He is impossible to miss.
Dan Stoddard – all 6 feet 8 inches, but not the 380 pounds he was only months ago – ducks through the doors of the Algonquin College gymnasium, hurrying to make a basketball practice that has already gone on for more than an hour.
"About time!" shouts Trevor Costello, head coach of the Algonquin Thunder, as he taps sharply on an imaginary wristwatch.
"Saving lives, coach!" the big man shouts back with a smile. "Saving lives!"
"No excuses!" Mr. Costello shouts over the squeaking shoes surrounding him. "You're not going to heaven!"
"Yes I am, coach. Yes I am!"
In fact, Dan Stoddard is already there.
It is a story Walter Mitty and Forrest Gump couldn't dream up together: An out-of-shape, 38-year-old man (39 on the 26th of this month), getting a chance to live the lost dream of his youth.
That old bald guy, still 6-foot-8, but now 308 pounds, tosses his gym bag into a corner of the gym, trots out onto the floor and, in an instant, reaches up out of a thicket of arms and, with hands that could coddle triplets, calmly plucks away the basketball as it bounces off the rim.
Last game he led the team in rebounds with nine. In his first game against Ontario college rivals, he played only eight minutes. He played 11 minutes in the second and 17 minutes in the third. He has improved so much each game that Mr. Costello thinks, come the end of the basketball season, the Thunder's big guy will be selected to 22-team league's all-rookie team.
A 39-year-old rookie, with three more years to go in the college course he also never imagined taking.
The big player was late for practice with reason. Mr. Stoddard is not only a full-time student in a four-year accounting program, he is a full-time bus driver for OC Transpo in Ottawa, putting in 12-hour shifts four days a week. This particular shift went overtime because he had been forced to brake hard to avoid an accident and an elderly passenger had bumped her hip.
He had waited until paramedics could come, check her out and assure her she had broken nothing. A year-and-a-half earlier, Mr. Stoddard was given special recognition for another act of kindness when he stopped his bus at 1 a.m. because he had noticed a distraught woman crying near a bus shelter. She had been a victim of partner abuse. He stayed and talked quietly with her until police came. A student riding the late-night bus posted a Facebook photo of the hulking driver consoling the women and had praised Mr. Stoddard for his concern and action. The posting was widely shared – much to Mr. Stoddard's embarrassment.
"What kind of person am I if I just drive by and leave you there?" Mr. Stoddard asked when he was given the award.
"That's just the kind of person Dan is," Mr. Costello says.
The Thunder's head coach found his prized rookie by happenstance. To earn a few extra dollars, Mr. Costello referees games around the Ottawa Valley. St. Francis Xavier Catholic High School in little Hammond was having an "alumni tournament" featuring teams from past eras.
Dan Stoddard, the gigantic, out-of-shape bus driver, was on a team from the 1990s. He had once dreamed of playing the game professionally, idolized the then-new Toronto Raptors, but it never worked out. First, he lost his place on the team because of failing grades. Then he married early, becoming a parent at 20 with serious responsibilities. It was time to put childish things away.
But now, 20 years on, he was back on the high-school court last winter and loving it.
"He looked good," Mr. Costello says. "He really looked good."
They talked after the game and Mr. Costello told Mr. Stoddard that he had been impressed by the big man's play. He happened to say he could use a big centre like that on the Thunder team.
Next day, Mr. Stoddard, wide-eyed and nervous, had a question: "Were you serious?"
The next question had to be to Amanda, his wife, and mother of their two children, Kailah, 18, and Mitchell, 15. What if he went back to school – keeping his full-time bus job, of course – but back so that he could play those games that circumstance had denied him?
"I think she thought I was crazy," he says.
"Honestly," Amanda Stoddard says, "I was a little surprised, a little shocked. But this is something he's wanted to do since we got together when we were so young. This is the one regret he had in life."
It was, Amanda thought, pay-back time for her. Her husband had worked incredibly hard – at times holding down two full-time jobs and a part-time job ("I've had over 60 jobs since I left high school," he says) – so that she could go back to school herself.
Now a nurse working night shifts so that she can be home during the day for their kids, she thought it could work.
"Dan sacrificed so much for our family," she says. "So now it was time for us to do something for him."
Daughter Kailah has so embraced her father's wild dream that she has launched an Instagram fan club (oldmandan24) and she and Mitchell sit at home games with a large sign saying "GO #oldmandan GO!"
The Instagram page also contains some of her father's favourite sayings: "If you want something you've never had, then you've got to do something you've never done."
Having obtained the backing of his family, Mr. Stoddard's next step was to become a student, something he had never been much of in the past. He hadn't lasted a semester at his first try at Algonquin, taking a course in computers that didn't interest him and soon dropping out.
"I was in the gym all the time anyway," he says.
He had always shown a knack for numbers, however, and this time he was accepted into an accounting course. He hopes eventually to become a Chartered Professional Accountant. He studies when he can – at breaks in his bus routes, late at night and often sitting in his pickup truck at a Tim Hortons so he can use the wifi.
"I drive a Chevy Silverado," he says. "It's the only truck I can fit into."
Once he became a full-time student at Algonquin, he then had to get in shape – or at least better shape. He began working out at the OC Transpo facilities. He hired a personal trainer. He became a gym rat again, working hard to shed weight and gain back at least a little speed.
"It's coming," he laughs. "If we played a half-court game, just give me the ball."
His work ethic puts those on the team who are half his age to shame. If Mr. Stoddard beats any of the younger teammates while doing the coach's gruelling "suicides" – stops and starts the length of the gym and back – they often are told to repeat them.
"Dan tries hard," the team's star player, 6-foot-10 centre Vule Grujic says. "He's a joy to be around. He pushes the other guys.
"He made it happen. He's living his dream."
The story of the big bus driver's impossible dream has taken on a bit of a life of its own. The Ottawa Citizen wrote about it, local radio stations picked it up and The Washington Post was calling last week for a few words with the ancient rookie.
"If it inspires anybody, I'm happy," Mr. Stoddard says. "But they should inspire themselves. The only block in your way is your own mind. Don't listen to the little voices in your head saying you can't do it."
He did it, after all. No matter how improbably it once seemed, no matter how it looks. "We're a travelling freak show," Mr. Costello says. "No matter where we go, people are looking. I'm turning 50 and Dan looks older than me."
"I hear the laughter," Mr. Stoddard says. "I hear them in the hallway – 'Look at the old man! Look at the old man!'
"But, you know, I could die on the floor and be absolutely happy. I got to live my dream."