It wasn't that long ago that Vancouver Whitecaps defender Jake Nerwinski was in a situation similar to many of the kids he spoke with in Whistler on July 25.
The 22-year-old rookie, like many of the 60 young soccer players attending the team's youth camp at Spruce Grove Park this week, grew up in the small town of Lawrenceville, N.J., just northeast of state capital Trenton and sitting roughly between Philadelphia and New York City.
Nerwinski played three years with the NJSA 04 Soccer Academy as he committed to the sport and pursued his dream, eventually being drafted seventh overall by Vancouver during the MLS SuperDraft this past winter.
"Growing up in a small town, there aren't that many soccer teams around the area. I had to work hard and get into the spots where you will get noticed. I was fortunate to get into the University of Connecticut, which is a good soccer school, and I was noticed by the Whitecaps and here I am now," he said. "The academy that I played for was an hour and 15 minutes away, so we had practice at 8 p.m. and I'd be back home around midnight on a school night, so it was tough but it ended up being worth it."
Nerwinski learned to be organized at a young age as he juggled his academic and athletic commitments to eventually land a spot in the NCAA.
"I'd stay at school, go into the cafeteria, get all my work done and get a little snack. I'd come home, rest for a little bit, go to soccer and then get home, go to sleep and do it all again," he said.
After four years of college ball, including two years as captain and making the All-American Athletic Conference Team three times, Nerwinski earned a place in the Whitecaps starting lineup quickly, starting eight games this season and earning Man of the Match honours in a 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy last week.
"The first thing that I had to work on was the speed of play. Coming out of university, the speed of play was a lot different. Guys are more skilful, and faster, so I had to work with that. As the games have been going on, I've been getting more comfortable out there and getting used to it," he said.
Sea to Sky Academy head coach Graham Murphy was thrilled to see Nerwinski spend the morning with the young athletes, giving them some instruction, answering their questions, signing autographs and taking photos. He hopes some of the pro's advice makes an impact on the players.
"It's great to see role models that the kids can try to emulate, especially positive role models like Jake who can talk about the importance of taking care of yourself and the importance of hard work," Murphy said. "It was really great to hear him speaking about participation in a bunch of different sports and how he chose soccer. He did baseball and he did basketball growing up but at the age of 14, 15, he chose a dedicated sport and he was a well-rounded athlete coming into that environment."
Murphy noted though many of the players came from the Sea to Sky region, participants came from as far away as Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and the U.S.A.
"It's just the Whitecaps brand getting further afar and people coming to the areas and realizing the quality of the camps we put on here," Murphy said, adding he has his eye out for players he can add to his academy roster, beginning with the autumn session.
Kenta Tanaka, 12, plays the same right-back position as Nerwinski and took inspiration from hearing a professional speak.
"I learned some good lessons that you have to practice and practice until you get really tired, but that's how you get better, learn new skills and succeed," Tanaka said.
In addition to training at the Whitecaps Sea to Sky Academy in Squamish, Tanaka was also selected to be part of the team's high-performance program that has competed in tournaments in the Lower Mainland and Seattle. He appreciates the chance to play with players who are at his level as he looks to progress in the sport with the goal of eventually chasing a college scholarship.
Though he's new to the West Coast, Nerwinski is glad to hear the game is growing in the region and hopes to see the youngsters at the camp stick with and, hopefully, tell a tale that's similar to his a few years down the line.
"It's good to hear that football is branching out. They just have to stick with it and if they want to make it, they have to go out and play everyday," he said. "That's how you get your passion for it and how you get better."
The Whitecaps run camps for young players all over the country from Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador, though the bulk are based in B.C., and close to the Vancouver area in particular.
The Major League Soccer club is in the midst of its season and currently has an 8-8-3 record to sit in the sixth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
For more information, check out www.whitecapsfc.com.