Montville - The summer before his freshman year in high school, Rubén Diaz took a trip that continues to hang in the forefront of his mind.
For two weeks, he visited the Darien Jungle in western Panama. Diaz spent days hacking down tall grass with a machete and working to build and repair a church.
He and others bathed in a nearby river. Throughout the entire experience, he spoke and learned from villagers who walked barefoot, wore tattered clothing and had very little.
Diaz saw the vast differences in the life he led compared to these people, but that didn't seem to matter. These strangers still welcomed him and others they had never met into their homes.
"What really struck me the most was how kind they were and how open they were," Diaz said. "Seeing how different people live gives you a perspective on how good you have it, you know?"
The missionary trip was one of three that Diaz, a senior at Montville High School, has taken since he was in the sixth grade. He also visited Peru and Ecuador in other voyages that have helped shape him into a young man who many say is one of the most affable and easygoing students in his class.
A visit with Diaz, 17, proves it. Tall with an athletic build and a great smile, Diaz seems at ease talking about a variety of topics - his experiences on the football field, the life lessons his parents have taught him and his future.
He is charming, funny and crafts his opinions in a way that belies his age.
"What I love is he's able to fit in with everybody, but he's very much his own person," said Christopher Contos, a high school counselor. "That's a tough thing to balance and he pulls it off flawlessly. He knows no strangers. He's that kind of kid."
Diaz is the eldest of three brothers. His mother, Desiree, works as director of simulation and clinical skills in the nursing program at the University of Connecticut. His father, Rubén Sr., owns his own communications and translations company.
Both parents have stressed the importance of education to their eldest son. He also made his mark for the Montville High football team. He earned all-Eastern Connecticut Conference accolades this past season as a 5-foot-11, 200-pound defensive lineman.
Diaz was often outsized in the daunting trenches of the football field, but he said he used his quickness and agility to compensate. He joked that an early experiment as a tight end failed badly when his hands wouldn't cooperate when he went to catch the ball.
That left him to tackle the challenge of playing the line. He viewed it as an opportunity.
"If there's a position there for you, you don't say, 'No, I'm good. I'll wait for something else,'" Diaz said. "You step up into the position and do what you need to do."
"He came in full of potential and realized that potential," Montville High head football coach Tanner Grove said. "A lot of teachers and coaches don't get to say that about kids. He really did."
Diaz is also a good student, with a 3.4 GPA, and he said in the fall he plans to attend the University of South Florida.
His parents gave him a choice: Attend UConn and receive free tuition because of his mother's employment. Or go anywhere else and find a way to pay for it.
Diaz chose the latter option and has acquired a full scholarship through the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. He'll owe the Navy at least four years as an officer after he graduates. His father was also in the Navy for 10 years.
Eventually, Diaz said he hopes to be a nurse anesthetist, one who would specialize in administering anesthesia. Wherever he goes, you can bet he'll be making the same impression on others.
"He changes the atmosphere when he comes into a place," said Jim Smith, the associate pastor at Groton's Pleasant Valley Community of Prayer and Praise, where the Diaz family worships.
"A lot of the younger kids here look to him for direction and example. They kind of feed off of him."