Stars and Stripes

Stars and stripes The college in my day was crawling with "scouts." They were everywhere and did everything. On weekends they had hikes and camps, at swim meets they knew mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and once a month they donned their all blue uniform with the multicoloured badges. In football season, the QRC Scouts manned the gate for home games. At away games, they controlled the rhythm section, blowing the horns, playing the drums, and beating the du-dup. Above all, whenever the Royalians were down, they rallied the troops with the rousing battle-cry: "Give me a Q! Gimme a R! Gimme a C..!"

That was then. Today, secondary school footballers respond to scouts of a different kind, visitors from foreign universities who offer athletic scholarships to the select few.

Mikhail Andrei Awai's dream is to breathe the rare air of that high octane environment, to become a student-athlete at a foreign university. For some, the mere thought of leaving The College prematurely to go elsewhere is unmitigated heresy. Awai doesn't share that view.

When I first met him, I thought the tattoo on Awai's left forearm read "Q-R-C". I read him all wrong. What Mikhail--or Andrei, as his schoolmates call him--has permanently inked into his arm are the letters D-R-E, in a handsome calligraphy design. This season, Andrei's dark blue ink stains will be complemented by the blue and white stripes of the St Mary's football uniform, although just last year, the central midfielder wore all blue stripes of their arch-rivals, QRC. Football jerseys come and football jerseys go, but tattoos are forever.

"I wanted to leave QRC to come to CIC about two years ago," said Andrei when I caught up with him at a routine physical training session at Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain. The fifth form repeater spoke in clinical terms about the reasons behind his transfer, earlier this year, from QRC to CIC.

"I found CIC was set up better than QRC," he said.

I asked in what way he found CIC superior.

"A lot of CIC players get a lot of scholarships but I cannot recall the last QRC player to get a scholarship," he said.

The zebra may change his stripes but can he hide his true colours? While he had nothing in black and white yet and although he admitted that he'd never seen or spoken to any scouts, Awai was confident that he would soon be "scouted" by one of the schools in the North Atlantic. He'd even heard that six of them had visited Trinidad to "scout" a St Mary's game earlier this season.

Listening to him, I wondered how many of the young footballers and athletes warming up and working out on the Woodbrook Mondo track in the afternoon sun also nurtured dreams of being "scouted" away to the 'States or England.

Awai identified four possible candidates, all former QRC first eleven players who had switched sides within the last two years to join the Saints.

"I'm in Form Five, Kyle is in Lower Sixth and Aldo, Burgen and Jack are in Upper Sixth."

A central midfielder, Awai started classes at CIC in September, at the same time as strikers Kyle Mc Ivor and Aldo Hope and left winger Akil Burgen. On the field, the quartet would rejoin their former midfield counterpart, Jack Weedon, who'd made the move one year earlier.

"Myself, Aldo, Burgen, Kyle...," the teenager's voice trailed off as he racked his memory, trying to recall the names of other "deserters." Eventually, his eyes lit up.

"Okay, before Jack, there was Damon Carrington," he said, explaining that Carrington, a right-winger, had left QRC for CIC in 2002.

A student of Advanced Level Chemistry, Math and Physics, Weedon said that although he eventually chose St Mary's, he had also considered their sister school next door simply because "they have better labs there." For Weedon, at secondary school the academic pursuit was primary, football being "a kind of bonus."

"It's nothing to do with football," he said, justifying his decision to leave QRC. "It's just academics. I just thought CIC would be better in the Sciences."

Awai had spoken along the same lines: "If it was about football, I would have stayed with QRC."

Indeed. This year, CIC have made an early exit off the football stage, after being dealt a 4-1 trouncing by Fatima in the first round of the RBTT North Zone InterCol last Friday. Last year wasn't much better for the Saints, who ended the season near the bottom of the BG T&T Secondary Schools' Football League table while the Royalians, who had ceded first place to St Anthony's in the League, marched on to wrest the coveted InterCol crown from the Tigers' jaws in a hard-fought, come-from-behind, 2-1 season finale.

Burgen, the off-the-bench hero of that memorable encounter, walked away from that contest looking forward to his final season with QRC and intent on pursuing prospects at a couple of US universities. Burgen told me about conversations he had had with former schoolmate Damon Carrington, who now studies at Auburn University in Alabama, and with Saints' Coach Hayden Martin, about CIC's "track record" of helping students access athletic and academic scholarships.

"If I was ever thinking about going to CIC, that made it an easier choice," said the A Level Literature student, carefully choosing his words.

Burgen, who also studies Caribbean and European History, started calling a list of former CIC students and footballers who had successfully applied to various American universities such as Wake Forest, Duke University, George Washington University, Boston College and St John's University. He named about half a dozen before even stopping to think.

"There are others?" I asked.

He nodded. "A lot. I talk to these fellas online all the time."

I looked again at the students stretching on the field, jogging up the Stadium steps and running around the track. The sun had begun to set on the aging day and in the shifting light, the picture began to look somewhat different.

Burgen continued, "You know, academically, even in terms of A Levels, CIC is way above QRC. I mean, I was shocked. I went in class and fellas were real focused. The whole atmosphere is different. I knew I wouldn't push myself if I stayed in QRC. I thought that going to a new place would push me to perform."

I left my fellow Royalian, thinking about how times had changed and how the "extra-curricular activities" of my day, back when I was a QRC Scout in the 1990s, had now become an entry point for the athletically gifted students of the new millennium to break into a globalised playing field. Neither the teachers in the staffrooms nor the officials in the boardrooms seem to have any idea what starry-eyed dreams drive the students in today's classrooms.

This was first published in the Trinidad Express Newspapers in 2004.