In all probability, Manpreet Singh will be leading the Indian men's hockey team at the Tokyo Olympics next year. Ten years after making his India debut, the Arjuna awardee will be captaining the national team at the showpiece event in Tokyo. This has been quite a journey for him, who at 18, was clueless where his career is heading to, despite having put all his energy and passion in the field.
"After passing out from school in 2010, and while still playing at an academy, I was not sure where I was headed to. At that time, I could not see any scope in hockey. I was not sure about my future as a hockey player. It was mostly considered an end of career if you were not able to get picked in any (junior or senior) team from the academy. That was my fear. The uncertain future troubled me," Manpreet told Firstpost, while speaking about the biggest turning point of his career.
He was 18 and was confused. He could see those senior to him, after finishing school, taking up farming or driving trucks, something which he did not imagine himself doing. Manpreet's aim, since he was eight, had always been to play hockey and excel as an athlete. But he did not see much hope as he pursued the sport.
The same year, in 2010, former hockey player Pargat Singh, who belongs to the same village as his - Mithapur in Punjab near Jalandhar - happened to visit the village and he came as a guiding light for Manpreet. He reached out to Pargat to seek a career advice. An advice, which he tells, changed his career for good.
"I met Pargat Singh in 2010. That was the time I had finished school. He used to visit our village every now and then. I had this fear for my future that how am I going to excel in this sport? That is when I reached out to him once when he had visited our village. I told him 'I have just finished my school. I have seen that those who had passed out from school still don't have any jobs. Some are driving trucks, some are into farming'. I asked him what should I do?," recalled Manpreet.
Pargat had just one thing to tell Manpreet at that stage of his life. That he was young, talented and he needed to continue working hard.
"He told me your job is to do hard work and not think about any result. If you are hard working, god will open gates for you."
The hard work doubled for Manpreet as he went on to play for DAV College, Jalandhar, then in the Nationals and eventually got selected in the national team for the Asian Champions Trophy in 2011. The gates were certainly opening up for the young man.
Even before that turning point happened, there were other instances when Manpreet could have easily stopped playing the sport but because he had made up his mind, he continued to fight all the obstacles. When he was eight, watching his two elder brothers play hockey, he too fell in love with the game. But with one of his brothers getting injured in the field while playing a match, his mother did not allow him to touch the stick, fearing he too may get injured and they may not have enough money to get him back to full fitness. The fact that money was tough to come by and with his father facing mental health issues, the situation made it all more tough for Manpreet.
Manpreet remembered, "My mother told me you will never play hockey. My father was also not mentally stable. My mother had seen very hard time and was going through one. They did not want me to get injured while playing hockey as we did not have enough money even. My passion however was growing by the day."
Despite being not allowed to play, he used to sneak out from home to the ground to play hockey. But one day, his brother caught him and yelled at him for not listening to mother and his advice. Manpreet's childhood coach Baldev Singh, who was present at that time in the ground, told his brother that he was talented and should be given a freehand to play as he loves the sport, and enjoys it and who knows he may be able to play for India one day. The matter was sorted out for the moment. However, restrictions did not ease for Manpreet at home. Yet he never gave up and continued playing.
And then one day, he won Player of the Tournament trophy while playing in a local tournament, and came back home with a sum of Rs 500. He gave the prize money to his mother and said, "mamma meri first salary (Mother, my first salary". That Rs 500 award, Manpreet's first salary, melted down his mother, who promised to be always by his side in his journey to become an India player.