For five years, Kaj Pedersen lived in Nicaragua, where his father was a missionary. He viewed himself as shy, overweight and certainly no athlete.
When he enrolled at Huntington Beach Ocean View High four years ago, Pedersen discovered a new calling: football.
"It completely changed my life," he said.
Pedersen, a 5-foot-10, 250-pound all-league center with a 4.8 grade-point average, is one of 61 high school players who will be honored for their athletic and academic achievements on Monday night at the Anaheim Convention Center as part of the annual scholar-athlete awards program sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
Across the Southland in the coming weeks, in the San Fernando, San Gabriel and San Bernardino valleys, the Inland Empire and Los Angeles, dozens of seniors with credentials similar to those of Pedersen are receiving well-deserved recognition by their regional chapters.
They are teenagers whose displays of sacrifice, commitment and leadership offer hope for the future. They are the future doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, politicians and coaches. They are proof of what can happen when athletic and academic excellence are combined.
Pedersen, who plans to attend Claremont McKenna College and wants to enter politics or the foreign service, said his football experience transformed him.
"I used to be really shy and a bookworm, and because of football, I was able to completely open up and change," he said. "I became captain of the team, and I lived my life for football. Really, football has shaped me into a man."
On Tuesday, at the San Fernando Valley's banquet, 330-pound lineman Hayworth Hicks of Palmdale was given an award for most improved grade-point average. He went from a 1.33 GPA that included three failing grades the first semester of his sophomore year to a 3.1 for the first semester of his senior year.
"It wasn't from lack of effort," Palmdale Coach Jeff Williams said. "He had a bona fide learning disability. Once we found it, he's taken off. It's amazing. He went from being a nonqualifier to being close to qualifying and passing his SAT. It's one of those stories that make you tingle inside."
Said Hicks: "This is the best grades I've had in my life. I'm happy."
To hear these stories of achievements is inspiring. To read these resumes of accomplishments is humbling.
Take Nick Frazier, a linebacker from Newport Harbor with a 4.22 GPA. He wants to major in biology or pre-med with aspirations of becoming a doctor. As a freshman, he started a distinguished-speaker series at his school.
"We didn't really have something where people came and spoke," he said. "It was good to hear people's ideas."
His first speaker was the director of the Peace Corps, Gaddi Vasquez. With each distinguished speaker, Frazier has helped create the possibility that a fellow student might become motivated by an idea or interest.
Remember the name Kevin Sanchez from Burbank Burroughs. You might be seeing him on ESPN. At least that's what he hopes. He's taking his 4.17 GPA to Ohio State, where he plans to study journalism with the dream of becoming the next Dan Patrick. He played quarterback, was editor of the school newspaper and leading man in three plays.
Don't be surprised if one day, the friends of defensive tackle Aaron Thomas from Sherman Oaks Notre Dame are addressing him as "Judge Thomas," because Thomas is off to Harvard, where he wants to learn to become a lawyer, then a judge.
Don't forget about linebacker Derek Ju from Calabasas. His team finished 0-10, but Ju, with a 4.5 GPA, is headed to UCLA or California to become an engineer or doctor with the hope of "doing research to make a breakthrough that would improve the quality of human life."
And what did Ju learn by playing for a winless team in his only season of football?
"It teaches you dedication, perseverance and leadership," he said. "You have to learn to keep your head up and do the best you can."
Ju said football taught him to never quit, something that will come in handy in the laboratory as he tries to discover a cure for an illness or come up with an invention.
Eric Kanney of Thousand Oaks was a 165-pound all-league defensive lineman who never walked onto the field without giving his best. With a 3.9 GPA, he volunteers every other week at a free medical clinic. He has accepted an appointment to West Point. "It was the challenge, physically and mentally," he said of his college choice.
When the going gets tough, Kanney will remember his days in the football trenches, trying to outmaneuver and outsmart linemen 80 pounds heavier.
"You have to bear down and give everything you got," he said.
That's what all recipients of the scholar-athlete award have done — their best, and they have refused to settle for the ordinary.
Eric Sondheimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.