When Walter Hines came to the United States from his native Costa Rica in 2004 speaking limited English, he didn't know how he was going to adjust to life in a new country.
But despite all the things he didn't have -- friends and a grasp of the language, for starters -- there was always one thing he did have: soccer. Hines, now a senior forward at Franklin D. Roosevelt (Brooklyn, N.Y.), was never an outsider on the field, where his game transcended cultural barriers. It was on the pitch that Hines learned English, made close friends and began to feel at home in a foreign country. For Hines, it all started back in Costa Rica, where he honed the skills that would one day make him the best high school player in New York. Back then, a 6-year-old Hines would play with his friends in the street, using a water bottle for a ball.
"I played all the time," Hines says. "It was very competitive when we played. It's the most famous sport in Costa Rica, so everyone plays, no matter what."
From an early age, Hines stood out from the masses. When he was 11, he played for an elite academy team and was on the fast track to making the Costa Rican National Team before he moved to New York.
He jumped into the local soccer scene soon after relocating, playing club for the Brooklyn Patriots and trying out for Roosevelt's varsity squad midway through his freshman year. Despite the late start, it didn't take long for Hines to show Roosevelt coach Rawle Hensford what he could do.
"From the first time he touched the ball, I was very impressed," Hensford says. "He was very fast and had good ball control to go with a powerful shot and incredible jumping ability."
Hines needs all of those attributes to make up for his small stature. At 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds, it's easy for other teams to exert physical pressure on him. If they can catch him, that is. And his leaping ability allows him to compete for balls that seem destined for taller players.
With all Hines has done for Roosevelt over the years -- through his first three varsity seasons (29 games) he had 32 goals and 23 assists -- the team has given him even more in return. "I think the soccer helped him adjust in that he was able to meet other players and make friends immediately," Hensford says. "He came in speaking very little English and he picked up the language very quickly."
But it didn't come easy. "It was a hard time learning the language and going to school every day without being able to speak," Hines says.
But he kept at it -- scouring a dictionary to look up words his coaches used -- and it wasn't long before he could communicate with everyone at school. He also began excelling academically, maintaining at least an 80 average in all of his classes.
"I think that's pretty amazing coming from another country," Hensford says.
It all comes back to hard work. And it's easy to see where Hines gets his work ethic. Walter calls his father, William, "the hustler" because he works long hours but still finds time to watch Walter's games and drive him to all of his practices. Hines has made such remarkable strides that he was named a captain of this year's Roosevelt team. That is a tremendous source of pride for the high-scoring forward since it signifies the trust his coaches have in him. "It means a lot to me because ever since I got here I tried to do my best," Hines says. "I tried to work harder and harder every day and this shows it worked out."
Hensford didn't think twice before naming him a captain.
"He's so humble and well-rounded as a student and an athlete," Hensford says. "He's always pushing to be better. I'm very proud of him. It's a rarity to have kids like him, and I'd like to see more students follow in his footsteps."
For all the success he's had at Roosevelt, Hines has also made a huge impact on the national level, playing club soccer for the prestigious New York Red Bulls youth teams. And this past summer, Hines competed against the nation's top high school talent at the adidas ESP camp in California and was named to the All-Star team. College soccer powerhouses like Maryland, St. John's and Northwestern are looking at Hines. He's been working hard to satisfy NCAA academic requirements, which stipulate that each qualifying athlete must have four years of English classes. Since Hines took ESL when he first came to Roosevelt, he went to summer school this past year to earn those credits.
Hines loves it in New York, but he still misses Costa Rica. His greatest regret about leaving is that it prevented him from playing in the FIFA U-17 World Cup for his native country. "All my teammates from club are now on the national team," Hines says. "I wish I was there with them." Chances are, Hines won't have to wait long for his international career to take off. There's been talk that he could go pro after this year. He's received interest from top teams overseas and has talked about trying out for the Portuguese club Benfica, which is where Freddy Adu now plays.
Playing professionally against grown men in a new country with a different culture would be another huge adjustment for Hines. But as long as he has soccer, he should be just fine.