The North Atlantic hurricane season doesn’t peak until September, but a Coquitlam teenager is heading into the eye of a storm.
Aaron Tung, and his dad, Wilson, depart July 6 for Florida where the Centennial secondary student will be enrolling in Grade 11 and playing football at Clearwater Academy International, a small, independent prep school with a big reputation for success on the field and sending its athletes to top NCAA programs like Clemson, Pitt, Indiana and the University of Minnesota.
The decision to send Aaron south to pursue his educational and football goals has been fraught, not with concern about the tropical storms that frequently pound the state from June to November, but with the uncertainty of landing in the midst of a pandemic that is catching its second wind as well as the tumult of racial unrest and protests brought on by the killing of several African Americans by white police officers.
“It couldn’t have been worse timing,” admitted Aaron’s mom, Denise.
Until March, the Tung family had never heard of Clearwater Academy. That’s when 17-year-old Aaron got a message from Clearwater’s coach, Jesse Chinchar, who had been impressed by a highlight video he saw online of the six foot four inch, 300-pound offensive tackle in action with the Centennial Centaurs.
At first, Aaron said, he didn’t put much stock in the idea of heading to Florida, but the more he researched the school’s football credentials and his parents looked into its academic offerings, the more seriously they considered Chinchar’s recruiting efforts.
Comprised of only 250 students from kindergarten to Grade 12, Clearwater Academy built its Knights football program from a six-man team in 2008 to an 11-man side in 2016 that went undefeated just two years later and has won several Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools championships. Many of its players are from out of state, including several from Canada. A recent grad was former Terry Fox Ravens quarterback Jevaun Jacobsen, who’s signed a letter of intent to attend Charleston Southern University in the fall.
Academically, Denise Tung — a teacher herself — said she liked the idea of a small school with small classes where Aaron could get more one-on-one attention. While there, he’ll be billeted with a host family.
“You really get the sense they’ll look out for the boys,” she said.
Still, it’s hard to reconcile the impression of an idyllic little school in the middle of Florida when the state continues to amass record numbers of COVID-19 infections and the country reels from racial unrest and political division.
Denise said the family has had ongoing discussions with Chinchar and other school officials about their protocols to protect students, including an immediate 14-day quarantine upon Aaron’s arrival.
“If I felt the school would have put him in danger, it would have been a no-go,” she said. “The option to come home is always there.”
The family, which is mixed-race, has also had several discussions with Aaron about expectations for his conduct in an environment where a seemingly innocent interaction can sometimes turn tragic.
“He recognizes he’s going to a whole different situation,” Denise said. “He has to be more mindful of his surroundings. He can’t be as free as he is here.”
Aaron said he’s up to the challenge. Even the process of getting to this decision has forced him to mature.
“I’m getting more comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable,” he said. “I just have to make sure I stay away from any potential trouble.”
That shouldn’t be too hard during his initial isolation period, when he’ll be involved in virtual meetings with coaches and teammates, and immersing himself in learning the team’s playbook so he can hit the field running when training camp begins on July 20.
And while it’s still uncertain what a competitive season might look like, or whether it will happen at all, Aaron said that’s no different from football’s situation locally, where the BC Secondary School Football Association has yet to announce its intentions for September.
At the very least, Aaron said, he’ll be able to measure himself against bigger players with a deeper football background, something he expects will serve him well towards attaining his goal of landing a football scholarship to a big-time NCAA program in the Pacific Northwest.
“I can do this,” he said.