MAE SAI • The head coach of the Thai youth football team spent the morning of June 23 preparing his assistant for an important task: looking out for the boys by himself.
Mr Nopparat Khanthavong, the 37-year-old head coach of the Moo Pa (Wild Boars) football team, had an appointment that morning.
Mr Ekapol Chanthawong, his assistant, was to take the younger boys to a soccer field nestled by the Doi Nang Non mountain range, a formation with numerous waterfalls and caves that straddles the Thai-Myanmar border.
"Take care," Mr Nopparat told the younger man.
The hours that followed kicked off a chain of events that has riveted the world: a dramatic search and rescue that found the boys alive some 5km inside a cave nine days later, huddled on a small, muddy patch surrounded by floodwaters.
Attention has focused on the only adult, 25-year-old former monk Ekapol, and the role he has played in both their predicament and their survival.
Some have chided Mr Ekapol for leading the team into the Tham Luang cave when there was a large warning sign at the cave's entrance about the risk of entering so close to the monsoon season.
But for many in Thailand, Mr Ekapol, who left monkhood three years ago, is an almost divine force, sent to protect the boys as they go through this ordeal. A widely shared cartoon drawing of Mr Ekapol shows him sitting cross-legged, as a monk does in meditation, with 12 little wild boars in his arms.
According to rescue officials, he is among the weakest in the group, in part because he gave the boys his share of the limited food and water they had with them in the early days. He also taught the boys how to meditate and how to conserve as much energy as possible until they were found.
"If he didn't go with them, what would have happened to my child?" said the mother of Pornchai Khamluang, one of the boys, in an interview with a Thai TV network. "My dear Ek, I would never blame you."
Mr Ekapol was an orphan who lost his parents at age 10, friends say. He then trained to be a monk but left the monastery to care for his ailing grandmother in Mae Sai in northern Thailand.
There, he split his time between working as a temple hand at a monastery and training the then newly established Moo Pa team. He found kindred spirits in the boys, many of whom had grown up poor or were stateless ethnic minorities, common in this border area between Myanmar and Thailand.
"He loved them more than himself," said Ms Joy Khampai, a friend of Mr Ekapol's who works at a coffee stand in the Mae Sai monastery.
Mr Ekapol helped Mr Nopparat devise a system where the boys' passion for football would motivate them to excel academically. If they got certain grades in school, they would be rewarded with soccer gear, such as fresh studs for their cleats or a new pair of shorts.
"He gave a lot of himself to them," Mr Nopparat said. He would ferry the boys to and from home when their parents could not, and took responsibility for them as if they were his own family.
On Saturday morning, the Thai navy posted photos of letters that the group had written to their families and the outside world. Mr Ekapol's, scribbled on a yellow-stained piece of paper torn out from a notebook, was brief, but included a promise and an apology. "I promise to take the very best care of the kids," he wrote. "I want to say thanks for all the support, and I want to apologise."