Tut Just Wants To Play

By John Canzano
Updated: May 31, 2009

OREGON — They call him Tut — and of course they do. His full name is Tut Tangtragulcharoen. He’s a 17-year-old exchange student from Bangkok, Thailand, who has lived with a family in Portland for the last year.

Said Tut: “All I knew of this country before being here was cowboy movies, and movies about gangsters. I came and figured out it’s nothing like that.”

So what else has Tut learned while in America? Red tape, mostly.

I mean, he’s learned plenty in school at Riverdale High. Tut has straight A’s in class and wants to be an engineer someday. And he’s made lots of friends, and his English is improving.

But when you sift through the time he’s spent in Portland, what you eventually come upon is a pile of bureaucratic rules and regulations, and federal mandates. And at the end you wonder if the governing body of high school activities in this state will do what’s right.

So far, the Oregon School Activities Association has not.

Let’s back up.

Because when Tut was a young boy in Thailand, he turned on the television in his family’s home and saw a Seattle Seahawks football game. Nobody in his country plays football. He’d never even thrown one. But he watched the large men chase each other on his television and decided he would play someday.

People giggled at him, of course.

In Thailand they follow tennis, volleyball and soccer. There is Sepak Takraw, a variant of volleyball played with the feet. And the national sport is Muah Thai — the science of eight limbs — which is basically kickboxing.

But Tut loved football, and so he hunted for one. He checked stores in Bangkok. He asked around. Finally, he located a single store in a shopping mall that had a simple, cheap football, the all-rubber sort with no laces.

“I carried that ball everywhere,” Tut said.

Now, understand, when you talk with Tut, you don’t think “Jock.” You think, “There goes a kid who might ace the SAT someday.” He doesn’t look like a football player. He’s barely 6 feet tall. He’s not particularly fast. He can’t out-jump his classmates. And he’s never played a down of organized tackle football.

Yet, it is his dream.

Right now, though, he has a problem.

Because Tut arrived last summer as an exchange student, OSAA policy required him to sit out one school year before he would be eligible for extracurricular activities at Riverdale High.

Tut understood that rules are rules, and he waited. Since he wanted so desperately to play football he showed up to morning workouts before school and lifted weights with the team.

Also, he ran conditioning drills and studied the playbook. And last football season, Tut was there for every Riverdale game, standing on the sideline in street clothes, cheering for his classmates.

Said Tut: “I was the ball boy and water boy.”

The Department of Homeland Security granted Tut a two-year stay in America when he applied for his current exchange program. He gets one more school year.

Except, federal law restricts exchange students from attending public schools for more than one year. Which is why Tut, who will be a senior in the fall, was told he’d have to switch to a private school and pay tuition.

Fine. Rules are rules, he thought.

He wants to study in America, and graduate from high school. And so he’ll say goodbye to his friends and teachers at Riverdale in a couple of weeks. And his parents, who haven’t seen him in a year, will pay tuition at Oregon Episcopal School this fall.

OES has fencing, lacrosse, soccer, track and other activities. But it doesn’t field a football team, which is why Riverdale’s coaches have offered to let Tut, who has been there every day, play for them.

Everyone thinks this is a great idea.

“I’m all for kids participating,” said Kris Van Hatcher, the athletic director at OES. “We’ve had students who have grown up playing football and they just go play for the high school program that is closest to where they live.

“It’s not frequent, but it’s happened a few times.”

No big deal, then, right?

Except, since Tut is transferring from one high school to another, the OSAA views him as a freshly arriving exchange student. Tom Welter, the head of the OSAA, said, “By rule, an exchange student has to sit out a year after arriving at his current school.”

It’s right about here where rules begin to stink, see.

This isn’t the rise and fall of civilization. It’s not a matter of national security. What we have here is a genuine American moment in which a knotty, gnarled circumstance arrives and we get to watch those involved wrestle with how to best fix things.

I suppose the easy way out would be for the OSAA to declare Tut ineligible, refuse to grant an appeal, and spend its time giving hollow blessings to the students who hop around local high schools, picking and choosing where they want to participate. I suppose it would have been easy enough for Riverdale to shrug, too. Or for OES to cash Tut’s tuition check and tell him, “Sorry kid, your dream is dead.”

I don’t think America is that kind of place.

I believe the OSAA when it tells me it’s an advocate for participation. I believe our civic leaders when they tell me our future begins in the ability of schools to build a better future, child by child.

I believe there’s a reason that exceptions also exist in the quiet, important corners of our culture — education — and not just in tax court, and in the White House, and with big business. And now we’re talking about common sense, decency and doing what’s right, aren’t we?

Because Tut is going to continue to run and lift weights this summer and hope he can play a few plays at wide receiver for Riverdale next football season. And the OSAA is going to receive an appeal from Tut in August. It’s going to include the circumstances you’ve read here.

The appeal will ask that Tut be granted one year of eligibility. Also, Tut’s host family, David and Debie Stellway, will write a letter explaining that when Tut moved into their home he affixed a single sheet of paper on the wall of his bedroom — his goals.

It reads: “Improve English. Play football.”

Said Debie, “Tut’s such a sweet kid. All you have to do is take one look at him and you know he’s not a ringer.”

I think America is a wonderful place to live. We have freedom. We enjoy the liberty of democracy. We embrace our differences. We connect on a deep level with each other. We pull together when we need it most, look out for each other, and we have faith that anything is possible if we work hard, pay our taxes and keep the faith.

The OSAA has a tough gig. It oversees more than 120,000 students who participate in school activities ranging from choir to football. But we’ve arrived in one of the places where the organization can serve as a springboard, and continue to encourage the children of our state to be active, forward-thinking and ambitious. The alternative is absurdity.

The issue for administrators (and Tut’s high school team) shouldn’t be his eligibility. It should be whether to put “Tut” or try to fit “Tangtragulcharoen” on the back of his football jersey.

I suppose Tut’s dream feels as American as it ever has today. It becomes the stuff of a Langston Hughes poem.

Asked Hughes: “What happens to the dream deferred?”

I hope Tut never has to find out.