In one of Hong Kong’s 18 districts, towering skyscrapers dot the landscape rife with mountainous ranges and picturesque views of the nearby beaches and dazzling blue sea. The images at times are enough to take one’s breath away. In this subtropical district of Tai Po (population just under 300,000), the appetite for sports is growing. Toby Down can feel it as he rides through the streets atop an enormous “Big Bus” in the middle of May.
Notes Down, “People would never expect some parts of Hong Kong to look like they do.”
On the particular day described, Down is soaking up this not-so-typical bus ride. Like many do now in this modern world, he pulls out his phone and records video as he and his teammates sing merrily, the bus eking along on the crowded streets of densely populated Tai Po. Some onlookers wave and return the joyous looks. Others seem a little more confused about what is taking place.
This celebration is certainly unique from the one Down and his Concordia University men’s soccer teammates engaged in back in November 2015 when they upset GPAC giant Hastings in the conference postseason title game. It served as a prelude to Down’s current role as a professional for the Tai Po FC of the Hong Kong Premier League (HKPL). Just a couple of weeks ago, Down basked in an HKPL championship, a thrill few people get to experience.
“They were definitely different experiences,” Down says of the two championships. “Winning the GPAC was an amazing memory, something I will never forget and a great achievement. The adrenaline of that moment made it special. Whereas here we won the league in the second to last game, so the final game of the season we already knew the trophy celebration was going to happen. It was definitely on a grander scale and in front of a few thousand people and lots of press.”
Down did not necessarily plan for it to work out this way, but this is Down living life while he’s full of it and still young. A native of Kowloon, Hong Kong (born in Ascot, England), Down had mapped out a return to such familiar surroundings, although he figured to put his marketing degree to use. For now, this is his main career priority.
As Down put it, “I decided I wasn’t ready to go into an office.” Thankfully, Down had a connection to Tai Po FC, whose manager coached Down on a u17 team prior to his landing in Nebraska.
“Once I finished my degree I thought I had set everything up to go into a marketing role at a big sports event and hospitality company,” Down said. “It’s basically the reason I came back to Hong Kong. It fell through and I was left without a job. I got set up with a trial at Tai Po FC, who had just finished second in the league. After my two-week trial, luckily I had done enough that they wanted to sign me up. They were the right fit for my first proper team. I knew most of the players from previous teams. It just worked well.”
It’s difficult to describe exactly what the level of play is like in the HKPL. It’s obviously not of the same stature as the famed and wildly popular English Premier League. The players of the HKPL are not exactly getting rich in an area where expenses are high, but this is about more than money for athletes who do not want to give the game up. This is the highest level of soccer in Hong Kong within a league that Down believes in trending the right way.
While a player under head coach Jason Weides’ guidance, Down found himself positioned all over the field during a four-year run that saw him play in 73 games. Not only did he aid in the GPAC tournament title of 2015, Down also played a starring role for the 2017 squad that went 16-3-1 and broke the school record for wins in a season. Minutes are a bit tougher to come by in Tai Po, but Down is staying positive.
“It is completely different from the college level,” Down said. “I think college football set me up as well as it could have for this situation – training every day, juggling other tasks and playing at a high level. There is a big difference in attitude in the fact that it becomes your job. Football is a full-time job here for most people, however, it isn’t English Premier League wages. A lot of people have afternoon or evening jobs. I train in the morning and coach afternoons. I’m looking to change that to marketing.”
Known as someone with a colorful personality and as a versatile player during his time as a Bulldog, Down has done something unprecedented for Concordia alums. Weides believes Down is the first former Bulldog to win a championship with a professional soccer team.
Said Weides, “I was really excited for him. He helped us hold up a trophy and I was excited to know that he was able to do that afterwards. It’s hard to get to that level. To be able to hoist up a trophy for a Premier League title for his first year as a pro in Hong Kong is really special. Not everybody gets a chance at it.
“We’ve had a lot of former players that have been more at the semi-professional level. Recently we’ve had a few play professionally. It’s really cool for Toby to be able to do that. What he’s doing there is special.”
In two places drastically different (Nebraska – Hong Kong), Down has found championship glory. Asked what he misses most about Seward? “Definitely the people!” And what makes Hong Kong so special? It’s tough for Down to point to just one thing. Life is good in this land of high-rise apartments, plush green landscapes and warm temperatures. Fellow Bulldog alum and girlfriend Jeannelle Condame has joined him there. ‘There’ is where Down poses with the HKPL championship trophy and enjoys boat parties – yes, boat parties.
Says Down, “The professional career was not something I had planned after college, but now that I’m involved I’m all in. I have been happy in Tai Po this season.”