How a Chinese boy Who’d Never Heard of Football Fell in Love with the Sport

During Wolcott’s first possession, we completely locked them up. I was so focused that all of a sudden it was like I knew how to play football

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The first step I took onto campus after months of online schooling set my heart racing. We were already a few months into the school year, but I didn’t know a single person. I was studying at Milton Academy, a private boarding school in Boston, eight thousand miles away from my home in Hong Kong, and for the first time ever I was heading into Norris House, a place I would call home for the next four years. Creaking up the wooden staircase, I felt beads of sweat form on my forehead and my pulse pump in my wrists. Older students passed, greeting me with a quick “Hey, how are you!”; I responded with an almost inaudible “excited to be here.” As the number of my dorm room got closer and closer, my legs shook enough that I couldn’t stand properly.

When I opened my door for the first time, I saw my new roommate sitting on his bed, seemingly without a care in the world. He smelled like fresh-cut grass and a terrible cologne. With a wide smile, he jumped up to help me with my luggage. He said his name was Melvin. Tall and quite muscular, he told me he came from India.

After I finished unpacking, he brought me to meet the other freshmen on our floor. I was tall too, for a freshman that is, so seeing other kids tower over me was intimidating. We sat in a loose circle, but still feeling uncertain, I kept my chair a couple of feet back from the others at first. We went around the circle, saying our names and where we were from. There was Sam from Jersey, with long red hair; he became one of my best friends later on. Next, a kid named Jonah introduced himself. He was a D1 prospect in hockey from the West Coast. Melvin introduced me to Charlie, a six-foot beast with short curly hair. Charlie had grown up in Newport, Rhode Island, and his family was very well-off. He wore neatly creased burgundy chinos and boat shoes as if he’d just stepped off the family yacht. A kid from Dubai called Navid introduced himself to me. Navid had well-styled hair and occasionally lived in America. Last came Liam. Liam had long hair and turned out to be an amazing gamer, almost a professional. He was a relatively quiet kid but everyone loved him.

With the introductions finished, the group grew quiet and just sitting there started to feel kind of awkward. Melvin suggested we step out on the quad to do something, and there were nods and grunts of agreement. The quad is a huge patch of grass in the center of Milton. Faculty members take their dogs on walks there and squirrels and birds call it home; the quad is always full of life. As we stepped outside our dorm together, the quad seemed almost like a secret forest, with huge trees and the red-brick dormitories surrounding like symmetrical castles. Although I was new, I could already tell that the quad was someplace special for Milton. I was excited too, at the prospect of playing sports that is, since it would be a great way to bond. However, when I stepped onto the grass prepared to do just about any activity, someone shouted “heads up!” and I saw a football flying my way.

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Football. A sport I knew nothing about. I barely knew my peers yet, so if they found out I couldn’t play and didn’t know anything about the most popular sport in America, I was afraid they would exclude me. I got goosebumps when we were throwing the ball around; thankfully, I didn’t make any embarrassing drops. Later, back in the dorm, a few of the other international kids confessed that they didn’t know anything about the sport either. I was so relieved that I nearly chuckled out loud — I’d been so nervous thinking I was the only one new to the sport. It turned out that our dormmates who grew up around football were just excited to teach us a game they loved. That first game of football was probably one of the most fun activities we have shared as a dorm.

Football was the first thing that brought us together and led to other amazing activities, which in time made us all close friends. When the snow was perfect, we put on our heavy winter coats and went out to sled. Some of my friends had never felt snow before, so sledding down the hill, crashing into deep soft powder, and yelping when it reached your skin was a great experience. Inside the dorm common areas we played board games, especially Risk. Hearing the secretive chatter around the table as your friends plot against you was both funny and nerve wracking; the conversations during the game bonded us even more closely. We also had very competitive ping pong and wii sports tournaments in the dorm. When we beat the seniors and started trash-talking, we loved to see them stomp around the dorms in rage. All these activities were amazing, but still, most of the time you could find us out on the quad throwing a football.

The first few times we played football together, we ran a bit and tossed the ball back and forth — there was no real game involved. As my new friends taught me the sport, they laughed occasionally at my lack of even basic football knowledge – like what a wide receiver was or how many downs there were. But their laughter had no sting in it because we were friends. In Hong Kong, I had been an avid athlete. Growing up it seemed like I’d tried every single sport at least once, which made learning about football relatively easy. Soon it seemed like I had always followed the sport. When I showed off my new knowledge to some friends in another dorm, Wolcott, they bragged about demolishing Norris if we ever played. I knew this was true; all my friends knew this was true, so we didn’t bother trash-talking back. Instead, we decided we would get together on the weekend to make our own teams and just play for fun.

The first time I played an actual game of football, I made some predictable rookie mistakes. As my teammate rushed the football for a big gain, I ran free in the wide green ahead of him and kept yelling for him to pass to me. I had no idea you couldn’t pass the ball forward beyond the line of scrimmage. I was more familiar with the continuous laterals of rugby, and I mistakenly thought passing in football would be just as fluid. Despite the embarrassing mistake, towards the end of the game I scored a touchdown. I tried running a fade at first but the route completely failed, so I changed and started running a post. With a fast shift and a drop of the shoulder, I gained a split second to catch the ball. Luckily the quarterback spotted me at the perfect time. The ball came in fast and the spiral wasn’t perfect, so I let it curl into my chest and cradled it tightly like a newfound treasure. Feeling the football in my arms and chest and seeing that I was in the endzone reminded me of the rush I felt reeling in a massive tuna when I was about eleven. My team rushed towards me and when I spiked the ball we all screamed. To be honest, I don’t remember whether we won the game or not, but I do remember that touchdown.

The next few games were terrible. I had multiple drops, and ran horrible routes. I was always jammed up and sometimes even pushed to the ground. I had no sense of awareness when the quarterback would throw the ball. When I finally got open, which in itself was rare, I couldn’t catch the ball. I began to feel that that first touchdown had just been beginner’s luck. I felt that I was kind of over the sport now and we all played a lot less football for a month.

Football frenzy returned to the school during Super Bowl Sunday. I still didn’t know enough about the sport to entirely understand the game, but I was excited anyway. Since no takeout was allowed this year due to Covid, students rarely got outside food. But the Super Bowl was a special occasion for everyone, and our teachers ordered so much takeout that even the 300-pound D1 football prospects couldn’t finish it all. We would normally have quiet hours for study on Sunday night, but this was canceled for the Super Bowl. We didn’t even have a bedtime! Most of my teachers didn’t assign homework either.

During the game, I kept asking the dumbest questions: How is that not a foul? Why do they have so many downs? How many points is a touchdown? Everyone was annoyed but in a friendly way. The seniors teased me and called me uncultured, but it was all for a good laugh. We’d placed bets before kickoff, and as the game went on, fun arguments broke out. Everyone bonded – a rarity across grade boundaries. During halftime, everyone was jamming to the Weekend’s show and throwing food everywhere – this actually got us into a lot of trouble later since cleaning pizza sauce off of ceiling tiles isn’t easy. Nevertheless, the vibe was electric. I was interested in football again.

Learning to love a new sport was only a small aspect of the Milton Academy experience. Meeting classmates I had only ever seen through a computer screen and hanging out on the quad made me look forward to going to school every day. The biggest benefit of living on campus was the opportunity to hang out with my friends. Racing to ice cream trucks and pouring Mountain Dew on sleeping roommates; receiving painful slaps from one another’s slippers and blasting soccer balls back and forth inside the dorms — these activities helped us bond. Looking back, it amazes me that through just a few months of living together we could become so close.

Spring came to Milton. Daffodils and tulips bloomed on the edges of the quad. Football fever came alive with the freshly green grass. Wolcott issued a challenge: they wanted to face off against my dorm, Norris, in the first football game of the new season. 

I couldn’t blame them, dorm rivalry was a big thing. A few weeks ago we’d barely lost to them in basketball, and we’d completely annihilated them in table tennis. We accepted Wolcott’s challenge, and a date and time were set for the game. Because my teammates and I all knew Wolcott was better than us, we trained hard. Every day after dinner when we had a little time before study hours, we went out to practice. We did one-on-one drills, ran routes, and learned new defensive plays. Our quarterback wrote ten attacking plays we could use during the game, and everyone actually memorized them.

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Picture by: Muyuan Ma / Unsplash

The day of the game arrived. The sidelines were lined with onlookers from Norris and Wolcott wearing house colors. Even students from other dorms showed up to cheer or jeer. Our dorm heads were there too, looking nervous.

We were on offense first, and given my well-known struggles, Wolcott had decided to put their slowest guy on me. When I managed to juke him off the line, our quarterback Charlie just flicked me the ball and I raced all the way down the sideline to the endzone. 7-0 after the first ten seconds. Our fans were laughing and whooping; I felt like a king.

During Wolcott’s first possession, we completely locked them up. I was so focused that all of a sudden it was like I knew how to play football. I was breaking ankles the whole first half, and I didn’t drop a single ball.

Wolcott had the ball on third down, deep in their own territory. Norris had never trailed in the game, and so the score was currently 24-12 in our favor. We were playing first to 30; just one more TD and we’d be victorious. All we had to do was stop them here. Too late, I caught sight of Kevin, my best friend in Wolcott, planting his cleats and bursting into a dig route. We’d left the shallow middle vacant, and the ball hit Kevin in the hands right after his cut. One stutter step as our free safety, Melvin, pelted up to him, but Kevin was gone. 24-24, all knotted up.

After the kick, it was our turn on offense. Everyone could sense that momentum had shifted in Wolcott’s favor. If we didn’t score right now, they would smash the ball down our throats and win the game. A slant and a dropped ball netted us just six yards. On third down, we hadn’t crossed midfield. If we didn’t make the first, we’d have to kick and trust our demoralized defense to get the stop. I’d played in important soccer games before, but this third down still had my heart beating like a bass drum. Charlie, our quarterback, shouted “hike!” and I launched off the line. In my peripheral vision I could see our other receivers getting jammed up and the rush starting to come for Charlie. My corner route wasn’t working, so I transitioned to a fade and tried to let my speed bring me beyond the coverage. The safety was moving towards my direction from the center of the field, and when I cut to the post at the last second, I heard him curse as I passed him going the other direction. Charlie’s eyes seemed as big as lightbulbs, and I felt the exact moment that they locked onto me. The ball was a perfect spiral that fell into my arms like a 3-point shot falling into the basket. I was in the endzone, and I fell onto my back cradling the football.

It was a non-stop celebration in the dorms that night. Even our advisor knew about the win and ordered takeout. That win showed me how special dorm spirit was. My dormmates were much more than that now; they were teammates and good friends as well. Not all of my closest friends are boarding students, but the thing about dorm life is that it’s something that you can never experience elsewhere.

The past few months at Milton Academy might just have been the best few months of my life. Now that summer is over in Hong Kong, I am more than ready to go back to Norris House and start another year of competition and fun. High school and dorm living only lasts four years, but the memories you gain can stay with you forever.

Written by:

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Dylan Yip

Writer at Harbingers' Magazine

Hong Kong / United States

Born 2006 in Hong Kong, Dylan Yip studies in the United States. At Harbingers’ Magazine he writes about sports and business. Dylan speaks fluent English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

Edited by:

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Ilya Kan

Fiction & Poetry Section Editor

Kazakhstan / United States

Co-founder of Harbingers' Magazine

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