MANILA, Philippines — “You can take the boy out of the Philippines but you can’t take the Philippines out of the boy.”
This is the life-long creed of 16-year-old Jozef Erece — a second year law student, a semi-professional basketball player in Australia, a Taekwondo black-belter, and an orchestra violinist — while he was growing up in New Zealand.
Yes, your eyes are not fooling you. This wonder is only 16-years-old.
Born and raised 5, 000 miles away from the Philippines, Jozef never fails to look back to his roots here. Every 5 years, his family comes home to spend time with their relatives.
“There’s this feeling of real love and real connection for me with the Philippines. I may have grown up in New Zealand but my heart stays at home: the Philippines,” Jozef told Rappler in an exclusive interview.
This time though, he is back for a greater cause.
“I found out about Gilas more than a year ago. Being a Pinoy, I wanted to try out for that so I told my dad about it,” he says referring to the Philippine National Basketball Team.
With the help of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, Jozef flew in to try out for the team and work with the youth squad.
“I just love the passion of Pinoys for basketball and that’s one big reason why I’m here. In New Zealand, I’d watch games of the team on the internet and update myself every once in a while about basketball here,” the 6-foot-4 Johnny Abarrientos fan said.
Josef’s basketball credentials put his dream of playing for the Philippine flag within reach.
Learning the sport at the relatively late age of 10, he started to dunk in just a couple of weeks. Likewise, Jozef captained the Saint John’s College senior team to a regional championship, copping the MVP trophy in the process. He later skippered the Waikato University Under-17 squad.
After that, Jozef brought his wares to Australia, where he first became back-to-back MVP for the Springfield Brumbies in the Ipswich City league before turning heads when he received an invitation to join the Nike All-Australian tour to the United States.
At present, he is the youngest athlete competing at the Greater Brisbane League Gold, a semi-pro level tournament in Australia. He has since been invited to play for the New Zealand National Team and Queensland (AUS) but turned it down to avoid complications in FIBA rules to play for the Philippines.
“I just want to give back to the Philippines. That’s why I want to represent Gilas,” Jozef, whose father Maynard was a varsity player for University of the Philippines-Baguio in college.
Not just a sharpshooter but also a hard-hitter
But Jozef is not just about basketball.
In fact, he is a 3rd Dan Black belt holder of the Kukkiwon World Taekwondo Headquarters in Korea.
“Believe it or not, it started with a video game. I was so fond of playing Tekken in my Playstation so I got a liking to martial arts. I got interested in Taekwondo.”
Jozef excelled rapidly in the sport and became a member of New Zealand’s Olympic demonstration team when he was just 9 years old.
He is presently an instructor at the Waikato University Taekwondo Club and only his age is holding him back to move to the Master 4th Dan level, which has 18 years old as minimum age requirement.
Despite his accolades in sports, Jozef is extending his borders from the hardcourt to the courtroom.
A second-year Law student at the University of Southern Queensland (and currently holding the record as the youngest law student in Australia), Jozef is pretty much on target to become the youngest lawyer in Australia and New Zealand.
“Why law? I’d say it’s a product of circumstances, not fate,” Jozef quipped.
“There is a certain degree of support from my family and that makes it possible for me. And of course, it’s for the greater glory of God.”
His aspirations of becoming a lawyer started when Waikato University School of Law in New Zealand invited him to be the youngest law entrant on record. His family then decided to move to Australia to widen his horizons.
“We support him in all his endeavours. We believed in his decisions so when he said he wanted to continue his studies in Australia, we sold our cars and our home to fund it and we moved,” Jozef’s dad Maynard said.
Wonder kid in the land of the Kiwis
But long before becoming a sensation in law school, Jozef has already been breaking records when it comes to academics.
He graduated Dux (valedictorian) at St. Peter’s Catholic School in Cambridge—becoming the first ever student of Asian descent to achieve it in the school’s 75-year history.
“We knew that he was different way back when he was still little. He was accelerated 3 years forward in primary school and he was setting the standard in schools ever since,” Maynard added of his son.
“He has become some sort of a national pride among the Filipinos in New Zealand. When the locals think of Filipino, they think of Jozef and they think of what he has achieved. Filipinos are now looked with esteem because of him.”
At the age of 10, he wrote an essay and sent it to Stanford University. As a result, he was invited to move to the United States to skip high school and enter Stanford. Within weeks, London’s Oxford University also sent him an invite, this time to take their Maths and Physics program.
“After receiving invitations from Stanford and Oxford, the first thing he asked was ‘Is there a playground there?.’ The whole thing will be new for him and at 10 years old, his mom and I decided that it was not the time for a move to the States yet,” the elder Erece told Rappler.
Big dreams start at home
Maynard, an educator and Joann, a doctor, moved to New Zealand in 1995 “for a new beginning.” Jozef followed shortly after.
“We didn’t want our children to grow with little opportunities here like what happened to us so we agreed to raise our family abroad,” Maynard said.
“But of course, it was a lot different back then. It is better here right now.”
The couple has actually been blessed not only by a gifted child but two at that.
Maynah, their 11-year-old daughter, is also a genius. Despite being born with hearing problems, her dad shares that at 3 years old, she learned to read on her own. She’s also a swimmer, a ballerina, a model, and a pianist altogether.
“She is pretty much like her brother. But this time, we don’t want her to rush on everything,” Maynard says.
As a family bonding, the 4 would go to theme parks or have Friday movie nights.
“TLC (Tender Loving Care) from the family is a big factor why we are where we are,” Jozef shares.
Just like another teen
Behind the long list of achievements, however, is just another teenager.
“I still find time to regularly go out with friends, surf the net and I play online games too,” said Jozef.
Jozef’s typical day normally starts at 10:00 am for a bowl of cereals for breakfast. He then shoots some hoops before going to school. After spending the afternoon on lectures and studies, he hangs out a bit with friends or gets some quality time with his family. He then spends the rest of the night with books.
“I just manage my time with periodic scheduling. When it’s studies, it’s all studies. When it’s basketball, it’s all basketball. Then I could do what everyone my age would do.”
Like a typical adolescent, he also loves music — and not surprisingly, he excels at that.
“I play the violin as a form of self-expression. It soothes me when I am stressed,” Jozef says.
He is in now in Grade 7 in violin and is a part of the Waikato Youth Orchestra and Saint John’s and Sacred Heart College combined Orchestra. Aside from the violin, he can also play the piano and guitar, among other instruments.
“He is like other teenagers still. His mom gets worried about girls crushing on Jozef too!” Maynard said.
“My son is not perfect — far from it. He still struggles at tasks. Although we believe that he can be what he wants to be, he can’t do everything. He can’t cook for one.”
Focus is the key
The elder Erece also shared a story when a priest told Jozef to enter the seminary. The priests were hoping that he could one day be the pope.
“When he focuses on something, he is unstoppable. That one’s a problem. We had to find a way to distract him so we make him take other things like sports for example,” Maynard shares.
“At one point, he excelled so much in school that he finished a 3-year program in just a year! The program has to be revised as a result of what Jozef did.”
“Jozef is a trail blazer. He burns everything that comes his path,” he added.
When asked on how he can possibly do everything that he does, the prodigy shared one thing. It’s about focus.
“Since I’m a law student now, I read cases for hours and hours. I focus on one thing at a time,” he shared his regimen.
A kid with ‘no mean bone’
“Jozef is very nice. He doesn’t have a mean bone.”
Aside from being a wonder kid, Jozef’s father describes his boy as kind and nice to the people around him. According to Maynard, he is a doting brother to his sister Maynah and an obedient son to them.
“He takes care of his sister. He is also very humble,” the father added.
Maynard explained that since Jozef knows what he wants and knows very well how to get there, the kid was never insecure. Thus, he doesn’t have to brag about all his achievements.
“He doesn’t have to prove anything.”
During his stay in New Zealand, Jozef was able to glue different cliques, races, and people together through his friendliness. Even today, students from his alma mater know who he is due to the legacy of unity and kindness he left.
Jozef Erece is definitely a prodigy in sports, music, and the academe. Despite all he has achieved though, the only thing the boy wants is to give back to his motherland and to offer all glory to his creator.
Truly, Jozef is an inspiration that has brought Filipino Pride to the next level. – Rappler.com