By Steve George, CNN
He was likely the first one into the cave and on Tuesday was the last one pulled out.
Ekkapol Ake Chantawong, the 25-year-old coach of the Wild Boars soccer team, has been criticized by some for what is perceived to be an act of supreme recklessness.
Why did he, the adult tasked with taking care of 12 young children, decide to lead the group into a dangerous, forbidden network of underground tunnels, known to flood at this time of year?
To those who know the former monk and community worker, the willingness of others to judge from afar has led to a characterization they say is unfair and inaccurate.
Thamma Kantawong is one of only two living relatives of Coach Ake, as he is popularly known around town. The other is his elderly grandmother.
Though Kantawong is Ake’s cousin, she says she thinks of him more as a young nephew, owing to the age gap between the two family members. She refers to herself as his aunt.
From inside her modest home in Mae Sai, Kantawong recounts Ake’s traumatic childhood and the death of his parents.
“His mother died while he was still very, very young and his father passed away when he was just 10,” she says. His brother, his only sibling, also died very young, says Kantawong, showing us an old family picture of Ake with his parents and brother.
As a result, Ake, like many orphaned children in Thailand, moved away from his childhood home of Mae Sai to become a Buddhist monk at a monastery in the nearby province of Lum Phun.
He remained in the care of the monastery for much of the next decade, only coming back to his hometown on occasion to see his grandmother. It was a very tough period for such a young boy to endure, says Kantawong, who did not see him very often during this time.
Ake would eventually return to his Mae Sai in his 20s man looking to rebuild his life. Though no longer a monk, he has maintained close ties with the town’s numerous temples, where friends say he regularly spends his time praying and assisting in renovations.
Kantawong credits her nephew’s devout faith for his willingness to help others, pointing out that he did not eat for the first few days in the cave, and instead shared his food among the children.
This selflessness, says Kantawong, is what helped to keep the children alive during those first nine agonizing days before divers discovered the missing group huddled together on a ledge, surrounded by floodwater, some 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) into the cave network.
“He loves the football team. Wherever he goes, he always has some of the kids with him,” she says. “Their parents trust him that he can take of their sons.”
Kantawong says that although Ake organizes and coaches several training sessions a week for the junior Wild Boars team, he receives only a small stipend. “He’s not motivated by money,” she says. “He does it because he loves soccer and working with children.”
Kantawong rejects the idea that he would knowingly do anything that might harm the children. “He is very good person, loves kids, takes care of kids, he is very diligent, and always volunteers himself to help others,” she says. “The language he speaks is very polite. For him whoever will like him how the way he is.”
It’s a view shared at the Wild Boars club, where Ake is the coach of the junior team.
On Monday night, the club’s senior squad resumed training for the first time since the disappearance of the junior side 18 days ago.
The club had previously suspended all matches and training sessions, deciding it would be inappropriate to play football while their junior teammates were trapped inside the cave.
But now, with the early stages of the rescue effort proving successful, the club’s head coach, Nopparat Kanthawong, suggested the team come together in a show of unity with the rescuers.
During the early evening practice session, members of the senior team talked of their fondness and respect for the junior coach, recalling memories of how he would give up his personal time to help organize activities for the children.
“Coach Ake is a type of a guy who loves all the kids,” says 17-year-old Kae-hae Lahuna. “After we all finish practice, he always takes each of the younger kids home, to make sure they’re all safe. He takes good care of the kids and likes to spoil them very much,” he adds.
The teams training facility sits in the shadow of the mountains where the caves are located. Typically, the junior team will finish practicing before the senior team take to the pitch. Lahuna was among the players who were still training on Saturday, June 23, as anxious parents began to call the head coach to ask if he knew where their children were.
“When we first heard they were missing at the caves, I and around 10 other senior members of the team rushed into the mountains to look for them. We were the first people there,” says Lahuna.
“We waited at the cave entrance for them until 4 a.m. the next day.”
Pannawit Jongkham, the coach of the senior team, who joined the search later that same evening, says everyone associated with the Wild Boars is behind coach Ake, as they have been since the first day of the rescue.
“When he is out, everything will be the same, we will support him, nothing will change,” says Jongkham.
At a Buddhist temple behind the house of Ake’s aunt, on the edges of Thailand’s northern border with Myanmar, community members are hopeful he will be back riding his bike across town and taking the kids out into the countryside.
One former monk, who gave his name as Jay, described Ake as an active part of life in Mae Sai.
“He is always out with the kids on bike rides into the hills,” says Jay, who is now an artist and is helping to paint the temple’s decorative internal columns.
Like Jay, Ake is also a volunteer, who assists in the upkeep of the town’s various temples. “He’s a well-known guy. A good guy,” says Jay. “He helps us out a lot.”
“I see him often at the Wat Pha That Doi Wao temple on the hill, where he comes to pray,” he says. “We are often catch up and talk together.”
Kantawong says she’s been in contact with the authorities and is hopeful she will see Ake again in the coming days.
She is at pains to thank the rescuers for their efforts and the unending debt of gratitude she owes to the Thai Navy SEALs, one of whom died last Friday during the pre-rescue operation.
Kantawong says she does not know why her nephew entered the cave, though suggests the boys could have been looking for shade after a long bike ride in the summer heat. “Maybe he just wanted to rest, maybe he felt hot,” she says.
She is aware that some people will always hold him responsible for the group’s predicament, though she hopes that people will be forgiving.
“I think foreigners and Thai people are kind enough to welcome him back,” she says. “He’s a very good man.”