Once a high school basketball star with aspirations of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and possibly a major multi-sport competition like the Pan Am Games, Francis Atta’s dreams were dashed by a devastating knee injury.
Upon learning last week that he would bear the Pan Am torch this summer, the social worker’s face lit up as bright as the torch that will be illuminated in May in Mexico before it begins a 41-day journey across more than 130 communities in the Toronto and Golden Horseshoe region.
Atta was among 10 torchbearers unveiled at a ceremony at the Ontario Science Centre.
“This is a happy day for me because this is the closest, I guess, I will ever come to be part of a global sports event,” said Atta. “This is an honour for me and my community.”
While the young immigrant has not been assigned a route, he has taken the bold step of letting organizers know which community he would like to jog through with the torch on July 8.
A few months after migrating from Ghana, Atta and his family moved into the Jane-Finch community where he spent almost 22 years.
“That’s where I lived most of my life and I want to take the torch through there, inspire young people and generate a positive news story for that much-maligned neighbourhood,” he said.
Just over a decade ago, Atta was piling up double figures in points and rebounds for James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic Secondary School. While his statistics on the hardwood floor were soaring, his classroom numbers were rapidly declining to the point where he averaged 25 per cent in at least three subjects in Grades 11 and 12.
Life outside the classroom was not easy for Atta either.
He lived in a homeless shelter for a short period and was on the wrong side of the law.
It took a serious knee injury that ended his professional hoops dream to force the young man to re-evaluate his life choices.
The classroom became his new playing court and he started to embrace friends who were positive influences and attend church.
However, Atta was scared that jobs would be hard to come by because most employers do criminal background checks.
“With a criminal record, I thought my life was over because that was what I was told while growing up,” he said.
As part of a probation order, the first-time offender was required to keep the peace and be of good behaviour for three years, which he did. As a result, his criminal record was expunged.
“There are many youths out there with criminal records who are yearning for another opportunity,” said Atta. “That’s why I am making the most of the second chance I was given.”
With a new sense of purpose and a desire to work with young people and help them overcome some of the barriers they face, Atta founded KEYS (Knowledge & Effort Yields Success) in 2010 to share his personal stories and in the process inspire young people.
As a youth worker at Covenant House youth shelter and a Toronto Catholic District School Board educational assistant, he’s relishing both roles.
“Both jobs are perfect for me because I was once homeless and doing poorly in the classroom,” said Atta, who in 2011 at age 26 was the youngest ever recipient of the Top 25 Canada Immigrant Award. “I let students know that I was in the same position that some of them are in. All I wanted to do was play basketball. I didn’t realize how smart I am until I stopped playing hoops. I am not telling young people to stop playing sports while they are in school. All I am asking is that they consider having a balanced life.”
Atta authored The Flip, a self-published book that was released two years ago. Divided into two parts, he seeks to inspire youths to turn their lives around while offering parents advice on improving their relationships with their children.
The book is used in Blessed Mother Teresa and St. Paul Catholic schools.
Next month, he will release a motivational CD, Average Joe.
“I know a lot of youths like to listen to music,” said Atta, who is also the recipient of Young, Black & Gifted and Herb Carnegie Future Aces Citizenship Awards. “I took beats and mixed them with my narrative. It all has to do with not accepting just being an ‘Average Joe’.”
Atta is among 3,000 torchbearers that will complete an average 200-metre relay segment. The torch will be carried by more than 60 modes of transportation and exceed 5,000 kilometres on the road and 15,000 kilometres by air.