HEBRON — Jeff Turcotte attended and starred in football at one of the most diverse high schools in the state, Lewiston High School.
Turcotte is spending this fall just a few miles west of his home city, at Hebron Academy, as a post grad and tailback/linebacker for the Lumberjacks. Yet he is getting a global education on and off the field he never imagined at Lewiston.
"It's definitely a lot different," he said.
Coach John "Moose" Curtis' football team is a reflection of Hebron's campus, with players from all over the world suiting up for the small private school in the foothills of western Maine. The Lumberjacks' 27-man roster includes five Mainers and nine international players — four from Canada, two from China, and one each from Germany, Spain and South Korea.
All Hebron students are required to participate in extra-curricular activities, and the outgoing Curtis likes to get them hooked on football whenever he can. Hebron admissions sends an email to all new students asking them if they want to play football and gets a surprising number of answers in the affirmative from boys who wouldn't know if a football is puffed or stuffed.
"Some of these boys have never seen football before," Curtis said. "Oskar Lutge (a senior lineman from Germany) had never even done any athletics. He had run some, but the first sport he wanted to try was American football, just because he got an invite from the coach."
Simon Park, a senior left tackle from Chungbuk, South Korea, had heard of football before enrolling at Hebron because Hines Ward, a former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver of Korean heritage, is a hero to many of his countrymen. But he wasn't a fan.
"I didn't understand football, actually, because everything was go-and-stop, go-and-stop," said Park, now in his second year playing for Hebron. "South Korea people love to watch soccer and play soccer, and they never stop."
Park, who played nose tackle last year, said it took him about four months to truly understand football, mostly because of the language barrier. But he fell in love with the sport almost immediately after he started playing it.
"Football is a man sport. It makes you a grown-up man. I feel like a man already," said Park, who played for a South Korean team called the Dominoes Breakers over the summer.
Aitor Errondosoro of San Sebastian, Spain, a sophomore lineman/linebacker, caught football fever as soon as he donned the pads.
"I liked it the first day I came to Hebron," said Errondosoro, who is recovering from a broken wrist. "I learned the rules in a week. The first weeks the coaches helped me."
"It's become one of my favorite sports," added Errondosoro, who counts soccer, basketball and kickboxing among his other favorite sports. "We're always watching it in our (dorm) rooms."
Part of American culture
Football is a way for foreign students to immerse themselves in American culture, Curtis said. Once they start to learn the game and experience the camaraderie with their teammates and coaches, they don't want to give it up.
"I think it's rare that you see an international student that decides to play football that will actually decide not to play it the next year," said assistant coach John Slattery, a 2004 Hebron graduate. "I think it's a pretty strong commitment when they make the initial decision because it's such a foreign sport to them. It says something about a kid's personality that they're willing to step that far out of their comfort zone to even try it that they'll stick around."
It helps that the American players are willing to teach them the game and that they and the coaches who live on campus have ample opportunities to tutor them.
"It doesn't stop on the field," Turcotte said. "It goes to when we're eating dinner with each other. They'll approach me with questions or we'll talk when we're up in the dorm. I'm still learning some of the stuff that they want to teach me also, so it goes both ways."
"It's a great experience," he added. "You get to teach them everything you know, plus you get to learn a little about them also."
"Our American players realize how hard it is to play this sport," Curtis said, "and if anybody wants to play it, they respect them and help them out any way they can."
The foreign players may be eager to learn and their teammates may be eager to help, but there is still a language barrier to overcome. Football nomenclature doesn't make it any easier.
"We take our time. We say a lot of things that we think they know but they don't, even some of our Americans," Curtis said with a laugh.
Even when everyone has the football phraseology down cold, it's not unusual for the players to revert to their native tongue in the heat of battle.
"Sometimes we make mistakes," said junior two-way lineman Mathieu Rioux-Paquette of Montreal. "I have a friend on the line (Vincent Guay-Brooks, a fellow Quebecois) and we'll speak French, but sometimes I'll forget that the man on my left isn't French."
The learning curve
Curtis deals with the learning curve by easing the players into the sport. Many of the internationals start out on the line, as long as they have the right body type, because it is the easiest position to learn.
But they aren't limited to the trenches. Starting quarterback Shaquille Cezont-Holmes, who scored two touchdowns in last week's season-opening 21-19 loss to Holderness, is the starting quarterback.
Even those with less of a learning curve have to make major adjustments to American football.
Rioux-Paquette is in his first year at Hebron but came to Maine with six years of Canadian football experience. It could be the shorter field (Canadian fields are 110 yards as opposed to 100), but he's still trying to catch up with the speed of the American game.
"The guys in Canada are bigger, but in the USA they are faster," he said. "In Canada, I am fast. Here, I'm just normal."
Coaching a United Nations of Football is nothing new for Curtis, whose team travels to Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island this Saturday. He has also coached players from Russia and Australia in his 36-year tenure at Hebron.
Like many prep schools in the Northeast, Hebron is seeing its international student enrollment rise, so the football team is bound to become more diverse.
That's fine with Curtis, who is always happy to spread the gospel of football.
"It's kind of neat when later on in the season some of the kids come up to you and say 'You know, I watched a game on television. I understand it a lot better now,'" Curtis said.