Marcus Thomas, 17, (left) takes time with 10-year-old Cameron to toss the lacrosse ball around and work on their skills. The elite Nanaimo Timbermen Lacrosse Team has extended an invitation to Thomas to join their club.
He’s faced a lifetime of struggle and has endured more than his share of pain, but 17-year-old Marcus Thomas rose above the dark days by finding his joy through sports.
With the loving support of his foster family, Thomas has excelled in the ancient game of lacrosse. He is the first Alberni player in nine years to be selected to play with the elite Nanaimo Timbermen lacrosse team.
Marcus’ has been playing the sport for only five years.
“This is a huge accomplishment, and the highest level or step one can take athletically before scholarships and sponsorships,” social worker Gillian McRae said.
Marcus’ biological grand-aunt, Linda Thomas, who he refers to as his grandmother, couldn’t be more proud.
“He was chosen to represent the Valley. He was the only one selected, and this could lead to a career in professional lacrosse,” she gushed.
Thomas was orphaned at a young age and went to live with his foster family at the age of 10. Marcus credits his foster parents for his success. He believes were it not for Linda and Bill McLaren, he would not be playing league lacrosse.
“I probably wouldn’t be playing sports at all if I didn’t live here,” he said. “Living on the rez, we can’t really afford stuff like that,” he said.
“This is a young man, who has been raised in the foster care system… (is coping with) family struggles and disability barriers; it is a true testament to his resiliency,” said McRae.
In late 2010, four young players from Port Alberni’s midget lacrosse team, the Tyees, were selected to try out for the Nanaimo Timbermen. In January, three of the four team members went to Nanaimo where Timbermen coaches had them run drills testing their leg strength, cardio and stick skills.
According to Thomas, two of the Midget Tyees were selected to play with the Nanaimo Timbermen, but his teammate had to decline, leaving only Marcus to make the team.
“I was happy,” said Thomas of being selected. He said he went to the tryout not believing he had what it took to make the team.
“I didn’t think I would get picked…I thought they wanted better players,” he said, adding being selected really boosted his confidence.
“This came at an opportune time for Marcus,” said McRae, adding there was a time when she and foster mom Linda were ‘pulling out their hair.’
“I was having troubles in school. I was starting to give up,” said Marcus, adding he was even skipping school.
Being selected for the Timbermen gave him the boost he needed at just the right time to put more effort into his school work.
“He’s the best in Port Alberni. He has a presence and kids respect him,” said McRae. Her son, Cameron, age 10, plays for the Tyees and clearly idolizes Marcus. He sat quietly through the interview with Ha-Shilth-Sa, focusing on every word Marcus said, eagerly offering what he knew about lacrosse when given the chance.
Thomas is generous with his time and skills, often dropping by to give younger teams pep talks. He is skilled at fixing sticks, and many kids go to him for stick repairs, which he has been doing free of charge.
And when the time came for the boys to go off together and talk lacrosse, Marcus’ demeanor changed to that of a nurturing big brother.
Thomas’ foster parents, Bill and Linda, have a huge, kid-friendly home and property. Their entrance way wall is filled with framed portraits of children. Outside, on the front lawn, is a large swimming pool. More kids are riding bicycles near the basketball hoop. The couple also has horses that the kids like to care for.
Bill and Linda have given everything they can to help Thomas succeed, because they can see it is doing him a world of good. Yearly registration with the Nanaimo Timbermen costs $500, money that Nan, who all the kids call Linda, put up out of her own pocket.
In addition to registration fees, players must also take care of travel and equipment costs. Each player needs helmets, shoes and sticks. Marcus’ best stick cost $300 and he needs more than one.
He travels to Nanaimo three times a week to practice and play, sometimes leaving immediately after school and coming home late at night.
McRae said the ministry only reimburses $100 per month in Marcus’ expenses, and Kidsport, an organization that provides financial assistance to kids in sports, gave $200 to go toward Marcus’ equipment.
“We are looking for sponsorship for Marcus, said McRae.
Linda drives Marcus to Nanaimo three times a week, taking at least six hours for each trip.
Playing for the Timbermen, who have their own bus, means Marcus will have the opportunity to travel all over British Columbia to play against other teams.
“I just want to play as long as I can; professionally, if I can,” said Marcus.
Thomas is willing to go to schools to talk to other youth about lacrosse and demonstrate how it’s played. When asked what he loves about the game, he says it is definitely the contact.
Lacrosse, Canada’s national sport, was first played by Native Americans living on the eastern third of North America from the Great Lakes down to Mexico. It is amongst the oldest team sport played in North America.
“It’s like hockey only there’s no ice or skates; the goals are bigger and there is a 30 second shot clock. If you don’t score, the ball goes to the other team,” Thomas explained.
Traditional lacrosse was played usually on the Great Plains between tribes. A game could last for days, stopping only when it got dark. There could be up to 1,000 players per team with goal posts sometimes set miles apart.
Games were sometimes played to settle tribal disputes or to toughen up young warriors. Some coveted their lacrosse sticks so much they were buried with them.
In modern lacrosse there are fewer players and a shorter game time. The game can be played on a field or indoors, which is referred to as box lacrosse. Thomas plays box lacrosse as a defenseman.
While Thomas hopes for the best for his future in lacrosse, he still has the carefree aspirations of a typical Grade 11 student. He wants to stay involved in the sport in any capacity and believes he will end up coaching someday.
In the meantime, he needs to take care of other things, like working toward graduation and getting his learner’s license so he can drive Nan’s van.
As the afternoon winds down, Thomas and his friend Cameron wander over to a small cement pad that has goal nets on each end. A big smile spreads across Marcus’ face as he tells how his foster dad built that pad just for the kids.
The boys effortlessly toss the ball back and forth to each other, sharpening their stick skills.
The Timbermen will be playing the following day, and Thomas looks forward to his summer with them. He hopes his team makes the playoffs so he can have an extended lacrosse season.