In the cutthroat world of professional sports, there are few players who make it. There are even fewer who make it without help, support, stability, family, and the common comforts most of take for granted, like a home cooked meal.
“As a kid I would hang out in the food courts in the mall, hoping someone would leave the remainder of their meal behind,” JR LaRose, defensive back for the BC Lions, recalls. “That was my fast food, that was my trip to A&W. I had to survive, I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from.”
LaRose, whose mother is Cree from the One Arrow First Nation, grew up on a reservation outside of Edmonton. He never met his father, a Nigerian, who was deported. LaRose’s life was a struggle from day one.
His mother, a residential school survivor, struggled with drug addiction her entire life. Although she passed away at a young age, LaRose still looks to her for strength, and as a mentor.
“My mom Bobbie was a warrior,” said LaRose “I think I have her warrior spirit. It’s in my blood. She grew up in the first nations’ residential school system. She struggled with drug addiction. Her addiction caught up to her and wore down her immune system.”
Sponsored in part by the Bella Coola Community Support Society and organized by Melinda Mack, LaRose was brought into Bella Coola for two days as a keynote speaker, telling his story in the schools, participating in a candlelight vigil for the lost children of residential schools, and engaging with the community for an evening at Nuxalk Hall.
LaRose is passionate about many things and carries within him an infectious energy and delivers his story with raw honesty. He credits his successes to his own choices, and takes full responsibility for his own actions.
After suffering poverty, sexual abuse and violence, LaRose knew he had to find a way out. A gifted athlete, he knew football held the answer but had to fight every square inch of the way.
“I loved hockey but it was too expensive,” he said. “The great thing about football is that it’s cheap, and I could play.”
His hometown team, the Edmonton Eskimos, drafted LaRose at the age of 21. LaRose enjoyed several successful years with the team before a horrific break to his right leg sidelined him for the entire 2009 season. When he came back, the team rejected him, saying he was too old and too high-risk for injury.
LaRose didn’t give up, however, and secured himself a spot with the BC Lions in 2010. Things were going well, and then adversity reared its head once again: LaRose broke the same leg. He was out again.
“I wasn’t sure if I could do it again, if I had the strength to come back,” he recounts. “My son, he was four at the time, he came down the stairs and said ‘do it for me daddy,’ and I knew I had to give it another shot.”
LaRose did, enduring months of hard rehab, and went on to win the Grey Cup with the Lions in 2011. “As a kid, I never thought of the NFL,” he said. “I grew up watching [the Eskimos’] Gizmo Williams and Damon Allen. I wanted to win a Cup.”
LaRose knows his football days are numbered now, but he remains unfazed by a future without professional sports, revealing that he already is doing consulting work for his nation and plans to continue in that work.
“It’s up to you, it’s about the choices you make,” LaRose told the crowd. “I had a dream, I know you do too, and it’s totally possible to make that dream come true.”