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Nothing much surprises Farhan Lalji. After all, as a reporter for TSN he’s been used to dealing with the unexpected on some of the world’s greatest sporting stages. But he was shocked when he was called up to the stage as the city’s citizen of the year at the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce’s Platinum Awards on Thursday.

When the list of eight nominees came out, Lalji didn’t think he had a chance. It was an “esteemed group” that included his neighbour Kenneth Williams, who has been a pillar in the community for decades.

“I thought there’s no way, with his longevity, there’s no way I was going to get it,” said Lalji, head coach of the New Westminster Hyacks high school football team and president of Royal City Hyacks minor football club.

But get it he did. In fact, Lalji’s nomination was supported by 12 individuals.

“It was a really tough decision, there was some really amazing people who were nominated,” said chamber executive director Cori Lynn Germiquet. “What stood out was the fact he’s leading by example. He’s really providing the youth of today opportunities for tomorrow. He’s doing that by coaching them, respecting them, and encouraging volunteerism that engages them in our community.”

Since Lalji reintroduced football to New Westminster secondary 10 years ago, the senior team’s games at Mercer Stadium on fall Friday nights often attract 1,000 fans or more. The program brings together students from diverse backgrounds and also involves a minor football program with 250 youth participating.

“One of our coaches says we’re not coaching football, we’re coaching young men,” said Lalji. “We’ve had great teams, and we’ve had teams that have not been as good and we want to make sure the lessons we teach in dealing with good and bad in life are done.”

He said the honour was more for the organization than an individual. “These kind of awards are kind of difficult to accept because they’re singular … I would prefer someone else get their 15 minutes of fame.”

For instance, he said assistant coach Chad Oatway, who is also a teacher at NWSS, has been with him every step of the way doing as much as he has. Another coach, Ryan Leslie, is also in charge of the youth program.

“We’ve all kind of grown up together. When we came to the community we dove right in. Our families live here. We all really believe in New Westminster and the community. We’ve been able to make an impact, but I don’t know if we could have made the same impact everywhere, because there’s a real community spirit there,” Lalji said.

As president of BC High School Football, Lalji said he’s heard many coaches complain about community support. That’s not the case for him. His wife, Mary, is in charge of obtaining sponsorships and the city’s businesses are more than willing to help out.

“It matters more because there’s so many people involved,” said Lalji. “To win something like that in a place where so many people care.”

Lalji was recently named, for the second time, as a finalist for NFL Canada’s youth football coach of the year for the work he has done developing young men.

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