Nigeria is a nation defined as much by its strength and opportunity as it is marred by past scars and present dangers. It’s not just complex; it is a Sudoku on top of a Rubik’s Cube trapped inside of a Möbius Strip. It is at once oil-rich and food-poor, deeply religious yet beset by a culture of corruption. Lurking beneath its scars, though, is unmatched potential.
The city of Lagos is the commercial hub of Africa’s most populous and wealthiest nation. Despite the country’s rapid growth, the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics estimates that 69 percent of Nigerians, or roughly 112 million people, live in poverty. Nowhere is this disparity more evident than in the slum of Ajegunle, which sits in the southern reaches of Lagos against inlets carved by the Gulf of Guinea.
Ajegunle is where Calista and Michael Ofoka raised their family. Calista was a tall, slender woman who tended her own chicken coop. Michael was an engineer who worked with electric generators. They were Igbos, one of the three prominent tribes of Nigeria, born in a village named Umuzor in Imo State, over 300 miles to the east of Lagos. In the family were four boys—Ikechukwu, Chukuma, Chinonso, and Christopher—and one girl, Ogechukwu, all of whom lived in a single room within a larger compound on Muyibi Street. There was a bed for mom and dad, a couch against the wall (until the termites claimed it), sacks that served as closets, and enough room on the floor for the children to sleep on mats.
When Michael’s mother Mary heard that Calista was pregnant again, she prayed for a girl to level the playing field. Mary was old and sick when she traveled to Ajegunle for the baby’s birth; one family member estimated her to be 112 years old. As a last request, she made Calista promise that if she did have a girl, the child would be named Princess. But on August 15, 1996, a fifth boy was added to the family. Doing her best to keep her promise, Calista named the baby Prince. Mary placed her hands on his head and blessed the child.
“She said if it is God willing that I came out,” Prince says, then “I’m going to make a good impact on people’s life.”
It’s a warm, sticky evening in late August, the first weekend of high school football in Ohio, and tiny Greeneview High School is looking for revenge. It seems like every one of the town’s 2,000 residents has filled the bleachers at Don Nock Field, hoping their Greeneview Rams can avenge the team’s loss to Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy in the 2014 regional playoffs.
At halftime, Greeneview’s country-bred rushing attack has given the team a 28–12 lead. Greeneview sprints to the locker room. CHCA plods, but Prince Sammons stays behind. He stands above every person on the field and in the stands, an imposing figure measuring 6-foot-7 and weighing 270 pounds. He is the reigning Ohio Division V Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-State lineman with scholarship offers from Alabama, Texas, Oregon, Ohio State, and 26 other schools. But tonight his defense hasn’t been able to stop the Rams. With the marching band prepping for their routine, Prince genuflects at midfield, helmet at his side. He thanks God for good health, then asks for the strength that was instilled in David before he conquered Goliath. After a quick sign of the cross and point-to-the-sky, he jogs to the locker room.
Inside the cinder block closet, the air is redolent with eau de jock sweat mixed with Axe body spray and banana peels. The cramped space can’t even hold CHCA’s entire team, so the freshmen wait outside.
Prince sits on the edge of a wooden bench, fists clenched, smoldering. The first word people use to describe him is either shy or quiet, but right now he is angry. Losing is unacceptable. He paces the room, commanding the attention of doe-eyed underclassmen who suddenly seem afraid that chewing their snacks or sipping Powerade will make noise.
“If you don’t want to play, get out,” he says as he paces. His voice is thunderous in the silent chamber. “Are you scared?” he asks, getting a few muttered nos in return, eyes still fixed on the cement floor. “Because I’m not.”
The majority of the teenagers gaping at him come from comfortable white households that can afford the school’s $15,150 tuition. They’ve only heard pieces of Prince’s story, the few parts he’s been willing to share. If they knew the entire story, they would begin to understand why he is not afraid.
When Prince talks about Nigeria, his accented voice is soft and gentle. He speaks in stories and parables, complete with character voices, impressive comedic timing, and panache. He remembers the poverty he was born into, but breezes past it, preferring to focus on the good times instead. The underlying constant to anything in his life, good or bad, is his faith. Prince says he was 7 when he gave his life to Christ at the urging of his mother, an urge not all of his siblings would heed. She was “not going to force the whole army to fight the war,” he says. “She’s going to say the war is out there. If you want to go, you’re free to go. If you don’t want, you can stay back.”
On his face, stuck between his eyebrows just like Harry Potter, is a vertical scar maybe an inch long. Political upheaval was common during the late ’90s and early 2000s in Nigeria as the country attempted to transition into a functioning democracy; violence in Lagos was widespread. During a particularly dangerous outburst, his mother sliced his forehead, leaving a mark by which she could identify him if something unforeseen happened.
Prince preferred his time in the rural village of Umuzor to the teeming streets of Lagos. He would save up the money for a bus ticket, then light out for his grandparents’ small farm, where he would haul firewood and pick corn, yams, cassava, and peppers. He would also take on jobs, then find a way to help his family out without his proud mother noticing. When his mother opened a stand selling pineapple, watermelons, oranges, and roasted corn, it was Prince who lugged the inventory. “I did a lot of hard work for her. A lot,” Prince says. “That’s how you survive. You don’t just sit down and expect money to fall from heaven to your pockets.”
When he wasn’t working, he was playing and watching soccer, cheering on African star Didier Drogba and his London-based club Chelsea. Around the age of 12, he began playing on the Nigerian equivalent of a travel team, a self-described “super skinny and super tall” striker scoring goals against grown men. Following one of his tournaments, a devastating loss that left him in tears, a stranger asked if he had ever thought of playing basketball. “I wasn’t thinking of playing it at all,” Prince says.
Four weeks later, in lieu of attending school, he walked five miles up the road to the National Stadium in Surulere, a once-great palace of sport that had sat abandoned for 10 years. From afar, he watched as a group of boys and girls played a sport that was completely foreign to him. Standing on the sidelines, he managed to catch the eye of a basketball coach named Charles Ibeziako.
At the turn of the 21st century, the NBA’s infatuation with drafting high school players peaked, and teenaged athletes became prized commodities. Teams fetishized untapped potential, scouring the globe for foreign-born athletes with ideal physical dimensions who could be molded into basketball players. For his 2010 book Play Their Hearts Out, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer George Dohrmann spent eight years embedded in the world of amateur basketball in the United States. “Everyone was looking for an African to bring over,” Dohrmann says. High school and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) coaches arranged the acquisition of teenagers through foreign scouts and coaches. “It was my understanding that there absolutely was money changing hands,” Dohrmann says. “At the very least, there was the promise of money.”
Ibeziako is the founder of Raptors Basketball Academy (no affiliation with Toronto’s NBA team), a program aimed at bettering the future of Nigerian youths through a sport that has long been a distant second to soccer. He started the academy in Lagos in 2001 and used relationships with coaches and scouts to help kids find scholarships to American schools. Ibeziako says he funds the academy out of his own pocket.
“Helllllll no, nobody’s getting paid,” says Ibeziako. “No one has ever, ever, ever sent a dime to Coach Charlie.” If he received money for sending a player to America, he adds, that would be illegal.
When Prince first showed up to one of Coach Charlie’s practices, he wore what he called his Christmas shoes, which wouldn’t exactly get confused with Jordans. He began dribbling the ball with two hands, launching it high above his head. Kids were pointing and laughing. But Ibeziako encouraged him and eventually things turned around. He learned the basics—how to lock your wrist when you dribble, proper form for shooting—and started to enjoy the game. It brought out a different side of him, though. The quiet, God-fearing young man who preferred picking vegetables in the village incited fear in opponents.
“I used to be scared of him with all my life,” says Yusuf Muhammed, who played for Raptors when Prince joined in 2010. “He’s a very, very aggressive player. He likes to win all the time.” He remembers a scrimmage where Prince began trash talking a player after being fouled. “My coach was telling him to shut up and play,” says Muhammed. The argument ended with the coach punching Prince. “He’s really, really stubborn,” he says with a chuckle.
In less than a year, Prince became a prized prospect, traveling to camps around Nigeria and receiving word from scouts that there was potential for scholarships to private schools in America. “We Africans, we see America like heaven,” says Muhammed.
Alexander Ujoh has coached throughout Nigeria since 1994 and has been sending kids to the United States since 2001. He has worked with Ibeziako for years and met Prince when he was at Raptors Basketball Academy. Ujoh says that sending a young Nigerian basketball player to the U.S. is a fairly straightforward process, but one that is risky for an American coach. Typically, it works like this: either a coach visits Nigeria or connects with a scout who has. The coach or scout identifies players with potential and the interested school drafts the paperwork necessary to bring the player over. Often, schools will offer players scholarships without seeing any video, placing their trust in the word of Nigerian-based scouts and coaches who may embellish a player’s reputation. “If I die today,” Ujoh says, “I won’t go to heaven or hell with an opportunity in my pocket.”
At a basketball camp in 2011 in Warri, a city 275 miles away from Lagos, Prince was discovered by one of these scouts. His name was Godwin Owinje, a former player at Georgetown University, who runs the subscription-based scouting service RadarHoops International. During a private workout, Prince dunked for the first time. “I was thinking he was going to give me my scholarship right away,” he recalls. Instead, he left his contact information and waited, heeding his mother’s words: Don’t lose hope. Never lose hope.
Three weeks later, while Prince was sleeping at home in Ajegunle, the phone rang. It was Owinje with good news: a school in Maryland was ready to offer him a scholarship. All Prince had to do was pass the entrance exam.
“The math was woooh, so hard for me,” he says. So he called in help. “Me and my brothers, we all put our heads together and just do it.” A month later, the results were in: Prince was headed to America.
As Prince explains it, the surname Ofoka means “bad luck.” Leaving Nigeria wasn’t going to be easy, and his family didn’t want to take any chances. So shortly before he received his paperwork, he changed his last name from Ofoka to Micheal, a version of his father’s first name.
On June 29, 2011, his I-20, a document that allows a foreign student to apply for a visa and enter the U.S., was issued by Glenelg Country School, a small private institution outside of Baltimore. According to the document, the school would cover tuition and student fees each year, $24,160 per academic term, so long as Prince arrived no later than August 30. In less than two months, he had to get a passport, visa, and plane ticket to the United States with what little money he had saved up. “That’s when it kind of hit me so hard,” he says. He dropped out of school and worked a string of unsavory jobs for a boss who kept telling him he could do better.
One day, Prince was helping his mother sell fruit while the song “Nnem Oma” played. The gospel tune has island rhythms and a title that means “the good mother” in Igbo. Your mom will always be your mom, no matter what, goes one line. “The song says clap your hands for your mom, because she’s a good mom,” Prince explains.
A man drove up and placed an order: three watermelons, four pineapples, three papayas. Prince collected the 500 naira and delivered the produce. Inside the car, he recognized the woman on the passenger side—it was his old boss. Then the man handed Prince an envelope.
“You know when you go to the bank to withdraw money, new money, how it looks like?” says Prince. “That’s how the money looked like in the envelope.” The crisp new bills were enough to pay government fees and maybe buy a plane ticket. The envelope came with a note. “I hope this money that I’m going to give to you is going to suit you well,” Prince recites from memory. “Make better use of it. Don’t spend it uselessly.”
Prince and his mother danced with joy as the music played in the background.
Calista Ofoka was not one to contain her excitement. This was her first child to make his way to America and she wanted the whole family to know. Shortly after Prince’s birthday in August, she attended a family gathering with her oldest son Ikechukwu, where they celebrated Prince’s good fortune. When she returned, though, she wasn’t feeling well. She got sick to her stomach, but her sons didn’t think much of it and Prince had his embassy interview to worry about anyway. He made arrangements to stay at the home of a pastor during his trip and then boarded a bus for a 10-hour ride to Abuja.
The embassy meeting is perhaps the most nerve-wracking moment for children hoping to come to America. Yusuf Muhammed, Prince’s old teammate, had been rejected at his first interview (“I think because of my name,” he says), and he knew others who had discovered that their paperwork was fake and they’d been scammed.
Prince traveled more than 450 miles to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, and by the time he arrived at the United States Embassy, he was confident and hopeful. He was the only one he saw without a parent. God is going to send me through, he thought. He’s my dad, he’s my mom.
But very quickly the weight of the moment overcame him. He became nervous and started to sweat. He stepped up to the table to be interviewed along with another hopeful boy, handed his information to the officer, and began to cry. “My eyes were super red. I didn’t want her to see my face, so I just keep my head down like this,” Prince says, burying his head in his arm. The boy next to him laughed. The officer examined his I-20 and passport, asked how old he was, and left with his materials. When she returned, she handed him a paper instructing him to come back in two days to pick up his visa.
“I didn’t even wait for her to say Come back here I made a mistake. I just kept running,” he says. He ran down the steps and knelt down in public. “I raised my hands up and said, ‘God, you have done it again.’ ”
During the two-day waiting period, Prince received word that he needed to return home quickly. His mother was sick and wanted to see him. After picking up his visa, he took an overnight bus back to Lagos, arriving before dawn. He made his way to the family compound and found his mother lying on the bed. Prince began singing to her, just like he had when they were dancing by the fruit stand. She remained still. He climbed into the bed. Holding his mother’s head in his lap, he stroked her hair and softly sang to her—Your mom will always be your mom, no matter what—until he fell asleep.
When he woke up, his mother felt cold. Prince tried waking her with cold water, but she didn’t move. He was 15 years old and didn’t understand what was happening. Then an older relative took Prince aside and told him his mother was dead.
“It was like a nightmare to me,” Prince remembers. “I was about to burn my visa.” Weeping, he asked God, “Why this just happen right now that something good is about to happen in our life?”
Calista Ofoka’s death certificate states that she died of hypertension, with a secondary cause being cardiac arrest, but Prince doesn’t believe it. He is convinced she was poisoned at the family gathering where she celebrated his great opportunity, an act of jealousy from one of her own. “Everyone want to see you remember where you are,” he says. “No one wants to see you advance to the next level. Nobody wants to see you progress.”
After his mother’s death, Prince’s plan to leave Nigeria began to crumble. By the time he had returned from Abuja, he had missed Glenelg Country School’s August 30th deadline. Kevin Quinlan, the basketball coach at Glenelg, told him he would not be allowed to attend. “I felt awful for him for the passing of his mother,” Quinlan says. “[But] in the end, I felt like there was only so much I could do.”
Devastated, with the money he received at the fruit stand now being used to pay for his mother’s burial, he began reaching out to anyone who would listen, trying to find a coach or school to facilitate a quick move to America. The two most connected people he knew, Ibeziako and Ujoh, his coaches at Raptors Basketball Academy, contacted a coach based in Wisconsin. On their recommendation, the Wisconsin coach agreed to pay for Prince’s flight and house him until he found a school to attend.
As quickly as his fortunes turned sour, Prince had found hope again. On September 23, 2011, he snuck out of his compound, dressed as if he was just going to practice. There were no good-byes; he didn’t want anyone to know he was leaving Nigeria. “I was afraid,” he says. He did not want to fall victim to jealousy like he believes his mother did.
He boarded the plane with a bag that stank to high heaven. “All my clothes were nasty,” Prince says, crinkling his nose. On a layover in Rome, a woman threw his bag away and replaced it with a rolling suitcase, two pairs of jeans, and one polo shirt. Thoughts of America swirled in his head: pretty girls, cool haircuts, white people—ideas he got from watching television shows like Kyle XY and Prison Break.
After he landed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, he was transported up I-90 to Madison, Wisconsin, where he remembers spending 107 days sleeping “with one eye open” on a couch in a two-bedroom apartment owned by the coach who paid for his ticket. He was constantly on edge, a 15-year-old kid with no school to attend, no friends to play with, no family to confide in. His days were either spent in the gym, running basketball drills for hours, or in front of the TV, head aching from the monotonous stream of noise. Prince felt like he was under remote control.
He had only two pairs of basketball shorts. He was constantly hungry, and resorted to picking pizza crust from the trash and eating handfuls of uncooked ramen noodles. A slice or two of bread was served for breakfast at 8 a.m. and he did not eat again until 6 in the evening. “They say this is the land of opportunity,” Prince thought. “But there is no food.” America turned out to be no better than Nigeria.
Prince had been swept up into the shady world of Amateur Athletic Union basketball. The AAU organization is structured like a traveling sports team: players of varying skill levels under the age of 20 compete in local, regional, and—for the select few—national tournaments primarily during the high school offseason.
AAU projects a positive image: It helps bring talented young prospects to the attention of college scouts. But it is rarely an altruistic endeavor. Shoe companies like Nike and Adidas sponsor top AAU teams and pay coaches as consultants for fielding teams that compete on a national level. These types of deals have netted some AAU programs more than $100,000. Coaches also broker deals with agents, standing in as representatives for foreign players with pro potential who are unfamiliar with the system. If a player that they develop makes it to the pros, coaches have been known to receive a percentage of the contract. One percent of a future shoe deal may not sound like much, but if the player blossoms into a star, a single endorsement can easily top $100 million. The flipside (i.e., the dark side) to the AAU grind is that when players don’t develop, especially those who abandoned a life in their home country for a chance in America, they are discarded and left to fend for themselves.
The coach in Wisconsin—whose name I agreed to leave out of the story at the request of Prince’s adoptive parents—ran a training academy through which he attempted to steer Prince to AAU programs. The coach says that he has never received money when players from his program go to college and also denies that Prince was mistreated during his time in Madison. “Prince was treated like a king,” he says.
On the day Prince left Lagos, his father signed documents that granted custody to the coach in Wisconsin. Three months later, Michael Ofoka died. Like Prince’s mother, the death certificate cites hypertension and cardiac arrest. Prince was now orphaned and alone, living in a foreign country under the guardianship of someone he says he was afraid of. He felt trapped. “I lost all my hope,” he says.
Prince communicated his fears to several adults back home, including his old coach Alexander Ujoh and Chibuzor Oforka, a close cousin who became the family patriarch following his father’s death. Ujoh called the Wisconsin coach but was told that Prince was lying. Ujoh chalked it up to Prince simply having a difficult time adjusting to life in America. Oforka wasn’t so sure. “I was afraid Prince would fall into the wrong hands,” he says. “I was afraid that his mission to be in the United States may be cut short.”
After missing out on opportunities to attend high schools in other parts of the country, Prince spoke with a man in Cincinnati in early January 2012 who showed interest in hosting him. Three days later, he was at a bus stop in Madison, all his possessions stuffed in a single Adidas duffel bag. He left his rolling suitcase behind at the coach’s home, ostensibly for his return, though, he says, “My intention was to never go back to Wisconsin.” At 2:20 a.m. on January 8, the Megabus pulled up and Prince piled in without any food for the nearly 12-hour trip.
Waiting at the corner of Fourth and Race streets were Brandon and Betsy Sammons. Brandon was 28 and Betsy was 26, and they already had three children below the age of 5. Earlier that week, they had received word through Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy assistant basketball coach Ryan Krohn that a boy from Nigeria was trying to find a home so as to gain admittance to CHCA, where Brandon taught technology. Rumors had circulated at school about a prospective student who was a basketball prodigy, but the couple was motivated by a desire to help a kid who had lost his parents. “What stuck out to me was, he’s lost his mama, he’s lost his dad, he’s away from everything he’s ever known,” says Betsy. “How terrifying that must be.”
The Sammonses had stuck Prince’s passport photo on the fridge so they had an idea of what he looked like, even though they knew a towering Nigerian teenager would be pretty hard to miss. Still, they were surprised by the boy who stepped out of the bus after almost everyone else had exited: He wore black sweat pants with white stripes, a black puffer jacket with sleeves that reached just past his elbows, and a blue and gold Marquette beanie on his head. He looked scrawny.
“Are you Prince?” they asked. He nodded. “Are you hungry?” He nodded again.
They walked to Wendy’s and ordered him a handful of chicken sandwiches. Then they hopped in their black Ford Excursion, and Prince began to tell his story. How he barely made it to the country, how his mother died, how his father died. He could hardly make eye contact. It didn’t take long before he was crying.
When they arrived at their two-bedroom farmhouse in Morrow, they walked into the dining room. Prince noticed a sign hanging above the doorway and read the words aloud: HOME SWEET HOME.
“The tone of his voice, and the way he read it,” says Brandon, “I didn’t expect that. I don’t know that he knew at that moment that he didn’t need to worry about certain things anymore.”
Both Brandon and Betsy grew up in the kind of deeply Christian households where Come-to-Jesus moments were a real thing. As a couple they lived the sort of all-American life that Prince might have seen on TV. They had their first date at a family ice cream parlor, were married in Betsy’s front yard, and had their three children—Sophia, Micah, and Adyline; each with hair the color of sweet summer corn—before they turned 30. At the time, Brandon worked as a high school teacher and Betsy was a stay-at-home mom, and the family attended Sunday services at LifePoint Vineyard Church, a nondenominational Christian church in Liberty Township. They readily admit that there were other families better equipped to bring in a child, particularly one closer to the age of a little brother. But Brandon felt compelled to help from the moment he heard Prince’s story.
Still, he had his doubts about whether the family could handle it. So he texted Betsy, who read his mind. “My first thought was: Dang it. I thought it, she thought it, now we’ve got to do something about it,” Brandon says in his slight drawl.
So the couple stayed up all night, asking complicated questions. Would a psychically wounded 15-year-old act out? How would he interact with their children? And how would they help a young black man adjust to life in white rural southwest Ohio? In the end, they say their “calling” to help outweighed their fears.
Brandon and Betsy converted the loft space upstairs into a makeshift bedroom and offered Prince their bed. “That was my first time sleeping in a bed before,” Prince remembers. “Ever.” As happy as he was to have clothes (friends and family donated generously) and food, he was still cautious. “I was looking, investigating on my own self to see if this was real or not,” he says.
Betsy understood Prince’s hesitation. “For somebody to love me unconditionally, bring me into their home, treat me no differently than their biological children, that must be hard to believe sometimes,” she says.
During that first week in his new home, Prince took CHCA’s entrance exam. He hadn’t attended school for at least six months, so no one knew what to expect. “He flunked that thing with flying colors,” says Brandon. “He got as low as you could possibly get.”
Soon after, Joyce Smith, the intervention specialist at CHCA who had proctored the entrance exam, administered the Woodcock-Johnson test, which gauges the cognitive abilities of a student. The results showed that Prince had the education level of a fourth grader. A new hurdle had presented itself: Would he even be able to attend school?
Rob Hall, principal at CHCA’s middle school, convinced the board to provisionally admit Prince as an eighth grader. He would have one-on-one tutoring each morning for three hours in English and math, followed by regular class interaction for subjects like Christian studies, science, and social studies. With that in place, Prince had six months to advance four grade levels and be eligible for high school. The real trick would be finding a teacher who could relate to Prince and was up to the challenge.
Enter Carolyn Teague.
Here’s what you need to know about Teague. Her first job was in Chicago in the late 1960s at a time when the city was boiling with racial unrest. An African-American woman, she took a job creating a safe space for high school dropouts in a predominantly white neighborhood and stood up to bikers from the Hells Angels gang. Compared to that, teaching Prince would be easy.
It was clear to Teague, who had come out of retirement at age 68, that Prince was more capable than the test indicated. “His intelligence far surpassed that,” she says. “That was obvious to me the first day.”
The two began working five days a week. Teague served as a mentor, mother, and teacher. Her husband is a 6-foot-9 former professional basketball player and her 6-foot-6 son played college football, so she understood the challenges Prince would face if he ever was eligible to play sports. She warned him about girls and tried to educate him on racial dynamics. “To be from Nigeria, to be that tall,” Teague says, “Prince was a novelty. There weren’t many black kids there.”
She also did not sugarcoat just how difficult the academics would be.
“I didn’t know I could do it,” Prince says. “I had some doubts.”
Prince received a middle school crash course, using flash cards to learn multiplication tables and reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was never tardy and always handed assignments in on time, a personification of the model student. “I might have asked him a couple times, ‘You sure you’re 15?’ ” Teague says. “He’s a deep thinker. He thinks past what he sees.”
By August, CHCA deemed Prince capable of attending classes at the high school.
As Prince was working to be eligible for school, Brandon and Betsy were fighting a tense custody battle. The coach in Wisconsin had alleged that they were manipulating Prince, but a judge dismissed that claim and ruled that the custody papers signed by Prince’s father would not be recognized by the state of Ohio. In July 2012, the Sammonses were granted custody of Prince; nine months later, the adoption was finalized.
Spring is a busy time for college football recruiters. Beginning in April, they travel the country, visiting high schools and seeking out players with the most potential. During the spring of 2013, several coaches visited CHCA head football coach Eric Taylor to discuss potential fits. Coaches from UC, Bowling Green, Michigan—they all walked the halls, and each time they did, Taylor did his best to make sure a coach bumped into Prince.
Sure, he came to this country to play basketball, but he had the frame to play offensive line and seemed athletic enough to be a force on defense. Even though they were told the kid did not play football and didn’t have any interest in the sport, a number of the visiting coaches told Taylor flat-out that if Prince was added to the football roster, they would offer him a scholarship on the spot. Taylor knew that if he could convince Prince to play, he would have his pick of colleges. Brandon, who was the CHCA wide receivers coach, knew it too. But it would take a hard sell to change Prince’s mind.
“I’ve never promised a kid that he would get a football scholarship before, especially someone that’s never played,” Taylor says. “But it was a safe bet.”
When Prince first stepped onto the field, he wore an extra-large helmet that had to be specially ordered. Coaches quickly realized the game would have to be simplified for him. “You’re talking about someone that knew noooothing about football,” says Taylor. “We had to start very basic.”
He had to be taught everything, from the language (What is a right tackle? A first down?) to rules and technique. He may not have had a clue what he was doing, but his athleticism and natural strength made him difficult to play against. Four weeks into Prince’s sophomore season, and roughly eight weeks after he first stepped onto a football field, Prince received a scholarship offer from UC. Since then, 29 other schools have made him offers. In a span of three days the summer before his junior year, he received offers from powerhouses Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia.
During his senior season, though, there were still moments of confusion. Games when he was penalized for being an ineligible receiver downfield on offense or flagged for unnecessary roughness on defense. But those moments were outshined by breathtaking plays that make it clear why Notre Dame sent him 117 pieces of recruiting mail in one day. There was the time he knocked the ball loose and sent the running back airborne in a game in Breathitt County, Kentucky (“I see that kid coming, and I’m like, that’s my lunch.”). Or the time he tossed the quarterback to the ground in a playoff game against North Union and did his version of the famous Haka chant.
But one play stands out in particular. It happened during the homecoming game against Summit Country Day. Tilt-a-whirls and other carnival rides whizzed in the parking lot and smoke from the grill next to the student section poured over the field. In the crowd, Prince’s cheering section wore their black T-shirts with his name on the front and a Bible verse on the back (Galatians 6:9). At halftime CHCA led 42–10, and Prince was crowned homecoming king, leading to a barrage of the same corny joke (“Do we have to call you King now?”).
Nine minutes into the third quarter, with the game well in hand, Prince was still competing hard. He had been jawing with Summit’s best lineman all game, and the trash talk continued after they gained a big chunk of yards on a play in which Prince was held. Only this time, he flashed the kind of anger that his basketball teammates first noticed back in Nigeria. The next play, Prince lined up directly across from his loud-mouthed opponent. He stood almost half a foot taller and outweighed him by at least 50 pounds. It was not going to be a fair fight.
As soon as the ball was snapped, Prince exploded through the offensive lineman, sending him flailing backwards and landing flat on his back, his helmet a few yards behind him. The CHCA sideline erupted as Prince’s victim walked slowly back to the sideline.
On the bench, players and coaches had to know what the player said.
“He told me ‘Shut up, n-word,’” Prince said, censoring himself. “So I shut him up.”
February 3 is National Signing Day, the day when football recruits can sign their letter of intent and officially declare what school they will be attending in the fall. Prince has his choices narrowed down to a few schools, some being traditional powers and others fitting his goal of majoring in pre-med or business. “You don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket, because if something hits that basket, they all get cracked,” says Prince. “You have no egg left.” He is weighing certain factors—academics, weather, proximity to home, his new girlfriend—but there is one factor still lingering.
Last September, Brandon and Betsy made plans to adopt Prince’s two youngest brothers, Emmanuel and Izuchukwu. It will be a much longer and more arduous process than Prince’s adoption; Nigeria is a notoriously difficult and expensive country to adopt from. Still, in less than four months, they exceeded their fund-raising goal of $40,000 and are hopeful that Emmanuel and Izuchukwu will arrive before Prince decides which college he will attend. “I feel guilty a lot,” Prince says. “I have a room. I have a closet. I have a bathroom. They don’t even have a bed to sleep on.”
If they do make it over, they’ll have some adjusting to do, too. At a Labor Day picnic at the Sammons’s new home in Clarksville, Ohio—a week after CHCA lost that game to Greeneview High despite Prince’s forceful locker-room speech—after everyone had their share of hot dogs, baked beans, and pasta salad, Prince surfaced on the back porch, wearing a white tank top and orange basketball shorts. There were at least 40 family members in attendance, more than he was comfortable with; uncles and cousins approached him to talk football, little ones nipped at his heels in hopes of earning a piggyback ride. He was still coming to realize that being part of a family means making life-altering decisions as a teenager without knowing how they’ll turn out. And sometimes it means going with the flow. Prince scooped up his 5-year-old sister and wandered into the backyard.
Adam Flango is an associate editor at Cincinnati Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @Adam_Flango. For a behind the scenes look at how this piece came together, listen to the Cincinnati Magazine Podcast.
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