Aram Eisho's family fled war-torn Iraq and emigrated to Canada, where the sudden illness and death of his father was but another burden for him to shoulder.
Through it all, the one constant in Eisho's life has been football, where the young man has channelled his frustrations in a constructive manner and developed into one of the top defensive players in Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
A tenacious linebacker for the top-ranked and defending Vanier Cup champion McMaster Marauders, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Eisho was honoured on Thursday by Ontario University Athletics as the league's standup defensive player of the year.
"He's got a unique perspective because of that experience and all that he has been through and he's one of our emotional leaders," Stefan Ptaszek, the McMaster coach, said. "Aram gets us fired up and gets ready to play."
Of the five player awards handed out, three went to McMaster, which on Saturday will play the upstart Guelph Gryphons in the Yates Cup Ontario championship on the McMaster campus in Hamilton.
McMaster quarterback Kyle Quinlan, who set a league record by completing 69 per cent of his passes (162 of 235) for the undefeated Marauders (9-0), was selected as the OUA's most valuable player in 2012.
The award for OUA lineman of the year went to McMaster defensive end Ben D'Aguilar.
Ptaszek was OUA coach of the year.
Western Mustang running back Yannick Harou was OUA rookie of the year, and Guelph defensive back Zach Androschuk was the nominee for the Russ Jackson Award, awarded to the CIS player who best exemplifies the attributes of academic achievement, football skill and citizenship.
Eisho's is a remarkable story. He left Iraq when he was three months old after his mother, Shawshan, had grown weary of the almost decade-long war against Iran. Along with his six-year-old sister, Eisho and his mother travelled to Greece on the guise of a vacation, never to return home.
Eisho's father, Hassid, was in the Iraqi army and wouldn't join his family in Greece for another six months.
"My mom didn't want me to have to follow in my father's footsteps and become a soldier," Eisho said. "That's how it works over there. If you don't got to college or university right away, you're inducted into the army."
Eisho said his father never liked talking about the war, but his mother was more forthcoming.
"Bombs were constantly going off and gunfire," he said. "The only time you felt a little bit safe was when there was a ceasefire. It was a foolish war. A lot of young men died."
When Eisho was six the family emigrated to Canada and settled in Hamilton after his father landed a job at a steel factory.
Eisho started playing organized football in Grade 10, then junior football for the Hamilton Hurricanes in the Ontario Football Conference. For three years running he was the Canadian Junior Football League's outstanding defensive player.
After graduating Grade 12, Eisho's father was diagnosed with lung cancer and given two years to live. Eisho was forced to take a full-time job in construction to help support the family.
Hassid Eisho died in 2010. He was 56.
Determined to carry on with his education, the younger Eisho attended adult high school to improve his marks and was accepted last year into McMaster, where he is studying social sciences.
He had an immediate impact on the Marauder football team and was selected as the top defensive player in the 2011 Vanier Cup, in which McMaster won a thrilling double-overtime victory over Laval.
With the strong-armed Quinlan directing the Mac attack, the Marauders will be the favourites heading into Saturday's OUA final against the fifth-ranked Gryphons, who are riding a seven-game win streak.
The Gryphons' (8-1) lone loss came against the Marauders, who mauled Guelph 50-9 in the first game of the season. Ptaszek said the Gryphons are not the same team they were in September.
"The biggest stat that I can see is in Week 1 they forced no turnovers against us," he said. "In the eight weeks since then they've forced 39 turnovers. That's almost five a game. It's an attacking defence that plays fast and downhill."
CIS FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Atlantic University Sport final
Saint Mary's Huskies (NR) at Acadia Axemen (NR)
Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec finalSherbrooke Vert et Or (10) at Laval Rouge et Or (2)
Ontario University Athletics final
Guelph Gryphons (5) at McMaster Marauders (1)
Canada West Universities Athletics Association finalRegina Rams (7) at Calgary Dinos (3)
AUS at RSEQ
CWUAA at OUA
At Rogers Centre in Toronto