My family traveled to LA for fall break so Olivia could visit Disneyland again, and so we could see our good friend, Joann.
On the airplane, we sat in the middle section, lined up like such: Claus, me, Olivia. In the empty seat, a large man sat down.
He had a warm smile and kind eyes, but Olivia is shy, so she smooshed herself into me and whispered that she wanted to exchange seats with me. We were taking off, so I told her to just stay put.
I introduced myself to the young man, whose name was Victor Clore, and confirmed for Olivia that he doesn't bite.
At some point very early into the flight, there was a pink sweater and a dark blue shirt on Olivia's seat. Olivia asked me, "Whose is this?"
I didn't recognize it, so I said, "Maybe it's Mr. Victor's?"
Victor looked down. "This pink sweater?" he exclaimed and held it up.
I clarified I meant the blue shirt, at which point Claus claimed it. That was the ice breaker, though. Victor became our friend after that.
I learned that he was a defensive lineman for the UH Warriors from 2006-2009 (sorry, I guess I should've known) and now lives in Oklahoma, working as a personal trainer while his new wife attends school.
I also learned he grew up in Kaneohe, playing football for Castle High School before walking on to the UH team. "It was a struggle for me to make ends meet," he recalled, "but I love football and so I stayed with it. I learned life lessons on the field: teamwork, discipline, friendship. I use these lessons today."
What amazed me most about Victor, though, was his challenging life story. "I grew up poor with nine siblings and a single mother. We lived on food stamps and got a lot of donations. My parents divorced when I was six and didn't really keep in touch with us, and I spent the next four years angry at being abandoned."
He says two of his brothers chose to drown their sorrows in drugs, but he never wanted to do that "because I didn't want to disappoint my mother." It was the harder road, but he took it, and he's happier for it.
Victor had no money, and with no UH scholarship, there were times he ate raisins for dinner and had no breakfast. He slept on the floor of a teammate's apartment. Sometimes he slept three hours a night because he was juggling work, school, and football. He doesn't regret it, he said, because he can look back on a college football career - memories and experiences that poverty can't take away.
Because of these early hardships, Victor now wants to dedicate his career to helping underprivileged youth find their way. "I can relate," he said. "I'm passionate about helping children."
I think he's an amazing person to overcome difficulty then use his life experience to benefit others. What a kind heart.
If Olivia is any indication, the children will really like him back. He has a light and sweet personality, and we conscripted him to play with us.
We had an art contest, in which Victor and I were assigned a toy to sketch, and she judged who the winner was. We trash talked each other during the contest. "Look at how you're holding that pencil," I sneered.
"Nobody plays to come in second place," he taunted back, the old football mentality coming out.
"Whenever you want to give your concession speech, feel free," I retorted, not easily intimidated.
When it was finished, Olivia issued a tie. "I, your mommy, am not getting first place?" I stuttered.
The judges reconvened to reconsider... and declared Victor the winner. "Him? This guy who you met two hours ago? Not me, the mother who gave you life and takes care of you every day?" I gasped. The judge was immovable. I'm sure there was a hanging chad somewhere.
Victor held up his index finger to indicate he's Number One (whatever!) and posed with his winning sketch. I told him I was pretty sure the vote was juiced and it's on if we ever meet in a flight again.
When the plane ride ended, Olivia hugged him and asked him to come see her in Hawaii for a tea party and a swim. When we left the airport en route to Anaheim, Olivia looked up at the evening sky and saw an airplane taking off. "Bye, Mr. Victor!" she said.
It's nice, sometimes, the people you meet in random encounters. Life is beautiful that way. Good luck, Victor. And don't forget I'm totally up for a rematch.