WOODBURY – Three weeks ago, Eli Mills Nanthan was living a nightmare in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On Saturday, the displaced Puerto Rican student recovered a fumble to set up Nonnewaug’s first touchdown in a 33-21 loss to Coginchaug/Hale Ray.
Nanthan lived without electricity for three weeks after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on September 20. The hurricane caused severe catastrophic damage – and a humanitarian crisis – in Puerto Rico.
“We live in area where there really wasn’t a lot of damage in terms of infrastructure, but mostly electrical damage,” Nanthan said after he made his debut for the Chiefs. “In most parts of the island, it’s really bad. There’s long lines for everything, for food, water, ice.”
Nanthan and his mother, Athlene Nanthan, were lucky enough to have a place to go. Eli’s Godmother, Edith Prince, lives in Woodbury, and she invited the two of them to come stay with her.
“We took the opportunity and got a chance to leave Puerto Rico,” Eli Nanthan said. “Now I’m trying to do whatever I can here to finish school.”
And that includes getting back on the football field. Nanthan played in a high school league in Puerto Rico until Hurricane Maria’s 150 m.p.h. winds devastated the island.
“We’re glad to get him on the team and get him active again in something that he loves,” said Nonnewaug Dean of Students and Director of Athletics Suzi Greene.
Green said Nanthan is the only student from Puerto Rico to enroll at Nonnewaug since the hurricane. She does not know if any students from Puerto Rico have enrolled in any other Region 14 schools since the crisis there began.
Nanthan, a senior, said he was excited to find out he could continue his high school football career with the Chiefs. He played running back and defensive end in Puerto Rico, and is playing the same positions for Nonnewaug.
“When we first talked, I asked him about his basic knowledge of the game and what they ran back at home,” Nonnewaug head football coach Zach Mihaly said. “He was explaining everything to me. He picked it up real quick because the offense they ran down there in Puerto Rico was similar to our offense, so he fit well.”
Per CIAC rules, Nanthan could not immediately suit up and start playing for the Chiefs. Nanthan needed to go through 10 practices of preseason conditioning before he could put on the pads.
And Athlene Nanthan was glad Eli has some time to acclimate himself to the school and the community. She said her son wants to go into aerospace engineering, and that he should study hard and pray that he gets a scholarship.
The state’s inner-city schools were bracing themselves for displaced Puerto Rican students to come through their doors. But guidance was sent to every school superintendent in the state in September outlining suggested protocols to ensure that any student arriving from Puerto Rico, or any affected storm area, has immediate access to school and expedited connections to the services they may need.
“I’m glad that he’s here,” Athlene Nanthan said. “When I tell people I came from Puerto Rico and people ask what school my son is going to, they say, ‘oh, he’s in a great school.’ I tell him to go for it, to do the best that he can.”
In addition to the recovered fumble – a fumble he forced when he made a hit on Coginchaug’s punter – Nanthan had a tackle on a punt return, and had a quarterback pressure that resulted in an interception by teammate Jarrett Michaels.
“He got a few touches and he did some nice things for us on special teams and defense,” Mihaly said.