Learning to play football has been a challenge for Marion’s Zi Huang.
But nothing like the one Huang faced when he moved to the United States from China.
Huang, who came to Marion with his parents, two brothers and grandparents, didn’t speak any English when they arrived near Thanksgiving in 2004.
“It was Thanksgiving and a lot of food to eat,” Huang said of his first memory in the U.S. “It was hard getting used to the language, but it has been fun.”
The Huangs picked Marion because Zi’s aunt owned the Marion Chinese restaurant. Huang still helps out his aunt, while his parents work at a Chinese restaurant in Dillon.
Huang also got involved in sports and played some tennis before joining the Swamp Foxes’ soccer team as a freshman.
But Huang, now a senior, decided to give football try this year after the urging of some of the football players. Huang’s cousin, Keith, played football for the Swamp Foxes under coach Bob Rankin, but Zi hadn’t had much interest until this season.
“The guys saw me kicking the soccer ball and asked me to come so I did,” Huang said. “I get along with everyone. It’s a lot of fun.”
Huang has made 17 of 22 extra points and is 1-of-3 on field goal attempts for the Swamp Foxes, who face rival Mullins tonight.
Huang is one of three foreign-born players kicking for teams in the Pee Dee. Carlos Trejo is in his first year as Dillon’s kicker, and Luis Cardena is in first season at Hemingway. Both kickers were born in Mexico and moved to the United States when they were younger.
All three kickers have soccer backgrounds. Huang and Trejo play for their school’s teams. Cardena is unable to play because Hemingway doesn’t have a soccer team.
“There isn’t that much of a difference than a soccer ball and kicking a football,” Trejo said last week. “The major difference is you need to have that coordination where to put the ball.”
Trejo moved with his mother, father and sister from Veracruz when he was 5 years old to escape the crime in the city. Trejo’s parents had friends who lived in Dillon and thought relocating to South Carolina was the best decision for the family.
Trejo said it took him almost a year to learn English, but he is now fluent and even has a touch of a Southern accent in his voice.
Trejo, a senior, attended some practices last year, but said he was “bored.” Dillon had T.J. Grimsley, who was an all-state kicker. But Grimsley graduated, creating the need for a kicker. Trejo stepped right in.
Trejo has connected on 54 of his 57 extra-point attempts but is 0-for-2 on field-goal tries.
Cardena might be the missing piece the Tigers need to get to a state championship. Hemingway lost to Bamberg-Ehrhardt 17-14 in the Class A lower state championship game a year ago.
“The last two years, we’ve been less than three points away both times from the state championship and we felt that if we had a kicker, that would kind of put us over the top,” Hemingway coach Ken Cribb said. “Luis has been a big lift for us. He’s still young and his leg is not extremely strong, but he’s accurate. He does a good job pooch kicking for us. We’ve probably recovered at least five or six pooch kicks. He’s definitely been a weapon for us.”
Cribb said he had to convince Cardena to come out for the team. The sophomore wasn’t familiar with football. In fact, the first game Cardena played in this year also was the first one he had ever seen.
Cardena has hit 31 of 47 extra-point attempts and missed his only field-goal try.
“It’s been a great experience to be around all my teammates and all of that and it’s a great experience winning and having a good season,” Cardena said.
All three players say having a background in soccer has helped in the transition to football. But there are some differences they had to get used to, including onside kicks, getting hit on special teams and the pressure that comes with kicking.
Huang said it took him several days of practice to get comfortable with onside kicks.
Then there is the added pressure of kicking at schools in football-crazed communities like Dillon, Hemingway and Marion where the stands are filled on a weekly basis.
The Wildcats and Tigers each are going for their second straight perfect seasons tonight, while Marion hopes to get a first-round bye if it defeats Mullins.
“In soccer, you miss it, doesn’t bother you as much, but in football, every point counts,” Trejo said “And if it comes down to the field goal, you got to make it to help your team and the pressure is there.”
“It is kind of a challenge to kick, because you have the whole team and it’s all on you. If you make the kick, you win and if you don’t, that’s it,” Cardena said.
— Hemingway Observer editor Matt McColl contributed to this report.