ROCKWOOD – Abe Gaskins has settled into life a world away from his birthplace in Thailand.
Alika Canopin-Souza is getting comfortable in life far from his Hawaii homeland.
They share a common bond as members of Rockwood High’s football team.
It’s new to Canopin-Souza, who moved to Rockwood in April and had hardly ever played football.
Gaskins, meanwhile, has been living in this small town of about 5,500 people since 2010 and has played football since he arrived.
No surprise there. He was adopted by Rockwood assistant football coach Matt Gaskins and his wife, Amy.
Abe remembers getting to his new home and setting his eyes on a football.
“I couldn’t speak any English, and I saw that brown, rubbery, pointed ball,” Gaskins said Tuesday. “I was excited. I was like, ‘Hey, throw me the ball.’ ”
Then he learned of his dad’s profession: teacher and football coach.
“I was like, ‘That’s what my dad does,’ ” Gaskins said.
STARTING A NEW LIFE
Gaskins was living in Foster Care in Thailand when he was adopted by the Gaskins. He recalls the oppressive heat in his hometown outside of Bangkok. Eating lots of white rice and fish. Some sushi.
Then his life changed drastically when he was adopted.
“It was an opportunity to have a new life in the U.S. and discover a new journey,” Gaskins said.
Gaskins, a running back/linebacker, started playing pee-wee football in Oliver Springs, played at Rockwood Middle School, and is in his fourth season at Rockwood High. He plans to graduate in the spring.
Gaskins started learning English when he found out he was moving to the United States.
“It was kind of hard to do,” he said of learning English.
Football, on the other hand, was easier for Gaskins.
“Football was always my thing when I first arrived in America,” he said. “I’ve played for a long time, and learning from when I was little to high school, I understand what football is all about, understanding your skill and understanding the plays. It really brings me close to my family, and I talk to my buddies about situations.”
A TUMULTOUS YEAR
Canopin-Souza has endured a tumultuous year, during which he dealt with cancer and the death of his mother from cancer.
Alika was diagnosed with liver cancer in August of 2018 while living in Oahu, Honolulu, while his mother, Shannon Canopin, also had cancer.
Alika underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments every three weeks from August until December of 2018.
“It was pretty rough,” he said. “The treatment, honestly, every three weeks was painful.”
His connection to Rockwood was longtime Tigers assistant coach Jeff Allen. His son D.J.’s wife, Stephanie, is a cousin of Shannon Canopin.
Alika came to live with D.J. and Stephanie Allen last April along with Alika’s sister, Lehua Souza, a freshman at Rockwood. It was a request of their mom, who died April 27.
“It was her last wishes,” Alika said. “She wanted me to turn my life around and go back to school and do better.”
Alika missed almost a year of school during his bout with cancer. His outlook on life, at the same time, took a beating.
“I wasn’t really in the right mindset at the time after cancer,” he said.
Canopin-Souza, a wide receiver/defensive end, plans to graduate in 2021. Rockwood coach John Webb will petition the TSSAA for Canopin-Souza to get another year of eligibility for football in 2020.
Before this season, his football experience was limited to a tryout during his freshman year of high school in Hawaii.
“I didn’t make the team,” he said. “I was too light. Before I was 120 (pounds).”
He’s now 6-foot-1, 190 pounds.
LIFE IN ROCKWOOD AND AFTER
It’s taken Canopin-Souza a bit of time to adjust to life in Rockwood. He was used to Hawaii’s beaches, bodyboarding and swimming. He also hunted wild boar in Hawaii with his father, Shelden Souza, using only dogs to hunt them down and knives to kill them.
Not in Rockwood.
“Over here I just focus on sports and making sure I make good grades, do my chores at home, and listen to the coaches and hear what they say,” Canopin-Souza said.
His school in Hawaii was huge – about 2,400 students – compared to Rockwood High. Just like Oahu compared to Rockwood.
“It’s a smaller society, like everybody knows each other here,” Canopin-Souza said.
Such a lifestyle has suited Gaskins just fine through the years.
“Rockwood is a very small town,” Gaskins said. “The school, the education, they treat me well. The coaches and staff help me with society and getting along with other people and football. The staff has always been good to me.”
Gaskins and Canopin-Souza both plan to attend college. They might try to play college football. One thing for sure. Neither will forget their journey to the small town of Rockwood.