlfriend’s goalie-son in tow, Capriotti found himself the odd man out. In order to continue his goal-tending career, the now nine-year-old would have to find a new team in a far-less-convenient location: The Toronto Jr. Canadians were almost an hour’s drive away. As the Jr. Canadians were in a different league, Capriotti only saw his old team at tournaments. “We always crushed them,” he assures a listener.
During Capriotti’s two-year stint with the team, the Jr. Canadians advanced twice to the Greater Toronto H.L.’s championship game, falling both years to the Toronto Marlboros. In 2010, the Hamilton coach left, the goalie-son vacated his position soon after, and Capriotti rejoined the Bulldogs. For the next three seasons, the team would win the league championship, culminating in 2012 with winning the Ontario Hockey League Cup, the pinnacle of achievement for a U-15 team.
Along the way, Capriotti was attending hockey camps and goalie clinics, where he encountered Thomas Walsh, Salisbury Class of 2012. “Tom was a defenseman,” recounts Capriotti, “but he worked with goalies, and I got to know him, on and off the ice.”
A former varsity player, Walsh shared his experiences on the Hilltop and in Rudd Rink with Capriotti, giving Salisbury an inside track when Capriotti began to explore prep school options. Discovering that NHL goalie Jonathan Quick had prepped at Avon brought one of the Knights’ biggest rivals into the picture. Capriotti would also be courted by Milton, Exeter, Hotchkiss, and Trinity-Pawling. Walsh’s endorsement, the strength of the Salisbury hockey and academic programs, and the opportunity to play under National Coach of the Year Andrew Will ultimately tilted the ice in Salisbury’s favor.
For the past four years, Capriotti himself has helped run hockey camps and worked in summer camps with young children. The experience has been so rewarding that he has set his sights on pursuing a medical degree to become a pediatrician. “I love working with children,” he reflects, “and have always been good around children.”
Back in Ontario, since eighth grade, Capriotti has also volunteered in the Good Shepard soup kitchen program. He has continued to help out in the soup kitchen initiative here at Salisbury. These experiences have further sharpened his thoughts about the future. “Helping people in need, especially children,” he shares, “is important. As a doctor, I will have a great opportunity to give back to communities.”
Capriotti has taken to heart one of Coach Will’s mantras in particular: “taking the ‘rest’ out of your game.” As Capriotti explains it, this means “being focused 100% of the time and doing everything to the best of your ability at every point you’re on the ice.” Jonah Capriotti is a young man who sees clearly the broader implications of this concept and is applying it effectively in fulfilling his day-to-day responsibilities off the ice as well.
- Procter Smith
Turns out our German back-liner is actually a Cleveland boy. That’s right – Nik Ast is from Cleveland. Who knew?
“My dad’s work had him posted in Cleveland when I was born,” the articulate Ast explains “We moved back to Germany when I was one. So, yes, I have dual citizenship.”
Ast manned the backline for the Varsity Soccer team in all three of his years on the Hilltop and this year was one of the team’s co-captains. This past season was one of the more successful in recent times. With seven wins, Ast and his mates surpassed last season’s threshold of four midway through the season and even found themselves briefly on the playoff bubble. Alas, late-season defeats at the hands of powerhouses Worcester Academy and Berkshire School scuttled the Knights’ hopes of crashing the post-season party.
Ast’s take on prep school soccer may surprise some readers. “The soccer is way stronger here than my league in Germany,” asserts Ast. “It was quite an adjustment for me when I came to Salisbury and faced players who were bigger, stronger and faster than I had ever played against. Many of the schools we play have invested significantly in recruiting soccer players from all over the world, and that has raised the level of play noticeably.”
As a German, Ast is well-aware of his country’s legacy of four World Cups, including the 2014 Cup the team brought home from Brazil – arguably their biggest rival on the global plain. He began to play organized soccer as a four-year-old. While all comers were welcomed into the fray, numbers were winnowed down to a dedicated group who were thrown right into tournament play, short field, six-a-side. Perhaps surprisingly, the German system holds youth players back from full-side play until they turn thirteen.
“So many small steps,” Ast recalls of the long, eight-year apprenticeship on the short fields. “The idea is not to put small guys on a big field but to teach ball movement on a field that fits them.” Hey, whatever works. It’s hard to argue with success.
At thirteen, then, S.C. (Sport Club) Baldham Vaterstetten brought Ast up to its year-round program. The grooming of the specialized youth athlete quickly comes to resemble the year-round calendar familiar to promising athletes and their families the world-round. The year starts in late August, early September, with the season culminating in December after all eight-to-ten teams in the league have played each other. In December, teams move inside, league play is suspended, and an occasional tournament must satisfy the appetite for competition. In March, teams head back outside. When the competitive season begins, every team once again plays every other team once.
There is one difference, though, from the more customary season-ending ritual: no playoffs. “Instead,” Ast clarifies “there is a hierarchy of leagues. The award for the team with the best record in each league is to move up a level, while the weakest team in the league drops down a level.”
Ast offers a further glimpse into the workings of Germany’s national soccer program. “Professional clubs sponsor their own youth programs from U-9 [under nine years old] up,” states Ast “By age 15, the professional club starts paying the youth players. Bayern Munich runs the top program, underwritten by Audi. When players turn eighteen,” Ast enthuses, “Audi offers them an amazing discount on their cars.”
A three-season athlete, Ast has complemented his contributions to the soccer program with positions on the Varsity Basketball team and the Junior Varsity Lacrosse team. Given the high level of commitment to sports, it is that much more impressive to learn that Ast has also achieved High Honors in all seven of his trimesters since arriving on the Hilltop in September of 2014. And, just to alleviate any doubts, Ast’s academic accomplishments have been forged in a capacious crucible of Advanced Placement programs: AP Chemistry, AP Calculus AB, AP English Language and Composition, AP German, AP French, AP Microeconomics, and AP Statistics.
“I’ve always been able to balance the demands of academics and athletics,” Ast offers with modesty. “Getting outdoors after six or seven hours of classes is important to me. It gets my mind off school and actually makes it easier to get back to work in evening study hall.”
The regulations governing admission to German universities, which path Ast will pursue, have provided further incentive for the high-achieving Ast. “The German system requires students studying abroad to complete five AP courses,” he explains, “in order to maintain qualification for entrance to German colleges.”
While the demands of a rigorous academic program and three competitive teams might seem sufficient, the well-rounded Ast has sought out other ways to contribute to the Salisbury community and to develop his personal skills. For the Green Key Society, Ast started out as the organization’s specialist in German families, eventually expanding to all families. He is also a Peer Leader and a Blood Hound for the Red Cross drives, even though his coming from Germany disqualifies him from donating blood himself. He has also found time to participate in the annual Service of Lessons and Carols and to compete in the Kawabata International Ping Pong Association.
On completing Salisbury, German education officials will award Ast his – are you paying attention, Mr. Curtis? – abiture. This all-important document represents an aggregation of junior and senior year grades and scores on state exams that Ast will take at the end of his sixth form year. Ast’s result will determine his readiness and eligibility in the hierarchy of German colleges. An anomaly among his classmates here at Salisbury, Ast will not deal with the college application season until next April, with final deadlines in July. He plans to study business and economics, ideally at the Otto Beisheim School of Management at EBS University. His course in neuro-science here at Salisbury with Mrs. Phinney has also sparked an interest in psychology, which Ast looks forward to pursuing further in college.
And soccer will continue to be part of the picture. “Colleges, of course, do not field teams in Germany,” Ast reminds his listener, “but I plan on playing for a club team. Every college has a club team nearby.”
Why stop there? Ast fully intends to continue playing beyond his college years. “As long as it’s fun,” he proposes. “Every town has a team for older players and different levels. That’s Germany.”
Hint: He also accounts for over 60% of the 2016 Salisbury football team’s offense.
If you answered “Anthony Sims,” comp yourself a pair of tickets to the Knights’ closing game of the season next Saturday night against arch-rival Avon Old Farms. It will be your last opportunity to see the fleet-footed running back, who is coming off a 199-yard, 3-TD performance last Saturday night at Williston-Northampton.
Sims came to the Hilltop this September from Davie, Florida, after compiling more rushing yards than any other running back in Broward County during the 2015 season. This fall, with 1,490 yards through seven games – an average of 213-yards-per-game – Sims ranks among the top running backs in the Erickson League. Clearly, his transition from the palm-lined gridirons of Florida’s east coast to the autumnal colors garlanding Wachtmeister Field could not have gone much more smoothly.
The adjustment to Salisbury’s college-preparatory curriculum has been more challenging. On the other hand, Sims’s decision to take another year of high school before college was motivated by just that consideration – to strengthen his academic credentials for college. “I didn’t have the grades to make the NCAA clearing-house for Division I colleges,” the straight-speaking Sims readily acknowledges. “I had a poor freshman year at Nova High School,” he goes on, “and that created a hole that I spent the next three years trying to climb out of.”
Leaving the Atlantic breakers for the rolling hills of New England has been a literal and figurative sea-change for Sims. “For one thing, we didn’t do anywhere near as much on-line work at Nova as here,” Sims explains. “It was mostly pencil-and-paper. And homework was easy enough that I could remember assignments without writing them down. You can’t get away with that here, and now I write everything down. Another big change is the attention I get from teachers here. With close to 30 students in most of my classes back home, teachers just didn’t have the time, but my classes here at Salisbury are 10 to 15 students.”
His new English class posed a particular challenge for Sims. “I struggled at first,” Sims recounts. “Writing 500-to-1000-word essays has been a new experience for me.” Gradually, Sims has raised his performance in the course from D’s into the B range. The gracious Sims is quick to credit his teacher. “Mr. Rees really takes a hands-on approach to help us improve our writing,” Sims states appreciatively. “At Nova, English class was more focused on the FCAT [the state-wide Comprehensive Assessment Test, administered annually] and the EOC [for “End-of-Course” tests, another series of state-administered exams].” Sims is not a fan of these standardized state tests. “They’re a distraction,” he asserts. “Teachers shouldn’t have to teach to tests, and students should be learning for life, not for a test.”
Football has been a constant in Sims’s life since he was eight years old. “Actually,” he notes, “baseball was my first sport, and for a while I played both. My parents still say I was better at baseball than football. One day,” he continues, “I saw a ‘Sunrise Gators Football Team’ sign, and I told my parents I wanted to try out. I’d never played the sport, and I got pretty roughed up at first. Linebacker was my original position. Eventually, I became captain of the second defensive unit.” Hardly a harbinger of things to come.
Flash-forward to age twelve, and Sims is still a mainstay on the Gators’ defense, now as a defensive tackle. “Yeah, I know,” Sims chuckles. “That’s a little hard to believe now, but the fact is I didn’t take a down at running back until I was fourteen.”
What finally opened the door?
“My coaches noticed that I always worked hard in practice,” explains Sims, who had returned to linebacker by now, still in the Gators program, “and that I always wanted to finish first in the drills.” So someone finally flipped the ball to Sims and told him to report to the backfield. Just like that, a comet was born.
“We made the playoffs that year,” Sims fondly recalls, “and faced the number-one team in the Optimist Division, the Pembroke Pines Bengals.” Sims and Company had faced the Bengals in the regular season, falling short in a hard-fought 6-0 defeat. “It was a different story in the playoffs,” Sims laments. “They beat us 32 to 6.”
From there, Sims moved on to the j.v. at Nova, where, as a sophomore, he enjoyed what he still describes as “probably the best experience with football I ever had. It was the first season I ever played for an undefeated team,” Sims continues. “We won all seven games, and my coach taught me more about running back than any other coach. Vision-wise,” Sims expands, “he taught me how to read defenses, protect the ball, build up speed through the practice drills he used, and learn where to be each moment coming out of the backfield.”
Perhaps Sims’s biggest thrill of that memorable season, however, came after the j.v. season had ended. With two games remaining on their schedule, the Nova varsity beckoned. With the starting running back out with an injury, Sims found himself promoted to the starting line-up. “I got chills when the varsity coach Bill Hobbs caught up with me as I was leaving the field after my last j.v. game,” Sims shares, “and told me I’d be starting the next varsity game.”
The adjustment was the easier for Sims’s having practiced with the varsity in the spring and during summer work-outs. “There was still a little tension, though,” Sims grants, “when I replaced the starter.”
In his first varsity appearance, the newcomer racked up 120 yards and a touchdown. That touchdown would go viral in the local area, and for good reason. Let Sims explain: “The ball was on their 40, and I got the call to carry outside. A defender grabbed me near the line of scrimmage, but I spun him off, right into the path of the other defenders. They tripped over him in a heap near the sideline as I headed for the end zone with one man to beat. I faked left and headed for the right corner pylon. At the five, I leapt for the pylon as the safety caught up and hit me from behind. The ball touched the pylon, and I hit the ground. Overhead, I saw the ref raise his hands to signal the TD. It was the winning score.”
The next game proved rather more humbling for Sims. “I fumbled twice in the rain,” he dutifully relates. “It brought me back to reality and made me realize I had work to do to improve.”
Two seasons and two coaching changes later, Nova won its district for the first time in 40 years, as Sims rushed for 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns in his senior year. In the first round of the playoffs, Nova trailed 21-0 at the half but came back after the intermission behind Sims’s four scores and 225 yards – only to lose by a point when Sims was brought down inside the one-yard-line on the game’s final play. “Four inches short,” Sims states, shaking his head. “My last game, my last carry. I gave it all I had and came up short. Four inches. I lay there on the ground and wept.”
For the reflective Sims, though, there was a lesson learned. “Winning doesn’t build character,” Sims emphasizes, “losing does. Effort,” he stresses, “is the important thing. If you get beaten after doing your best, you can walk off the field, proud of your accomplishment.”
It would be several months before Salisbury would enter the picture. “The offensive coordinator called me in one day,” Sims remembers, “and brought up the idea of spending a p.g. year in New England. It had never entered my mind. New England? Prep school? This was a new concept. Salisbury was the only school he mentioned.”
So Sims did the obvious thing: he took to Google for a satellite tour of the Salisbury campus. He liked what he saw and phoned varsity coach Chris Phelps for the first of several long conversations about football, academics, and colleges. Arriving for pre-season in September, Sims set foot on the Hilltop for the first time.
There is another significant piece to Sims’s years at Nova: Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. With his sister serving in the U.S. Navy – she is stationed in the Great Lakes – as well as an uncle who also served in the Navy prior to becoming a police officer, Sims responded readily to his parents’ encouragement that he enter the ROTC program, which had been an important springboard for his sister.
For all four of his years at Nova, Sims dedicated himself to the program, rising to the rank of Senior Chief Petty Officer and Physical Training Commanding Officer for the battalion of close to 200 members. In the latter position, Sims ran an athletic program that ranked in the top fifteen nationally.
While Sims would like nothing better than to play football for Navy, he is realistic enough to know that his recent academic growth will not be enough to offset his earlier record. He has had serious talks with his uncle about police work. He likely will study criminal justice in college. Whether or not he parlays his experience in the Naval ROTC into an enlistment or not, he feels his eventual calling is as a policeman. “I love helping people, protecting people, keeping children safe,” he explains.
A chance experience with a tragic outcome profoundly affected Sims and strengthened his resolve to enter law enforcement. “I saw a boy hit by a car,” Sims shares softly, “saw him thrown in the air, land on the hood, and roll off onto the street. I raced over to him as the car sped off. While I was calling the police, the boy died. I was able to i.d. the car for the police,” Sims adds, shaking his head, “but the driver was never caught.”
With his ability to draw inspiration from life’s dark moments, his drive for self-betterment, his strong belief in teamwork and discipline from the years of football and ROTC, Sims seems to have the right temperament for a line of work that has been under considerable fire in recent years.
The many fans and admirers you have made during your first three months here at Salisbury, Anthony, will all be pulling for you.- Procter Smith
If there is one thing most of Salisbury’s top athletes have in common, it is an early exposure to their showcase sport and a year-round regimen in that sport from an early age. Long-time readers of these profiles will recognize that trend, while perhaps recalling the occasional anomaly, such as a top rower who had not raised an oar prior to his arrival on the Hilltop. Most often, though, athletic prowess nowadays is very much a function of access to year-round programs.
Varsity soccer player Adam Brown-Bryant ’17 is no exception. The defensive standout began playing soccer as a five-year-old in his hometown of Oakland, California. Brown-Bryant’s first coach was his mom – not that Ms. Meredith Brown had an extensive soccer resume but, rather, as in so many Saturday-morning beginners’ programs across the land, that the very existence of these programs depends on the readiness of moms and dads to supervise the mayhem. No prior experience required, just an ability to sort out 21 first-graders all running after the kid with the ball. And so Ms. Brown did for the first three years of Brown-Bryant’s introduction to the sport. Who knows how many youngsters have been propelled to soccer eminence by these unheralded, roots-level stewards of the game?
At age eight, Brown-Bryant joined the Montclair Clippers Soccer Club, his first competitive team. Already, round-the-calendar soccer was the standard. “We played our fall season, around fifteen games, from August to late October,” Brown-Bryant recalls. “Then, for three months, we continued to practice and play in one or two tournaments. In February, the spring season would start, running to late April. Following that, we would practice into the summer, once again traveling to a couple of tournaments around the state but not playing a regular slate of games.”
And so went Brown-Bryant’s soccer life through his five years with the Clippers.
California youth soccer uses four classifications to organize programs: from weakest to strongest, teams are classified “bronze,” “silver,” “gold,” and “platinum.” Montclair’s classification was silver, so when, at age 13, Brown-Bryant was selected for Castro Valley United, a platinum program, it represented a considerable step up. “The departure from Montclair felt bittersweet,” Brown-Bryant acknowledges, “but the coaches knew it was a step in the right direction for me.”
For Montclair, Brown-Bryant had played everywhere on the field, even back-up goalie. At Castro, however, he soon settled at right back. “I had an affinity for defending,” Brown-Bryant states, “and Coach [David] Barrett directed me there.” Brown-Bryant’s previous coach, at Montclair, had a Class C license, limited to coaching below the high school level; Barrett, who had been a reserve for the English-League Chelsea Football Club, held a Class A license, signifying that he could coach all levels, including college. This credential was not lost on Brown-Bryant.
“The advanced coaching, the more sophisticated drills, the more demanding conditioning program,” Brown-Bryant points out, “all took my game to a much higher level.” The heavy emphasis on teamwork, learning to provide succinct, in-game information to teammates on a moment-by-moment basis, played a particularly important part in Brown-Bryant's development.
The one similarity between Montclair and Castro was the calendar. "The only difference over the course of the year," Brown-Bryant explains, "is that instead of playing a second league tournament at the end of the spring season, the top two teams in Castro's league entered the state tournament, with a field of 32 teams from all over California."
In his three years with Castro, Brown-Bryant and his teammates advanced only once to the state tournament – his U15 team in his final season before leaving California to go away to school. That team, with Brown-Bryant contributing 70 to 90 minutes per game, advanced to the quarterfinals before being eliminated on penalty kicks.
In the fall of 2013, Brown headed east to attend Saint Thomas More in Oakdale, Connecticut, where he spent his 10th and 11th grade years before arriving at Salisbury in September, 2015. At More, Brown had a chance to mature and to strengthen his study skills. He would eventually distinguish himself as an outstanding student, while captaining both the varsity soccer and varsity lacrosse teams.
"I appreciate what Saint Thomas More did for me," Brown-Bryant says now of the experience, "but it was more of a rest-stop than a destination. I realized after my first year there that I would have to change schools to achieve my long-term goals. When I first visited Salisbury, I loved what I saw: students who were intellectually stimulating without being haughty."
At Salisbury, Brown-Bryant has added to the AP courses he completed at More, taking AP Biology last year and both AP Chemistry and AP English Language this year. Despite the higher level of competition, the transition to the Knights' soccer program has been equally smooth: Brown started for the varsity team last year, and his staunch work on the back line this year has been a key factor in Salisbury's resurgence. He shows particular proficiency at taking opponents' crosses out of the air and clearing them with headers.
In college, Brown-Bryant expects to study "biology in society," a broad major that encompasses a variety of fields, such as pharmacology and nutrition. "It's important to me to pursue work that involves helping people," Brown-Bryant explains.
One way he has already put this attitude into action is through the establishment of a food bank at Laney Community College in Oakland. With the help of the Alameda Food Bank, where Brown-Bryant and his sister had worked for the soup kitchen, the two of them started and ran a distribution center for the area's indigent population.
Perhaps the experience that has had the most profound effect, though, on Brown-Bryant is the Physician Science Training Program, a highly regarded summer internship open to Native American, African American, Pacific Island, and Latino students, from grade seven and up. Only 5% of applicants gain admission to the program.
Brown-Bryant has spent two summers as an intern.During the first, in 2014, he spent over a month at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he worked with graduate students and actual doctors as a lab assistant. After learning the use of lab equipment and developing an understanding of technical jargon and terms, Brown-Bryant immersed himself in a project involving the study of vitamin D deficiency and rickets in third-world countries. During his time at Penn, he also worked regularly at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The experiences in the lab and in the hospital wards had a profound effect on Brown-Bryant. "It was the first spark I have had toward helping society through helping suffering children," he reflects.
In the summer of 2015, the program continued at the University of Washington in Seattle. "I worked on ulcerative colitis," Brown-Bryant recounts, "an inflammation of the colon. The cause is as yet unknown, but several links to the disease have been discovered, including diet."
The experience reinforced Brown-Bryant's determination to pursue nutrition and society in his college studies. His work in the University of Washington labs put him on the cutting edge of current research. "My work involved taking tissue samples from colons that tested positive for ulcerative colitis," he says, "and running sophisticated lab equipment to uncover mutations in genes to identify the source of the inflammation."
The contributions of Brown-Bryant and his fellow students did not go unappreciated: each received $3,000 for their seven weeks of work, along with a daily food stipend.
Although Brown-Bryant did not continue with the Physician Science Training Program again last summer, he pursued his interest in the field by taking a course at Laney in chemistry and cell structure. He was excited to have the opportunity to work with a professor who had had a career with the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company, one of the oldest and most prominent healthcare companies in the world the professor provided him with invaluable contacts there.
The serious-minded, articulate Brown-Bryant hopes to continue his education next fall at Cornell or back at Penn. He also expects to suit up for his college soccer team. With the talents and clear-sighted sense of purpose he has already amply demonstrated, he should prove a most attractive candidate.
- Procter Smith
It’s not supposed to happen this way. It’s just not. “World Class”? First try? No way.
During his two years here on the Hilltop, Nick Seeber ’17 has made a name for himself as a formidable student. Currently carrying a seven-course load that includes two AP and two honors courses, the Wayland, Massachusetts, native has High Honors standing for the middle of the current trimester and earned High Honors in each trimester of his fifth-form year. Seeber has also gained a reputation as an intensely competitive athlete. The past two autumns, he has held down the top position on the cross-country team (though third-form phenom Jack Gottsegen may have something to say about that before this season’s end). His dedication to rowing made him a key member of the second varsity boat last spring.
This fall, Seeber also rows for Salisbury, competing in a series of “head races.” For the benefit of the uninitiated, a popular, on-line, reference site offers the following entry for “head racing,” a long-time fixture on New England’s fall landscape: “A head race is a time-trial competition in the sport of rowing…. In this form of racing, rowers race against the clock where the crew or rower completing the course in the shortest time in their age, ability, and boat-class category is deemed the winner.” Salisbury rowers competed the past two weekends in the Head of the Riverfront in Hartford and the Head of the Housatonic in Derby (CT). In two weeks, Salisbury will return to the biggest stage in the rowing world: Boston’s Head of the Charles.
It’s been a good fall thus far for Seeber. He has posted two 2nd-place finishes on the cross-country-trail, where he has seen his time improve by 15 seconds over his personal-best last year. On the water, last week at the Riverfront he rowed in the 1st varsity double and the 1st varsity four that placed 4th out of 28 boats in the fours competition. Salisbury’s entry was coxed by Chase Merrill, with Kevin Warming at stroke, Justin Desautels in the three-seat, Seeber at two, and Jacques von Steuben in the bow.
The versatile Seeber, a Pop Warner veteran, actually opened his high school athletic career as a member of the 2012 freshman football team at Wayland High School (where he spent three years before entering Salisbury in the fall of ’15). That winter, 2013, Seeber, who swam in a town program for seven years, made the Wayland swim team and competed for two years, specializing in the 500-meter freestyle. Then in the spring, he followed his closet friend into Wayland’s joint rowing program with Weston High. He made a first novice boat that dominated the ensuing season and thought they had won a state title – only to learn, as they celebrated with plates-full of spaghetti and lasagna in the team tent, that a late protest had been upheld: the boats were headed back on the water for a do-over. Suffice it to say, Seeber and his pasta-engorged seatmates did not match their winning time in the second outing. They did not even medal.
Despite the bitter-tasting finale, rowing had hooked Seeber. The next fall, the now-sophomore dropped football in favor of his new-found passion. This time, he was selected for the 2nd varsity boat, which powered to a 2nd-place finish out of 30 schools in the Massachusetts Public School Rowing Association’s Fall Championships on Lake Quinsigamond. The boat followed up that performance by medaling at the Saratoga Invitational the following spring of 2014.
“In my junior year at Wayland, I started to make definitive strides in my ability,” Seeber recalls. “Once again, I was on the 2nd varsity eight. This time, we took gold at Saratoga. Wayland was not entered in the Northeast Regional [the other big spring event],” Seeber continues, “so a group of us mustered our own crew and fielded a four in the 1st varsity lightweight field. We took gold, thus qualifying for Youth Nationals in Sarasota, Florida.”
Although Seeber’s boat would finish only 6th at the Nationals, they progressed through four heats to reach the finals in the 30-school field. “You think you’ve seen the best there are to see,” Seeber reflects of the experience, “and then you face competition like that. I felt proud to have completed my Wayland-Weston career with that finish.”
A talented musician, both of whose parents play professionally, Seeber moved to the stroke position this fall, with interesting results. “The stroke sets the pace for his boat,” Seeber explains. “He has to feel the rhythm of the seven rowers behind him. There’s a musical connection,” he observes, “a lot like playing in a band.” Seeber should know. He is a multi-instrumentalist – bass, clarinet, trumpet, piano, and guitar are among the instruments he plays – and vocalist, who fronted Salisbury’s rock band last year.
Rowing has taken Seeber as far as New Zealand, where he spent five weeks with the Nelson Rowing Club in the summer of 2015. “We rowed in the ocean in Port Nelson,” Seeber says of the experience. “It was my first experience with ‘sculling’ [the popular European version of crew that requires rowers to handle two oars rather than a single oar]. It was the dead of winter over there,” he exclaims, noting the sub-freezing temperatures when program members took to the water for six a.m. sessions. “We had to dress in thermal clothes to stay warm, shedding layers as the morning went on.”
But the biggest issue in New Zealand was not frost on the oars, it was the language barrier. “I was shocked!” Seeber recalls. “We all spoke English, but getting used to the accent was like learning another language.”
Other summers, Seeber has been a mainstay at Kingswood Camp in the White Mountains of Piermont, New Hampshire. Since his first season in 2012, he has risen through the ranks to become a counselor this year.
But wait. While all of this may distinguish Seeber as a young man of considerable gifts, what’s this about his being a “world-class” performer? Read on: Seeber’s story is about to get interesting.
“When he’s not performing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” Seeber states, “my father is a serious tri-athlete. Prior to last summer, I had never done a triathlon myself,” says Seeber of the competitions that require participants to swim, bike, and run – in that sequence and without breaks – “but I’d trained some with him and decided I’d like to try it myself. So I set my sights on a ‘sprint’ triathlon in Ashland, Massachusetts, in mid-June. ‘Sprint’ means a 0.4-mile swim, 12.5 miles on bike, and a 3.1-mile run. I did well enough in that race,” Seeber concludes, “to qualify for Nationals in the 16-to-19 age group.”
But Seeber also had bigger game in his sights. “I could have continued to go with the Sprint distances I knew,” Seeber picks up again, “but my being the competitive person I am, I decided to move up to the ‘Olympic’ distances [double the Sprint] with a chance to qualify for Worlds.”
Easier said than done for most people, but Seeber doubled down on training, putting in sessions with his father when he could between sessions at Kingswood. When he returned to the camp to resume his counseling duties, he rose early, before the rest of the camp, to pursue his training regimen and used any other time he could find during the day as well. He focused particularly on his weakest area, bicycling, for upwards of two hours a day. On the other end of the day, when the rest of the counseling staff went out to play, Seeber bid them “good-night” and turned in.
“I found an Olympic Triathlon in mid-July,” Seeber resumes his saga, “in Litchfield, Connecticut – the Litchfield Hills Triathlon. There were 200 total participants, and I went in with low expectations, having only one previous event under my belt and at half the distances I was to face in Litchfield.”
Seeber’s training regimen and personal sacrifices paid off. He finished 12th overall and 2nd in his age group. What made him really excited, though, was the realization that there were many, many places during the race where he knew he could shave off time, especially on the transitions.
Next stop: Omaha, Nebraska, and the National Olympics, with a chance to qualify for the Worlds. It’s now mid-August. “Talk about being a small fish in a big pond,” says Seeber, a mere two triathlons under his belt. “There were thousands of competitors, guys in their 30s who had competed at the highest levels for ten or fifteen years, experts in all three events, and thousands of dollars in cutting-edge gear.”
Seventy entrants in Seeber’s division all hit the water at the same time for the first leg of the race. “A total mess,” Seeber mutters in dismay, “a madhouse. People grabbing your feet, swimming over you – just unbelievable. My start was awful. I should have broken out ahead, but instead I got kicked in the face, dislodging my goggles, which filled with water.” Seeber had to stop, tread water, and re-adjust the goggles, all the while losing valuable seconds.
Seeber also readjusted his mental state. He reminded himself that few people ever have the experience in which he was engaged. He reminded himself of the many sacrifices he had made to prepare for this event. “You’ve worked too hard to give up,” he thought to himself. “You owe it to yourself to do the very best you can do.”
A smooth transition from the water to his bike reinforced Seeber’s positive frame of mind. While he noticed many competitors pass him, he could see by their patches that most were older athletes in higher age divisions. “Biking is the place to make up time in a triathlon,” states Seeber with authority. “Half of the triathlon is spent on the bike, so it pays to be good at it.” The one hour and thirteen minutes Seeber spent pedaling compared favorably with the top time of the day, 56 minutes. Heading out on the bicycling route into the Nebraska cornfields was nonetheless arduous. Only on the turnaround, heading back toward the city, did Seeber start to feel more confident, his bike fairly flying down the highway.
“I got off the bike,” Seeber continues, “ready to attack the [6.2-mile] final leg. I know what it’s like to go into ‘the pain cave’ a little bit and felt ready to chase down some people. I set a good pace from the start. The pancake-flat course was perfect.”
Seeber passed runner after runner, from all age divisions. He also noted runners who’d stepped off the course, cramping up in the 100-degree heat, doubled over, vomiting, paying the price for going too hard in earlier events.
“Only one guy passed me the entire 10K,” Seeber states, both proud and amazed. “The course was packed, with many athletes walking or jogging. I passed hundreds of guys, but with the staggered starts at the beginning of the race, it’s impossible to know how you’re doing.”
As Seeber pushed on, he observed more and more people stopping by the roadside to deal with the physical adversity. When he got within a mile of the finish, Seeber started to think about all the time he put in during the summer, the pre-dawn hours on his bike when everyone else in his summer camp was still asleep. “The hurt was coming on strong at that point,” Seeber shares, “but focusing on every last reserve I had, I took it up a gear and mounted a strong, final kick.”
Across the finish line, Seeber’s legs finally gave up on him. “I don’t think I’d ever pushed myself like that,” he says now. “Suddenly, my legs wouldn’t support my body.” It proved a not uncommon sight, as Seeber saw a number of fellow competitors pass out completely.
You know the ending. When the results were announced, Seeber had finished number 18 in his division, the final qualifying spot for the 2017 World Championship in Rotterdam, Netherlands. “It’s a crazy feeling,” he tries to explain, “to achieve something that one month ago seemed so distant and two months ago I had never even done before.”
Participating in the World Championship, however, appears unlikely. Seeber is a candidate for the United States service academies and will in all probability be signing on with the Army, Navy, or Air Force. His classroom and training obligations will prevent his taking time off to travel abroad.
There is a coda to Seeber’s summer of triathlon-ing. Just before returning to Salisbury for his sixth form year, he competed in his fourth event of the summer: the Cyclonaut Sprint Triathlon in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Despite being side-swiped by a car while he was previewing the course, injuring his leg and damaging his bike, Seeber soldiered on. At the end of the afternoon, he found himself on one of the podiums to receive the third-place medal.
What more perfect way to put the final stamp on a summer of extraordinary dedication, determination, and accomplishment.
- Procter Smith
Zach Banks has a beef.
Banks’s concern has nothing to do with Salisbury: the fifth former from Westminster, Massachusetts, could not be happier with his new school. Banks transferred to the Hilltop this year after starting for the past three years at inside linebacker for Cushing Academy. When the Cushing administration announced last winter, however, that the 2015 season would be the final one for its varsity football program, Banks, a Division I prospect, and five of his teammates, also D-I prospects, began the search for a new school. With college scholarships at stake, how could they not?
Four of those teammates now suit up for Lawrence Academy. Another landed at Governor’s Academy. Banks became a Knight.
“I love it here,” the thoughtful, serious-minded Banks shares. “Traditions mean a lot to me, and Salisbury is all about traditions. Even Chapel,” he says, as if surprising himself. “I’m not a particularly religious guy by any means, but gathering the community that way and hearing what’s on different people’s minds during the talks is pretty incredible.”
The all-boys environment suits Banks as well. “Obviously, there is considerable wealth at schools like Salisbury and Cushing,” Banks points out. “The difference from last year is that guys were more apt to flash their wealth around to impress the girls. Here, you could be sitting next to an heir to the Nabisco cookie fortune, and you would never know it.”
In addition, Banks likes the clear focus he has picked up on here. “Salisbury knows what it is about,” Banks observes, “breeding boys for success as leaders in business and in the world.” And that suits Banks, who anticipates taking a business curriculum in college, with a likely foray into political science.
Banks also appreciates the community-mindedness he sees at Salisbury, while crediting his family with inculcating the notion of “giving back” to those less fortunate. For the past four years, the Banks family has organized a fundraiser through Facebook and then made Thanksgiving dinners for shut-ins at the public housing for the elderly in Westminster. “We served thirty-eight families one Thanksgiving,” notes Banks with evident humility.
Banks’s transition has been virtually seamless from the football program at Cushing, where he started at inside linebacker as a ninth grader, to the program here at Salisbury. A repeat-eleventh grader, Banks continues to start at inside linebacker here on the Hilltop as well as leading the blocking out of the backfield from the fullback position and also contributing on special teams. He was the leading tackler on defense in the Knights’ opening win over Taft, and last Saturday at Phillips Andover he helped open holes on offense for Anthony Sims’s epic 307-yard rushing day, while also snaring an interception and finishing second on the stat sheet in tackles. In the short span of two games, the 6’2”, 225-pound Banks has clearly established himself as a force that opponents will have to reckon with on both sides of the ball.
The early results from the classroom suggest a similarly smooth transition for Banks, who is carrying an honors average as the mid-point in the fall trimester looms. That performance matches his cumulative average from the Cushing years and puts him squarely in the sights of a number of strong, Eastern, college programs as well as several Ivy League programs.
Villanova, Rutgers, Pitt, UConn, and UMass are among the schools that have shown an interest. Half of the schools in the Ivy League have also contacted Banks as have the service academies at West Point and Annapolis. Despite the glitz of the big-time programs in that litany of schools, Banks puts educational opportunity ahead of football. “I would choose Yale over Syracuse, no question,” Banks affirms. “The degree and the network that an Ivy League school can offer are more important than the level of football. And pros, which is a long-shot, can come from any school.”
Despite such success and such prospects, though, Zach Banks does have a beef. Two beefs, as a matter of fact.
First, there is the recruiting process. “It’s the worst process a kid my age can go through,” says Banks without reservation. “It’s a terrible, defeating process,” he reiterates. “If you’re not one of those Top-300, Five-Star guys, you can get terribly manipulated. I had a coach [at a large, Division I school in the Midwest] tell me that, with my grades and size, I had a spot on his team and a four-year scholarship if I came out to his college and they could verify my height and weight. So my family and I flew out to the school, at our own expense, where I stepped on their scale and confirmed my size.
“I had a great weekend there,” Banks goes on, “attending classes, observing a varsity practice, spending one night in a dorm. Then at the end of the weekend, I met with the coach, and he told me they did not have a place for me. I was crushed.”
Banks’s second beef involves the bad rap the sport of football has drawn in recent years. The game, especially at the professional level, has had to deal with a boatload of adverse publicity, much of it coming from the medical community. Advances in technology have made it possible to study the long-term effects of head traumas more precisely than ever before. And some of those effects – such as depression and early-onset Alzheimer’s – are particularly devastating.
Banks is well aware of the issues. “People ask me if I’m ‘worried’ when they find out I play football,” Banks says, a trace of exasperation in his voice. “The simple answer is, ‘no, I’m not.’ I’ve been playing the game since I was five years old,” he continues. “I’ve been educated on how to play safe. In my experience, the longer you’ve been playing, the less likely you will suffer an injury. Young kids learn the right way to tackle and block. Players who come to the game later – from what I’ve seen – often miss those important fundamentals and end up being the ones to cause or to suffer serious injuries."
Banks laments the decline in participation that he sees on every level: Cushing dropping its program this year, Northfield Mount Hermon dropping its program three years ago, other schools talking about transitioning to eight-on-a-side football. As a coach the past few years in the Pop Warner ranks back home in Westminster, Banks has seen the trend there as well.
“I love working with the kids,” Banks exudes, “giving them the same experience I had, passing down the game. But it’s a dying sport right now. A lot of parents are not letting their children play because of the publicity about head and neck injuries.”
Indeed, the Pop Warner-sponsored Oakmont Chargers program that Banks joined when he was five – playing full-pad, full-contact, eleven-a-side football and over a ten-game season, no less! – has seen its ranks thin considerably in recent years. Back in Banks’s day, it was not unusual to see Oakmont field two teams at some of its six levels from ages five to fifteen. Two years ago, the program fielded a total of two teams; four levels had no team at all. Last year, the number of teams increased to four, but the reason for the increase, Banks points out, was a cross-over of players from a neighboring town that dropped Pop Warner altogether. Shades of the recent exodus of players from Cushing.
“I don’t like the label that football is getting now,” Banks says straightforwardly, energetically, defiantly. “There is a big difference between NFLers who play ten years and more against some of the strongest men in the world and football at the high school level.”
As exciting as have been his teams’ and his personal accomplishments on the field, Banks finds something more than that in the game of football. “Football creates more of a brotherhood than other sports,” Banks feels. “Baseball [another sport Banks has played at the varsity level] lends itself to friendships but not brotherhood. Something about the sacrifices on the football field is different. Some have compared it to ‘going to war.’ The variety of athletes, the range of sizes, specialized skills, different backgrounds also seem unique to football."
Warming to the subject, Banks continues. “It’s really hard to have ‘natural ability’ in football,” he suggests. “The game requires strength and discipline and mental toughness to a degree that separates it, I think, from other sports. It really is like ‘going to war,’ developing bonds through sacrifices, going into battle against the other team – these elements of football bring us so much closer than athletes in other sports.”
Banks’s final words belie his relative youthfulness: “I hope they can develop better technology to protect the players,” he reflects with the somberness of a player from another era, fearing for the future of his sport. “Football is too good a game to be taken away.”
Imagine leaving home, wondering when you would see your family again, crossing an ocean between two continents that might as well be two planets. It will be three years before you return to your homeland. The possibility of anyone from your family traveling to see you is about as likely as their finding their way to Mars. It’s not going to happen.
Now imagine that, two years in, you receive word that your mother has died. You will not be going home. There are no emergency flights from Mars. The next shuttle back to Earth won’t be for almost six months.
You think of the father you hardly knew. He died twelve years earlier. You were barely a child.
You think of your younger brother, your only sibling, back home in Africa. Helplessness enwraps you, even as your friends and teachers at Salisbury reach out to help cushion you, help shoulder such unthinkable burdens.
And you are grateful.
Seldom has the Salisbury community provided a home for someone as brave and as resilient as Theo Quartey ’17. When Quartey arrived at Salisbury in the fall of 2013, he knew that the dual forces of financial constraint and governmental restrictions would likely keep him on the Hilltop until graduation.
But he felt ready. Even though he had never been to the United States, he was no stranger to international travel. As one of the top young soccer players in Ghana, he had twice traveled to Norway to compete in the Nobel Peace Tournament. His team from the Right to Dream Academy brought home the championship trophy from both tournaments. Quartey started at right back both years.
There was also a trip to England – not to play soccer but to stand before an audience of donors and potential donors and tell them how soccer had provided him with opportunities almost unimaginable for young boys – and, now, young girls – growing up in Accra or other cities and towns across Ghana and neighboring countries. Tell them how the Right to Dream Academy had changed his life, given him an education, burnished his soccer skills, fired his imagination, allowed him to hope, allowed him to dream.
British social entrepreneur Tom Vernon had first conceived of Right to Dream in 1999. He proposed going to Ghana, buying land, and building a residential campus where promising soccer players, as young as nine, would receive a top education in the classroom and elite training on the soccer pitch. Never mind Ghana’s spotty performance in international soccer competition. A 2010 loss to Uruguay in the World Cup quarterfinals is the farthest a team from Ghana has gone. Never mind, in fact, that no African team has ever won the World Cup in its 86-year history or even advanced to the semi-final round. An all-expense-paid soccer academy in an impoverished African country? Dream on.
What’s more, as Vernon conceived it, the Academy would be a launching pad from Ghana to the far-removed world of American prep schools and, beyond that, to colleges and universities in the States. Somebody give this Vernon guy a brain scan. He’s struck a few too many headers.
Well, the Right to Dream Academy is 17 years on now and doing just fine, thank you, Vernon’s vision a reality that has, if anything, surpassed his expectations. In fact, while Quartey has been hitting the books - five High Honors and four Honors Certificates through his first nine trimesters at Salisbury - and continuing to hone his soccer skills - four years a varsity starter, 18 career goals entering his final season - Right to Dream has entered a whole new phase in its remarkable evolution. Three years ago, the Academy partnered with Manchester City in the United Kingdom to undertake a major campus upgrade. What’s more, this upgrade has enabled the Academy to enroll girls for the first time.
Quartey, who entered the Right to Dream Academy in fifth grade and spent four years there, explains how significant the move to coeducation is. “Tradition on the African continent has limited what women are allowed to do,” Quartey reflects in his lilting English accent. “Women are expected to care for children and do the cooking. Right to Dream wants to change that by showing that girls can do many of the same things boys can.”
Not only have the contributions from Man City and corporate donors such as Tullow Oil and Mantrac allowed the Academy to build a campus for girls, opened in 2013, but it has also ensured that the number of boys enrolled would remain constant, and it has enabled the Academy to add two more grades, third and fourth.
Like many boys growing up in Accra, Ghana’s capitol, Quartey started kicking a ball around by the time he was five. Within a year or so, his skills had gained him entrance to the small-sided games of barefoot soccer in the city streets (parks and fields not being an option). At seven, Quartey joined a town team, but he did not don his first pair of soccer cleats until a year later when he moved up to the Shadow United Club, first as a member of its Under-10 team, then advancing to U-12.
Right to Dream entered the picture in 2009, when Quartey was 11. “Two hundred-thirty guys were invited to try out,” Quartey say of the screening process, which also involves interviews and academic testing. “Of those two hundred-thirty, thirty were admitted.”
Quartey’s use of the word “admitted” proves somewhat generous. There would follow two more weeks of intensive auditioning on the soccer field and in the classroom. At fortnight’s end, nineteen boys would be cut. Quartey found himself one of the eleven remaining. After further winnowing, four boys, including Quartey, received invitations to enroll in the Right to Dream Academy. And you thought Harvard had tough admissions standards?
For the next four years, the Academy would be Quartey’s home-away-from-home. In 2013, he became the second alumnus of Right to Dream to attend Salisbury. Quartey has made the most of opportunities at Salisbury not only to shine academically and athletically but also to develop his leadership skills. This year, he serves as a Prefect in Ward. Last year, he worked as a Peer Leader. As a V and VI Former, he has been a member of both the Key Society and the Vestry. This fall, he shares the captaincy of Varsity Soccer with Nik Ast and Zach Chandler. Last weekend, he joined the first group of volunteers from Salisbury to contribute his time and energy to Habitat for Humanity.
In April of his V Form year, Quartey accepted an offer from Villanova University and signed a Letter of Intent, effectively completing his college selection process. Quartey will compete for the Wildcats in the Big East Conference against such schools as Georgetown, Providence, Marquette, and Xavier. He hopes that last week’s upset of sixth-ranked Boston College might be a harbinger of things to come for a program that has struggled to stay above .500 the past few years.
But the important thing for Quartey is to gain a college degree. “I would love to play soccer professionally,” he readily admits, citing a number of Right to Dream grads who currently compete in professional leagues around the world, “but I will have my college degree, too. Right to Dream has given me the opportunity to get a great education,” Quartey affirms, “and to stay out of trouble. Many talented soccer players back in Accra have not had and never will have the opportunities I’ve been given. Most,” he observes, a strong note of empathy in his voice, “look for work as masons and carpenters now and struggle to make a living.” At Villanova, he expects to study electrical engineering, completing the intellectual journey that has carried him far from Ghana.
Right to Dream has, in fact, become Quartey’s new family. When he is back in Ghana, he lives at the Academy with one of the directors and his family. [Ed. note: A close friend of Quartey’s late mother has become guardian to his younger brother Jonathan.] Here in the United States, one local family has played a particularly prominent role in Quartey’s life, welcoming him into their home when Salisbury closes for vacations or when students leave for the summer.
In addition to providing stability and oversight as surrogate parents, this family has included Quartey on their trips to different parts of the country and has made sure that he has had access to the strongest soccer programs available here in Connecticut and beyond. Last summer, for example, Quartey and his teammates on the Farmington Soccer Association won the Connecticut State Tournament for the second straight year. And during March break, Quartey traveled to Virginia as a member of the Dover Dreamers, who defeated clubs from Florida, New Jersey, and New Mexico en route to the Jefferson Cup Championship .
As exciting as has been his success scholastically and athletically, Quartey counts another occasion, outside the classroom and off the soccer pitch, as the peak experience of his high school years. Last June, under the auspices of an organization called Cross-Cultural Solutions, Salisbury faculty members Kirk Hall and Eliott Grover, along with Grover’s wife Meg, led ten Salisbury students to Ghana for a community service project in the Volta region. While Quartey could not be there to welcome the group to his homeland - he was in New York City representing Right to Dream at a major fundraising event - he returned to Ghana the next day: his first trip home in three years. But as exciting as it was to see his many friends from the Hilltop in the country where he grew up, that was only the second best part of being home.
“Seeing my little brother,” Quartey recounts, “for the first time in three years was my biggest thrill. But after that, it was welcoming my Sarum brothers to my home country. They had shared their country and culture with me during my first three years at Salisbury. Now I had the chance to share my culture with them. It was,” Quartey says, beaming, “very cool.”
- Procter Smith