English, Journalism, Soccer

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SHOOTING STAR

How a young indigenous man from the interior of B.C. made history on the soccer pitch
—and what came after.


IT’S JULY 10, 1983 AND 50,000 PEOPLE pack the stands at Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium. The match between the top-ranked Vancouver Whitecaps and the second-placed New York Cosmos is moments away from kickoff, and as the crowd comes to life, its roar cascades onto pitch with thunderous force. By the time it gets to Terry Felix in a tunnel adjacent to the playing field, the noise has become something unrecognizable—a bizarre cacophony of popping sounds akin to millions of tiny discharges of static electricity.

The strange sound does nothing to help Terry’s nerves. The 23-year-old from the Sts’ailes First Nation in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley is about to step onto the pitch for the first time as a professional soccer player, and as he tries to steady his shaking arms and legs, he’s overcome by an overwhelming feeling of regret. What he wants, more than anything in the world, is to be able to drop everything and get the hell away from that stadium as fast as humanly possibly.

Terry is no stranger to this feeling. In fact, ever since moving out of his nation’s reserve three years ago, he’s contemplated this quick act of escapism on several occasions. The first time was just days after moving to Vancouver, when he felt the deep sting of a racial slur slap him across the face, and then, more intensely, on the day he found out his father had suddenly passed away back in Sts’ailes. On both of those occasions, Terry had managed to overcome that feeling and push on. Now, if he just manages to do that one more time, he’ll achieve the unthinkable: become the first indigenous soccer player to ever play at the highest level in North American soccer.

The stage is set for an epic debut, and as he waits to take to the pitch, Terry takes a couple of deep breaths. He’s trying desperately to calm his nerves, but nothing seems to be working. That’s when the stadium’s loudspeakers call his name, and Terry is forced to jog onto the centre of the pitch with wobbly legs, and a few final words of wisdom: “Don’t trip,” he repeats to himself under his breath. “Please, don’t trip.”

On July 10, 1983, Terry Felix will not trip.

Instead, as soon as the referee’s whistle gets the ball rolling, all traces of Terry’s nerves dissipate. The young man is at home on a soccer pitch, and it doesn’t take him long to hit his stride. Only fifteen minutes into the game, he brings the boisterous crowd to their feet with a magisterial pass that slices through New York’s defense with Swiss precision, setting up the game’s first goal.

The next morning, Vancouver Sun reporter Archie McDonald, will call the assist a “perfect pass.”  Another Sun reporter, Dan Stinson, will also laud Terry’s performance, writing: “He set up David Cross’s first goal with a superb through ball at 15:01; narrowly missed scoring later himself and drew a huge ovation from 50,205 fans when he was replaced at the 69th minute.”

At that 69th minute, as Terry Felix walks off the pitch, there is no trace of regret in his mind. Instead, what Terry feels as the crowd stands to cheer him off the pitch is a perfect mix of exhaustion and pride. He knows that he has proven his worth, and that soon he’ll be garnering praise from teammates, coaches and the general public alike.

For all intents and purposes, Terry Felix is a star on the rise, and for the first time in his life, he’s finally starting to feel it.

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 /Art by PETER MOTHE

BRUCE WILKINS HASN’T THOUGHT ABOUT TERRY FELIX IN YEARS. After all, it’s been over three decades since they last saw each other. But the second he hears his name, Bruce’s voice beams with excitement.

“Terry Felix? Of course I remember him! I used to practice with him in the Whitecaps’ system back in the day,” says Bruce, who now runs The Whitecaps Fanblog, a website devoted to all things ‘Caps. “I was a goalkeeper in the youth squad and Terry was playing with the reserve team, but every once in a while we’d practice together.”

It’s been a lifetime since Bruce last saw Terry, but he still remembers him as the quiet guy that worked hard and always displayed an unassuming demeanor in the locker room.

“He was one of those still-waters-run-deep kinds of guys,” Bruce recalls. “If anyone spoke to him, he wouldn’t say anything back, he would just smile.”

Many of Bruce’s memories of his time with Terry have faded over the years, but what Bruce really remembers – because he is an absolute soccer nut – is Terry’s ability on the pitch.

“Terry was a special talent,” he tell me.  “His control of the ball was something that was on another level, and he was very athletic and had real speed, but also real talent—fine feet, if you know what I mean.

“And as a young goalkeeper, I tell you, what I remember most is that he had a firecracker of a shot.”

Like many players who were in the Whitecaps’ system, Bruce followed Terry’s rise through the club’s ranks, hoping that one day he too would make the jump into the professional team.

“I remember in 1983 he broke into the first team’s roster and even got to start in a few games, and if I’m not mistaken he even scored a couple of goals,” Bruce says. “Now I never knew what happened to Terry after that, because, by 1983, he was starting for the Canadian National Team too and was always in the papers, and then he just kind of disappeared. I had no idea where he went and what became of him.”

Bruce hasn’t thought of Terry for thirty years, but now that he’s talking about him, he’s overrun with curiosity.

“So I’m dying to know,” he says. “What ever did happen to Terry?”

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Terry in action for the ‘Caps in 1983 // Photo courtesy of TERRY FELIX

TERRY FELIX’S METEORIC RISE TO STARDOM lasts exactly three months, at which point Providence itself erupts into his life in the most unexpected of ways.

It’s October of ‘83, and Terry’s first season with the Whitecaps’ has ended with a short-lived playoff run. Despite the team’s disappointing end-of-season, Terry has managed to play eight games in the past three months—not a small feat for a player breaking into a well-established side—and has even netted two goals. His good performances and hard work have not gone unnoticed, and the coaches of Canada’s Olympic team have called him up to play in the upcoming series against Mexico. At stake is a coveted spot in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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Terry dressed in the Canadian National Team’s uniform in 1983 // Photo courtesy of TERRY FELIX

That’s why Terry is in Victoria, bolting down a pitch with a soccer ball glued to his feet. He’s just turned 24, and only a few months into his professional career he has become the first indigenous player to ever be called up to play for Team Canada. Wherever he goes, Terry receives praise, and now that he’s on the national team he’s eager to prove himself again. That’s why he runs down the pitch with his eyes focused on the ball—so focused, in fact, that he has no idea that a few steps ahead of him, right in the path of his sprint, is a tiny hole in the ground.

“I didn’t see it coming,” Terry Felix will say years later, closing his eyes as he remembers how a sharp pain in his knee made him collapse to the ground.

As soon as he’s down, Terry knows that something is terribly wrong with his right knee. His teammates help him off the pitch, and later that day the verdict from the doctors is clear: Terry has torn a ligament, and the extended recovery time means that he will not make it to the Olympics.

It’s a devastating blow for the young man, who has been tremendously eager to represent his country and his community in the Games. Terry is heartbroken and confused, and that night he phones his wife back in Vancouver to break the news. She listens patiently as he explains what happened—the pain, the frustration, the anxiety—and then she interrupts him to break some news of her own.

“Terry,” she says. “I’m pregnant.”

Hours later Terry sits in a ferry headed back to Vancouver. He is exhausted and confused, and extremely anxious to be with his wife and unborn child.

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I MEET UP WITH TERRY on a cold grey morning in Vancouver. We’re at the park by Nat Bailey Stadium, a place Terry remembers fondly: back in the day, this is where the Whitecaps Youth Teams used to play their home games.

It’s almost an act of poetic justice that Scarlett, Terry’s 12-year-old granddaughter, practices on this very pitch. Terry has travelled all the way from Sts’ailes to see her in action, and as we watch her move around on the pitch, it’s evident that the young player has inherited some of Terry’s skills: she’s an aggressive midfielder with a smooth touch and a heavy shot, and the unrelenting determination to make it big as a soccer player.

As we look out onto his granddaughter’s practice session, I can’t help but feel that Terry is overcome by a sense of nostalgia that he hasn’t felt in years.

“Growing up I never had a formal soccer practice,” he says after a few moments of silence. “My first real training session was when I was 20 years old and I started playing with the Whitecaps’ youth team.”

Before that, when he still lived in Sts’ailes, Terry would walk around reserve with his brother and two cousins after school, passing a ball between each other and playing two-on-two games in their front yard. As the sun would set on the reserve, they would compete to see who could keep the ball in the air the longest, and create elaborate shooting practices using whatever they could get their hands on.

“We’d set up a goal post with fishnet and put the ball at a certain spot and just try to hit the top corner from there,” Terry says. “We did that day after day after day.”

Once he was in his late teens, Terry started playing for Sasquatch F.C., an all-Native team coached by his father, Pete Felix, who like many indigenous people in the coast of B.C., was passionate about soccer. He was always the youngest guy on the pitch playing for the team, and he would often walk out at the end of games bruised and battered after crashing into grown adults twice his age. But his father was convinced that Terry had something special, and pushed him to improve. It was Pete Felix who taught his son how to love soccer, and it was because of him that Terry began dreaming about turning pro.

That dream, which for so many years seemed so distant, came one step close to becoming a reality when Terry was 20, and a scout from the Whitecaps youth teams saw him play at a tournament in Chilliwack. The scout talked to Terry and Pete, and asked them if the young Felix would want to try his luck with the ‘Caps, who had just won the 1979 North American Soccer League championship. The two of them didn’t even have to think about it, and a few weeks later Pete drove Terry to Port Coquitlam, just outside of Vancouver, and dropped him off with a family that had promised to give him a hand.

“Get a job and play soccer,” Pete Felix told Terry before driving off. What he was really saying was go out there, try to make your dream come true, and become an adult.

Eventually, Terry managed to do all those things, but the process was not easy. In fact, it would take him three years to rise from a punk with no formal soccer training to a top class athlete representing club and country at the highest level. To do so, he had to overcome a number of challenges, including working the graveyard shift at CP Rail and spending three hours on transit every day to get to practice.

Terry tells me all of this at the park by Nat Bailey Stadium, while Scarlett practices in the very same pitch where Terry played over thirty years ago. As he looks out at his young granddaughter, I can’t help but think that Terry is wondering if she’s ready to go through the same things that he did in order to become a professional soccer player. And then, as we both watch on, Scarlett responds in her own way: she slides into a puddle to recover a ball from a girl from the other team, and puts a through ball to her teammate, whose shot goes just wide off the net, much to Scarlett’s disappointment.

Terry smiles.

“Can you imagine that? Just playing soccer all day?” he asks, as if that was never a real part of his life.

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Terry Felix (top row, fourth from the left) dressed in the uniform of Sasquatch F.C. in 1981. Terry went back to Sts’ailes after his father’s death and played some games for his old team before heading back to Vancouver // Photo courtesy of TERRY FELIX

THE DAY AFTER TEARING HIS LIGAMENTS and finding out he was going to be a father, Terry is back in Vancouver. He’s back in his apartment, sitting quietly with his wife, when all of a sudden the phone rings, shattering the silence in their small apartment.

On the other side of the receiver is Whitecaps’ coach John Giles, who asks Terry to come in for a meeting. Terry has no idea what the meeting is about, and as he hobbles into his coach’s office later that afternoon he’s faced with the harsh realities of life as a professional athlete:

The Whitecaps are not doing well financially, and with a roster full of established stars, young players just aren’t the organization’s priority. Let alone ones with busted ligaments in their knees.

“We’re sorry but we’re releasing you from your contract,” the coach tells Terry. He congratulates Terry for his great season, and says he knows that the young man has what it takes to make it in the game, but that there’s nothing he can do, and he just can’t keep him on the payroll.

“We can look to trade you to another team,” suggests the coach. “But that means moving to a different city.”

Terry stares at him in awe. In just over 24 hours, his life has been turned upside down, and he’s now faced with the prospect of being an unemployed father with a body unfit to do the only thing he knows how to do: play soccer. Terry has many tough decisions ahead of him, chiefly, figuring out how he will support his unborn child.

“Let me think about it,” he finally tells his coach, and never looks back.

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THIRTY-THREE YEARS LATER, Terry Felix remembers his days as a soccer player as a distant memory of a bygone era, almost like a scene of a movie about someone else’s life.

He rarely has a chance to think about the game anymore. Or perhaps he tries to avoid the memories altogether, keeping his mind focused on other things: his seven children, his full-time job back at the reserve, and his active life in his community.

Since retiring from the beautiful game Terry Felix has lived several lives: he got a diploma in business from Capilano University in Vancouver and then decided to move back home, where he’s been on his First Nation’s council for 14 of the last 18 years.

For the past nine years he’s also been counseling inmates from the federal prison in Agassiz—right next to the Sts’ailes First Nation’s reserve. There, he mainly works with indigenous guys who are on their way out of prison, taking them out on day passes, going into the reserve with them, and working with them on chores to help out community elders. Things like chopping firewood, mowing lawns, cleaning gutters.

It’s active and he gets to talk to the inmates and give them advice on life as they work together. It’s a way of getting them out and about and contributing again to society, Terry says. And it’s never dull.

“One day, I had four inmates with me and we’re out in the bush and we all had chainsaws and axes and hammers,” Terry remembers with a chuckle.  “Between the four of them they had murdered seven men, and when I started thinking about it, I got really scared and weirded out. All of a sudden I noticed I was shaking, but luckily nothing happened—these guys have nothing against me.”

It may seem like the furthest thing from soccer as possible, but at times, the job has him feeling the same kind of nervous excitement that he felt 33 years ago in the tunnel of BC Place Stadium.

That’s when I ask him what he misses the most about those days, and Terry goes silent for a few moments.

“Not that much,” he ends up saying. “I’m very grateful of the career I had, even though it was short.”

For Terry, being part of Canada’s best generation of male soccer players—the only ones to qualify for the modern Olympics and the World Cup—is more than he could have expected. Even though he missed out on both of those events.

“The most disappointing thing was to miss the Olympics. Because of my injury, I was the only one left behind. And it was terrible because they lost against Brazil on penalty shots, and that would have been me taking a penalty shot.”

“It was disappointing, but I don’t dwell in it.”

Most people might feel resentment after such a heartbreaking moment, but Terry is thankful that his injury happened when it did. Quitting soccer, he thinks, made him transition from full-time soccer player to full-time dad, and he thinks his involvement in his kids’ lives helped keep them on the right track.

“If I didn’t take care of my kids I hate to think how they would have turned out,” he says, perhaps thinking back on the inmates at the prison, as he looks out at Scarlett on the pitch.

I get a sense that it’s been a while since Terry Felix last thought about the day in which he became the first indigenous soccer player to play professionally in North America, and even longer since he thought about the abrupt end of his soccer career, but as his eyes track Scarlett’s movements on the pitch, Terry’s voice does not show too much nostalgia.

“Playing soccer was fun. It was actually very neat, and I miss it,” he finally says. “But in the end, it’s all about priorities, eh? You gotta take care of your family.”

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Terry and his granddaughter Scarlett in Vancouver (2016) // Photo by PETER MOTHE

Peter Mothe,
Vancouver, Jan. 24, 2017

4 thoughts on “

  1. Although I do not personally identify as a soccer fan, this piece swells with a love of the game so remarkable that it’s infectious! One can’t help but feel genuinely captivated by the human story, while simultaneously falling in love with the sport. Great piece of journalism!

    Like

  2. I remember hearing Tony Waiters speak highly of Terry Felix in radio interviews and in coaching talks. His description was intriguing but I never had much success finding out more. This piece fills that gap and has so many motivating parts to the story. Tony stressed how the game in Canada does not seek the indigenous talent that is here. That is a loss all round. Is this where a Canadian Pele will come from in culture and talent? Thanks for this beautiful piece on the beautiful game!

    Like

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