The big picture
As Andy Lan prepared to do his homework, he walked into his makeshift room.
Living in a two-bedroom apartment with his mother and generally a local college student from Rutgers, Lan was forced to have his own space and bed crammed into the dining room. He pulled a curtain closed to have the smallest bit of privacy.
"Growing up as a kid, I never really had my own door," Lan said. "Someone always had to split the rent and we couldn't afford it. My mom worked hard."
Living arrangements weren't ideal. And Tan, who was a sophomore at the time, started to feel the strain. His grades suffered.
Before Lan went into his junior year at Highland Park (N.J.), he sat down with his mom, Hong Liao. The two discussed their options and came to an agreement that a roommate wasn't the best idea for Lan's growth. So, for the first time since moving from China when Lan was 5 years old, Lan and his mom were living on their own. They had to tighten up their finances.
"I've coached a lot of kids in my 26 years and I don't think there's a better kid out there that I’ve coached.”
In his first year without living with a "stranger," Lan registered a 4.2 grade point average. He had turned his life around at home and in the classroom.
"He tries his best with whatever is in front of him," said Lan's mom, Liao. "He is a fighter."
Lan's mom does the best she can to provide for her son. But being raised by a single mother is tough.
"Because of that, it's forced him to grow up fast," said Rich McGlynn, who has become a father figure and mentor in Lan's life. "He's definitely matured in life ahead of himself. When I saw him in middle school, I started seeing leadership characteristics just within the class and how he handled himself."
Lan, 17, has never really opened up to many of his friends and about his situation at home. However, when he penned an essay to try and be selected for the Battles Won Academy this summer — which he earned a spot — Lan passionately let go about his past experiences.
"I said, ‘This is a battle that I won, and I think it's time for me to be open about it,'" Lan said. "I felt that I was mature enough to be able to talk about it and to reflect."
Sports have also been a savor in Lan's life.
Lan didn't start competing in athletics until he was a freshman in high school. The first-generation immigrant picked up football, wrestling and baseball and has become a decorated three-sport athlete. Lan is also a big proponent of his community and gets out to volunteer for activities as much as possible.
For all that Lan has overcome and accomplished — as well as competing at a high level at the Battles Won Academy — he was named the Semper Fidelis Male Athlete of the Year, presented by the Marines.
Three-sport standout Amber Schraufnagel, of Mayville (Wis.), was picked as the Semper Fidelis Female Athlete of the Year.
"To be the athlete of the year, it's such a huge honor because it's on and off the field," said Lan, who stands just 5-foot-6. "I was a little overwhelmed because I'm definitely not the best athlete in the world, I'm the first to say that. I think there's more I could do off the field, too, but I think that it's motivational."
When he was in eighth grade, McGlynn, who was the middle school gym teacher and varsity football coach, pulled Lan into his office and encouraged him to try out for football as a freshman. Lan was actually thinking about going out for the cross-country team since he was on a health kick and running quite a bit.
"I said, ‘Everything you're trying to do, it will help mold you. It will help you in the direction to overcome obstacles, get you more focused on things you want to do,'" McGlynn said.
Lan went out for the football team and loved it. McGlynn, who was also a baseball coach at the time, got to coach Lan more, and the two bonded.
"I feel really blessed," Liao said. "He is a role model, coach McGlynn, and (so is) our pastor. We are so blessed. I'm very thankful."
Even tough McGlynn is no longer coaching Lan at Highland Park, he and Lan talk at a minimum of once a week. They discuss life in general and if Lan doesn't see eye to eye with one of his coaches, he'll contact McGlynn for advice.
"He calms me down. He kind of reassures me about what they're doing," Lan said. "I think the biggest thing is, though, he's always pushed me to apply for everything that I can apply for and try to get into any position that I could obtain. Because of him, I've gotten into a lot of community service stuff."
When McGlynn first met Lan in sixth grade, the coach didn't know much about his life or that his father and stepfather left the family when he was young. Everything that Lan has endured during his short existence has given him a great shell for the rest of his life.
"The most important thing I can say about him is just as a young kid, I can't think of a better person," McGlynn said. "I've coached a lot of kids in my 26 years and I don't think there's a better kid out there that I've coached, and I've coached some great kids. He'll always do the right thing. He's a mentor to young kids, always tries to put them under his wing and get them to do the right thing and he's got them in the right direction. His work ethic in the weight room and on the field, it's nonstop."
For the past two years, Lan started on the football team at middle linebacker, offensive line and long snapper. He's also been a two-year starter in baseball as a catcher and utility player as well as on the wrestling team.
In school and in the community, Lan is always getting involved. He's the chair of communications for the Mayor's Teen Council and a youth representative for the Safe Walking and Cycling Committee in Highland Park. Lan is proud to be a student representative for the Highland Park Board of Education and he was recently on the hiring committee that helped select his school's assistant principal.
"He thinks of others, that's a tremendous quality. He's not always thinking about himself," McGlynn said. "I think he always sees the big picture and the big picture is that whatever the task is that is involving other people and he can see the people see the same vision and moving forward. I think that's one of his greatest qualities."
Ever since he was little, Lan has had a knack for public speaking. That has led to an interest in politics, which could be a career choice down the line.
"I want to be able to touch lives, but I don't know how I'm going to do that yet," said Lan, who will be a senior at Highland Park this fall. "I don't know what career I want to get into for that, but there are so many options.
"President Obama has a history and when he was running (for president), he gave a lot about his own family and how that shaped him. I think that in similar ways that what happened and what me and my mom have struggled and have kind of won these battles in our lives. I want to make sure that I can help anyone who's going through the same thing."
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL SMITH