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Finding identity in a team game

Football was lifechanging move for troubled youth

The world is not a perfect place, but for two troubled New Westminster youths, joining the New Westminster Hyacks high school football team was a perfect place to start.

"I hated football kids. They were everything I wasn't, and I sucked at school," said 17-year-old Makoto Brennen. "But thanks to football, I stuck around."

Makoto, who will start as middle linebacker and share the captaincy of the varsity Hyacks this season, says finding his way in the game has changed everything.

Michael Desjarlais has an even sadder tale to tell.

Forced to leave home at the age of 15 because of a neglectful mother, the 6-2, 235-pound line captain is also turning his back on a troubled past.

"It makes me feel pretty good," said the soft-spoken Michael. "I guess being in Merritt I never really thought I'd be what I am today. But now that we have these football buddies, I feel good about what I do."

Makoto reaches out and lays a reassuring hand on his friend's arm.

"That's what we try to do. We can't be a team if we don't get along," Makoto said.

And that's where the journey first began for the pair.

"I was not doing too good in Grade 9. I dropped out, not going to classes. I still came to school, but lunch time was the only block I attended," said Makoto.

After some soul searching Makoto followed his friend Derek Stagner into football.

At first, he just used the game as a tool to vent his anger, but he eventually found there was more.

"I turned out to be decent at it. It was the first time I could succeed at something," he said.

"This was the first time I was told I was doing something right. ... It showed me what it's supposed to look like and feel like."

He now calls many of the players his friends and has the confidence to know that he could call any one of them up and he'd have their support.

"We've been through a lot," Makoto added.

Michael cried the day he decided to leave home.

But going without food for days at a time, while his mother stayed away from the house was no longer an option, Michael said.

He moved in with his aunt and uncle in the Royal City, but still hung out with a bad crowd.

One day he was disciplined by the high school principal and suspended.

"Getting caught changed things," Michael said. "I was growing tired (of his my choice). I began going to school. I wasn't doing as much stuff."

But even when he fell into football, things weren't quite right.

Coach Chad Oatway asked him to stick out spring camp and then decide.

The team's annual spring camp to Oregon finally gave him reason to stay. "It felt good," Michael said.

"You know what? I'm happy, I'm truly happy in a really long time," said Makoto.

"It's definitely a way out. If I didn't have football, I'd still be doing the stuff I was doing. I would have dropped out or be in jail.

He looks over at Michael and said he couldn't imagine how hard starting over in a new city would have been for him.

"But I was New West-born and raised. I was a shit disturber, ... But after I did it all, there was nothing left.

"I find (football) so much better than meeting up or toking up. It was like a fresh road."

He paused a moment and then continued.

"It's for my dad. He went to this school and played on the same team, and I rock the same number (60). I just want to make him proud. I did a lot of bad stuff that made him pretty disappointed. But I'm not finished yet. I have the whole season ahead of me."

Since taking up the game, both Makoto and Michael have achieved honour roll standing in academics. For the first time, Makoto is dreaming of what it might be like to be the first in his family to attend a college or university.

Michael is in the first year of an apprenticeship training program in metal fabricating at NWSS. After graduation, he intends to finish up the four-year program at BCIT.

Hyack coach Farhan Lalji admitted the boys' lifestyle changes and commitment to the program and off-season training has been largely their own.

"I think their turnaround has everything to do with themselves and very little to do with us," Lalji said. "I think we've helped give them some structure, direction and a positive peer group, but ultimately we do that with a lot of at-risk kids, and it's up to them to respond."

Makoto and Michael have done that.

"I never, ever thought I'd be captain of the team," Makoto said. "I never thought we'd be starting team players."

Makoto leans over and gives Michael a friendly slap on the shoulder. "I think we've done good. It feels really good to be part of the team."