Junior soccer player Kris Picarelli of Corona del Mar poses on the field. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Imagine being a Southern California kid growing up near the beach in Orange County and deciding to head to Italy on your 16th birthday to spend nine months at a boarding school, leaving behind your mother, father, younger brother and friends to follow your dream of trying to become a professional soccer player.
Kris Picarelli said he was inspired by his cousin, Italian national team goalkeeper Anna Marie Picarelli, so he packed up his suitcase and boarded a plane Sept. 16, 2010, and didn't return for good until June 20, 2011, missing his sophomore year of high school.
He stayed in the town of Assisi, known as "the city that speaks to heaven" in the province of Perugia, with its centuries old churches and filled with convents, rectories, monasteries, priests and nuns.
"It was pretty much study Italian, play soccer and eat every day," he said. "I ate pasta more than you can believe."
He left as a boy and returned as a young man.
"It made me grow up," he said. "Being on your own, there's not many people looking out for you. You have to get smart and mature quick."
He'd play games against 22-year-olds who had no problem beating up on the lone American teenager on the field.
"A few times I had to go to the hospital to get things checked out to see if things were broken," he said.
He loved every second of it.
He traveled to Rome, Venice and Milan to watch soccer and play soccer.
"Every country has its own soccer mentality," he said. "I learned a whole different way of seeing the game. Being able to practice three hours a day, five days a week, no matter who you're playing, you're going to get better. I brought my game to places I didn't think it could go."
The memories were many.
There was the town of Assisi.
"I can't explain how beautiful and quiet a city it is," he said. "It was like waking up and seeing the mountains. The city is so old it's incredible. It was a beautiful, humbling experience."
There was living on his own with 400 students.
"It was great meeting all types of kids from around the world," he said. "Some of those kids are my brothers. It definitely got tough at times, being away from home. You have two bathrooms to share with 50 different kids. It's a really old boarding school. It wasn't like a vacation. It was like a growing experience."
There was Mass every Sunday and the chance to explore his spirituality.
"I don't really get frustrated with things anymore," he said. "Little things are little things, big things are big things."
There were the times he reflected on why he was so far from home.
"I went there to put my head down and work, and if I'm going to commit to this, I'm going to come the whole way or it's a waste of time," he said. "I remember one night sitting in my bed. The heater in my room had been broken. My room was so cold I took a breath and you could see it. I had to put a snow jacket on. It made me appreciate the little things I have."
He enrolled at Newport Beach Corona del Mar in September for his junior year and is playing for the school's soccer team. He's expecting all A's on his report card. He wants to play college and pro soccer. He's 6 feet, 165 pounds and is a defender. He feels older than the 17-year-old he is.
"Being from America, not many have the dream to be a professional soccer player," he said. "It was kind of an eye-opening experience seeing it could happen even though there are so many people going against you.
"The lesson is trying anything is possible if you want it bad enough. If I try hard enough, there's no one who can stop me."