Federal Way High School shot putter Tony Chan spent his track career throwing for his hero: his grandfather, Tam Tran.
When Tran passed away Sept. 25, 2015, after battling aggressive brain cancer, Chan spent weeks fighting the urge to quit everything all together.
A late-night walk to clear his head reminded him that quitting would only break Tran’s heart. Instead, Chan harnessed his grief toward sports. His dedication earned him a captain spot on both the Eagles football team in 2016 and the track team in March. And, on April of this year, Chan put himself in the Federal Way record books with a throw of 52 feet 7 inches against Auburn.
To honor honor his grandfather, Chan spent the season trying to break Riley’s record. His final chance was at the 4A state championships. Chan was unable to break Riley’s record and finished seventh with a top throw of 50-8.
“This is my first time going to state in any sport,” Chan said. “Being a captain of the football team, now the captain of the track team, is a lot of hard work, but it was exciting to finally go to state, knowing my hard work paid off.”
IN THE BEGINNING
From as early as Chan can remember, it was Tran who instilled in him the values of hard work.
Tran served on Army front lines during the Vietnam War where endurance was key. Once he returned to civilian life, Tran found he enjoyed running.
He convinced his favorite person in the world, his grandson, to do it with him.
“He just had a lot of energy for an old guy,” Chan laughed. “When I told him I didn’t feel like running he always reassured me it would be good for me.”
It was Tran who first introduced Chan to track in sixth grade and football in seventh. But Tran knew a common bond with sports wasn’t enough.
Chan remembers taking his grandfather’s hand and venturing into Chinatown on Sundays to experience the culture.
These adventures with Tran inspired him to be above average. Going beyond his Vietnamese heritage encouraged him to become fluent in Vietnamese, Chinese and French.
During these routine strolls through Chinatown with Tran, Chan developed a love for music. It inspired him to learn eight instruments. Chan’s family was far more supportive of these activities than sports.
“It’s been rough, especially coming from a family who doesn’t want me to do sports,” Chan said. “My family expects me to have a high GPA (3.6), be in AVID. It’s been really hard, but I push myself every day to get noticed.”
IT WAS MEANT TO BE
After placing eighth in the district track meet as a sixth-grader, the Sequoyah Middle School football coach told Chan to come out for football.
He was the only seventh-grader named to the varsity roster.
Chan was hit hard on his very first play from scrimmage. On the way to the locker room after the game, Chan heard students ask how “an Asian kid” made varsity.
Chan said once the locker room cleared and he was alone, he cried his eyes out. Later that night, he told his hero what happened.
“You’ve got to prove them wrong,” Chan said Tran told him.
He still hears criticism from his own family, however.
“They’re always like, ‘Why [are] you playing sports,’ ” Chan said. “But my grandpa told me not to listen to them and be the best person I can be.”
NOT PREPARED TO QUIT
In the summer of 2015, Tran was diagnosed with brain cancer. And, just before his junior football season started, Chan lost his hero and best friend to the aggressive cancer.
He contemplated quitting football and track. He lost the importance of studying and love of language and music.
His evening walk changed his mind, however. At one point during the walk, he said he heard the spirit of Tran inside his own subconscious.
“I remember, like, I stopped walking, and I just blurted out, ‘Why are you being so selfish?’” Chan said. “It’s funny because that’s totally something he would say if it were something or someone else going on in my life, and that ignited the life in me.”
Chan dedicated himself completely to football and track.
He formed a bond and new training partner in former safety Anthony Watkins. The two trained together regularly this past summer at Watkins’ training facility in Bellevue.
Last summer, Chan was up by 6:30 a.m. By noon, he already finished an intense yoga session, breakfast and Federal Way football practice. By 2 p.m., Watkins had Chan rolling through plyometric running drills. By 6 p.m., Chan returned home and is lifting weights in his garage. By 8 p.m., he’s going through footwork drills.
“I just want to leave a legacy,” Chan said. “Just having something to remember the next couple years. For me, it’s just to give myself motivation to keep going.”
CONTINUING THE LEGACY
More than a sports legacy, Chan wants Tran’s legacy to live on through him.
He’s planning on throwing shot put at Eastern Washington University next year. Chan’s excited. Continuing his education and his throwing career is what Tran always wanted for his grandson.
“Let’s say my first throw is a bad throw,” he said. “You can always throw a better one. I have six. There’s always things to improve on. So, as he taught me, you tell yourself you can do it and just keep working on it. It’s the spirit of who he is and who I am.”