Family or football?
That was the decision staring Shaiheem Charles-Brown in the face.
His mother and stepfather, as well as his younger brother and sister, were leaving Montreal to go to Grenada, his mom’s home country.
Growing up, the family had moved frequently and Charles-Brown was tired of this and wanted to stay in the same school and continue playing football.
“I didn’t want to go away to another country where I didn’t have the same opportunities with sports and life,” he explained.
So while his family moved thousands of kilometres away to a tiny island in the Caribbean, Charles-Brown — just 14 years old — was on a different sort of island: living alone.
For two years, he stayed in Montreal with the family of one of his friend’s.
After that, his family decided to come back to Canada, but to the west coast.
Charles-Brown hopped on a Greyhound bus and made the four-day trek to B.C.
The family lived in Squamish for a few months, and then Langley and Abbotsford.
He played high school football, first with the Langley Saints and then with the Hansen Hurricanes, as well as community football with the Langley Minor Football midget Stampeders.
But prior to his Grade 12 year of high school at Rick Hansen Secondary, the family decided to make another go of it in Grenada.
Again Charles-Brown made the difficult decision to stay behind on his own.
“Doors were starting to open for me, universities were starting to talk to me,” he said.
“I really thought I could go somewhere (and) I wanted to make football my career, my life.”
His girlfriend’s parents took him in for the summer and prior to the start of the school year, Charles-Brown signed a youth agreement, which is a legal agreement between someone who is between the ages of 16 and 18 and the ministry of children and family development.
The agreement lets the individual live independently and gain life skills and experience, while providing them access and support along the way.
With this help, he was able to get his own place to live and a part-time job at Footlocker, all the while playing football and finishing his final year of high school.
Living on his own, while tough, has been a great learning experience.
“This has made me the man I today,” he said.
“It taught me how to take care of myself, provide for myself, taught me lessons like the value of a dollar.
“It teaches you how to appreciate life and everything you have so much more.”
Charles-Brown graduated last year and during the high school football season, earned both conference and provincial accolades.
Langley Rams head coach Jeff Alamolhoda says that Charles-Brown’s resilience and tenacity stuck out from the moment he arrived at Rams camp.
At six-foot-four and 200 pounds, the 18-year-old has fit in nicely as a rookie with the Rams along the junior football (ages 18 to 22) team’s defensive line.
Charles-Brown came about a week and a half after camp started, meaning he was working from behind in trying to earn a spot.
“He was behind the eight-ball already and for him to be able to get to the position he is now, where he is on the traveling roster, he is playing on all special teams pretty much and he is getting his reps in on defence as well, for such a young guy, it is just a credit for how hard he works for everything he wants,” Alamolhoda said.
It was clear Charles-Brown was driven and motivated.
“He has gone through a lot of adversity (and) he was lucky to have the wits about him to engage in football because he had the support from his coaches and teammates along the way,” Alamolhoda said.
“For him to be so resilient and his ability to fight through adversity just shows his true character.
“He was flying around every play, he was super coachable (and) he was a young man who wanted to make this team no matter what and it showed with his play.”
What also stands out about Charles-Brown is his positive attitude and ever-present smile, the coach added.
While Charles-Brown is succeeding on the field and in life — he is currently upgrading some of his courses at the Langley Education Centre and hopes to play university football and then perhaps professionally — it does not mean there have not been struggles.
“I chose football to get ahead in life, but it has been tough,” he said.
“In hard moments, I have second thoughts about why I am doing this, why I am going through all this, all this stress when I could be with my family, relaxing.”
It has meant being away from his family during holidays and spending birthdays and other milestones — like high school graduation — without them.
“It’s not like I can just hop on a bus and go see them,” he said.
He now has three younger siblings in Grenada — an eight-year-old brother, and two sisters, one of whom is four and the other is almost two — with a fourth on the way.
“It is really tough not being around them,” he admitted.
“Being the big brother, you have that protective instinct (and) I can’t protect them.”
He does chat with his family via Skype and he said his siblings are always asking why he can’t be with them.
Charles-Brown also has a 14-year-old sister back in Montreal, from his biological dad’s side. He has only recently re-established contact with his father.
Charles-Brown also conceded it has been especially tough on his mother not to have her first born close by.
“She blames herself for stuff she shouldn’t,” he said. “She really feels bad that she left me here on my own, that she can’t protect me.
“I try to comfort her as much as I can, tell her this was my choice, (that) I am happy they let me experience this on my own.”
His story keeps him hungry.
“It certainly gives me the drive to continue in hard times,” he said.
“Everyone you look at who has been successful in life, if you look at their history and how they got there, it’s never a pretty story, it is never easy.
“If you really want something in life, you have to make sacrifices to get there.”
Jillian Kirby/Langley Rams
Langley Rams’ Shaiheem Charles-Brown (#91) waits for the snap against the Valley Huskers in the regular season finale on Oct. 4. The Rams host the Kamloops Broncos in the BCFC semifinals on Oct. 18 at McLeod Athletic Park.