It Takes a Village | By Dave Naylor

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It Takes a Village

by Dave Naylor 

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Canadian prairie athletes rising from obscurity to greatness is a long-established narrative in this country.

 

This one has a modern twist.

 

For the story of Ajou Ajou is rooted in the unlikely wave of newcomers who descended upon a small city in Alberta, where he grew up surrounded by the love, support and opportunities to chase his dreams. 
 

Homesteaders began settling the area around Brooks, Alta., in the late 1800s, with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway on what had been buffalo hunting grounds for members of the Blackfoot and other Indigenous groups.

 

By 1910 it had a post office and a name, chosen to honour a Canadian Pacific Railway engineer from Calgary, which sits nearly 200 kilometres to the northwest. Embedded Image

 

It stayed an ordinary prairie town through most of the 20th century, rolling through the ups and downs of the oil and gas industry, with agriculture as its steadying backbone. When its population reached 10,000 for the first time in 1996, the faces in Brooks looked exactly as one might imagine in that part of Canada: visible minorities represented less than half of one per cent of the population.

 

It was the kind of place that never would have imagined the changes that were about transform it.

 

Those changes began in the mid-1990s, when U.S.-based Tyson Foods bought out Lakeside Packers and announced its intention to expand its work force from roughly 500 people to 2,500, adding positions to its slaughter and meat packing operations.

 

Initially, the company sought to recruit from within Brooks and southern Alberta cities such as Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, or from some of B.C.’s depressed resource communities. It then looked to Atlantic Canada, from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

 

When it still wasn’t able to fulfil its labour needs from within Canada, Lakeside went beyond our borders to secure personnel from such places in Africa as Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. 

 

Lakeside worked with a Catholic relief resettlement agency in Calgary, which provided VHS recruitment videos in five different languages. English was not required and pretty much anyone was guaranteed a job.

  

By the 2000s, the transformation of Brooks was on, as immigrants from around the globe flooded to the city for work, learning on the fly about their new surroundings and ways of life. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the schools, which became integrated virtually overnight.

 

Those kids quickly adapted to the ways of their new home, including the sports played in Canada.

 

One of those sports, football, was fading in Brooks before the newcomers arrived, a victim of year-round commitment to hockey by many of the area’s established families.

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Ajou (left) Age 14, Brooks Junior High Roadrunners


“When we started to get the number of new Canadians coming to Brooks, I just saw opportunities,” said Jaret Hofer, principal of Brooks Junior High School and a long-time youth football coach in the city of 14,000. “If I was to show you my 1999 [BJHS] Roadrunner football team photo next to my 2016 Roadrunner football team photo and went through all the years, you would see the diversity popping up real quick.”

 

Brooks became so diverse, so quickly, that a 49-minute documentary was made about it. Released in 2011, it is called City of 100 Hellos, reflecting the number of languages spoken there.

 

In the film, there is a shot of a young Sudanese-Canadian boy who’s about nine years old eating ice cream.

 

This boy plays football in Brooks. And one day, people will know his name.

 


 

In 2002, Monica Dut took a job at Lakeside Packers in Brooks, a vastly different place than the environment in which she’s grown up in Africa.

 

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Map of South Sudan

Dut was born in what is now South Sudan, just before the outbreak of the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1983, in which rebels from the south were seeking independence from the Muslim north and its doctrine of Sharia Law. It was one of the most brutal conflicts on the globe, with more than 2 million lives lost over 22 years. Child soldiers and slavery were among the myriad of atrocities committed.

 

Dut’s father was in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, and her earliest memories are of her family fleeing from one town or city to another amid death and destruction.

 

“People with guns were killing people,” she recalls. “We saw them … Life was horrible, I couldn’t even go to school because we were running from place to place. Each time we would have to escape to another city or town.”

 

Eventually, her Catholic Dinka family arrived in the Kakuma refugee camp in Northwest Kenya.

 

Established in 1992, Kakuma was created to accommodate the Lost Boys of Sudan, the name given by aid workers to thousands of Sudanese boys displaced or orphaned by the civil war. The camp had turned into a melting pot of those from across Eastern Africa, somewhere Dut and her family could get the essentials of life while her father came and went to war.

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Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya

That’s where she lived until she was 12, when she was kidnapped by the man who would become her husband and father of her five children.

 

In what is still considered an acceptable practice in Sudan, he took Dut to another refugee camp, called Ifo, located on a dusty expanse of desert in east Kenya, nearly 1,200 kilometres away. There she became his wife and gave birth to her first child, Bol, when she was 14.

 


Life there was harder than it had been at Kakuma. Dut battled hunger during pregnancies for Bol and her daughter, Amou, three years later.

 

She didn't know much about Canada when she, her husband and 14-month-old Amou (oldest son Bol remained in Africa and joined the family later) boarded a plane for Vancouver in April of 2001, touching down in a country where she knew no one and didn't speak the language. At 19, would be living beyond the confines of a refugee camp for the first time since she was a small child.

 

“I heard [Canada] is good and you can go to school,” she said. “But when I came here I didn’t get a chance to go to school.”

 

Instead, she became pregnant in B.C, then moved to Calgary to be closer to some Sudanese people with whom she'd been put in contact. The move to Brooks came after the birth of her third child, a boy named Ajou. 

 

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Lakeside Packers (JBS Foods Canada)

Like so many others, she'd come to the small Prairie city from desperate circumstances, willing to take a job that most people in her new home country would not. 

 


“When we come here, we don’t have English, we can’t find anything,” she said. “Then we heard about Lakeside. You don’t need English; they just teach you how to cut. That’s why we came.”

 

She was in a place where her story was not unique, where there were others just like her who had survived the ravages of war and had come with the optimism that their children could live a better life.

 

The baby boy she carried with her when she arrived ... he would one day become a hometown hero of the new Brooks.

 

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Hofer's first tip about Ajou came from his brother, who happened to live next door to Dut and her five children in Brooks. 

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Ajou (left), Adhal, Amou, Monica, Akok


Hofer, at the time, was a junior high school phys-ed teacher who coached school and community teams in football and basketball. He’d taught both Ajou’s older brother and sister, so he was aware of the family of kids who would show up at his brother’s home, asking to play basketball.
 

“My brother said, ‘There’s this one kid, Ajou, he’s just so athletic,’ said Hofer. “I had heard enough stories and seen this boy enough that I said, ‘He needs to come now.’

 

“He was in Grade 3 and he was just this charismatic kid. And he wanted it … That was the beginning of me meeting Ajou and realizing that this kid is going to be spectacular.”
 

Ajou not only had athletic gifts at a young age, but a passion to match them. His mother may still have been trying to make sense of the world into which she’d been dropped, but Ajou’s dreams of what he could accomplish in this new world were already in motion.

 

“I remember in class in Grade 2, the teacher was like, ‘What do you guys want to be when you grow up?’,” recalls Ajou. “And I was like, ‘I want to be a professional athlete, either NBA or NFL.’

 

“She pulled up this research thing, you know, this research on Google of what percentage make it to NFL type stuff, and it’s like 0.00. I just looked at her and I was like, ‘Watch me for real. Just watch me.’”

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Ajou Ajou, Age 3 at home in Brooks, Alberta.

That confidence was no mistake. As he moved toward adolescence it was hard not to watch Ajou, who stood out in everything he did – football, basketball, track and field, soccer, even lacrosse. 


“Every sport wanted him,” Hofer recalls. “And it was crazy as a coach because all the things that you tell players not to do [in a game], he would do, and he could get away with it.”

 

That would be a theme throughout Ajou’s young life, the charismatic kid with the world of talent who loved to do things his own way.

 

Doing things his own way was how he’d grown up. Ajou’s father left the family and returned to Africa when he was eight years old, leaving Dut to juggle working at the plant while caring for her five children - Ajou, Amou, oldest child Bol, who had joined the family from Africa, and younger brothers Akok and Adhal, who was just months old.

 

“His mom is a strong, caring woman but when it comes to cultural differences, they are vast,” said Katelynn McColl, a community basketball coach in Brooks who encountered Ajou when he was 13. “He grew up doing what he wanted, but not always in the best way.”

 

McColl saw in Ajou what everyone did – a warm, charismatic boy with incredible athletic gifts who lacked the structure and discipline to reach his potential. She was determined to change that.

 

“He adopted me, and I adopted him,” said McColl. “He was easy to be around. He was an infectious kid.”

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Family and Friends at Ajou's graduation

If Ajou’s family situation would not allow him to be taught the importance of being on time, being prepared, finishing schoolwork and making sound decisions, she would take on that role of teaching him responsibility.

 

“And so I fill a void,” McColl said. “I’m the one who says 'No' a lot.”

 

To strengthen her influence on Ajou, McColl became a virtual member of his family, his “bonus mom” as he came to call her, and the person to whom his family would turn whenever they needed help. 

 

“Katelynn is a godsend, a saviour to this family,” Dut said. “I’ve never seen somebody like her with a heart for people like us. Sometimes people may not care for us or mistreat us. But Katelynn didn’t see the colour, she sees human beings.”

 

McColl cooked with Ajou’s family, danced in their kitchen with them and became a part of their world. And not just through the easy times.

 

 

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Left to Right: Adhal Ajou, Ajou Ajou,
Monica Dut, Sidonia Arob, Katelynn McColl,
Akok Ajou holding Danny (Sidonia’s son) 

“I would be, ‘Why are you always on me?’ ” Ajou said. “But she just wanted  the best for me – get to school, do this, do that. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, can you just leave me alone?’ ”

 

But McColl never did.

 

“She saw I had the courage and she’s just going to push me,” Ajou said. “I’ve told her I want to play in the NFL, and she says, ‘Okay. If you want that I’m going to hold you to a standard and never bring you down from that.’ So I said ‘all right.’”

 

McColl wasn’t the only one in Brooks who recognized the need to stand up to Ajou when he wanted to do things his own way.

 

 “I remember from a very early age being incredibly hard on Ajou, telling him, ‘That may work now, but if you want to be something later on, you gotta do this and this,’ ” said Hofer. “And he would still continue to do a couple of the other things and look amazing.”

 

Hofer was one of the many people in Brooks who made sure Ajou got to where he needed to be, whether that meant picking him up and dropping him off at games or practices, or reaching into their own pockets for things Ajou’s family could not afford.

 

“To say that Ajou was at the same house every night, had breakfast ready for him, a lunch made and supper … No that didn’t happen in the way it does for traditional families,” Hofer said. “Ajou had to raise himself a lot, and to think that he was going to get a ride to a practice or a tournament, to think that the family is going to be able to afford for him to play a sport … no … and that was true of a lot of our students.”

 

In Africa, villagers help raise children as part of an extended family. Brooks was more than 12,000 kilometres from Sudan, but it’s people managed to replicate that dynamic.

 

“That’s where the community came into play,” Ajou recalls. “It was really all of Brooks … I don’t even know where to start … everyone … it takes a village to raise a child. The coaches would be picking me up, dropping me off, picking me up, dropping me off … all my life … for real.

 

“I think of  them every day … I stay in contact with every single coach. I still call them coach.”

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Ajou (Back row, 3rd from the right), Jaret Hofer (Front left) Grade 4 Peewee Football

From the first time Ajou played football when he was in Grade 3, he’d loved the physicality of the sport. By Grade 6, he’d been invited to join the junior high school football team, comprised mostly of Grade 8 and 9 students. By Grade 7 he was a star on that team at safety.
 

“He could just come down and lay the boots on people, and when I would tell people he was in Grade 7, they wouldn’t believe me,” Hofer said. “Most of the kids would have been 14 years old and here is Ajou at 12 playing safety in the provincial final for us.”

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Ajou (2nd from right) Age 13


Ajou’s love of physical football meant he could play all over the field. In Grades 8 and 9 he played receiver, safety, quarterback, defensive end and even did some punting. It was the same in basketball, where Ajou excelled, as well as in track and field.

 

When he wasn’t excelling in athletics, he was garnering attention with his ability to dance, a quality he shared with other students of African descent who’d made it a part of the local culture to break into song and movement at various times.

 

Not surprisingly, the rest of the province was starting to take notice, as invitations from club and high school teams around the province in both basketball and football started to make their way to Ajou.

 

“For Ajou the athlete it was great, but not for the person,” said Hofer. “We were worried, if he goes to Edmonton, are people going to care about Ajou the person?” 

 

That concern permeated through the athletic community in Brooks, which had fallen in love with the 15-year-old’s charismatic personality and took pride in all he was accomplishing. 

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Brooks Club Basketball Team in Calgary, Grade 9


“It was tough on the athletic community because we had all got him to this point and we were excited to see him continue with us,” McColl said.

 

Ajou, meanwhile, liked that idea of a bigger stage. More competition, more exposure and more people to see what he could do. It all felt like being one step closer to achieving his dreams, even if he quietly worried that the community that had given him so much might feel he was letting them down.

  

He knew it was time for him to go.

 

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In summer of 2017, Brock Ralph made the 450-kilometre drive from his home in Edmonton to Brooks to meet Ajou and his family. 

 

The head football coach at Edmonton’s Harry Ainlay High School, Ralph knew receivers, having played the position at the University of Wyoming and then for eight seasons in the CFL. And what little he’d seen enough of Ajou, and what he’d heard from his assistant Tyler Greenslade, told him the drive would be worth his while.

 

As Ralph drove the neighbourhood looking for Ajou’s home, a young boy approached the car, as if he’d been anticipating his arrival.

 

“I asked him, ‘Do you know Ajou’?” recalls Ralph. “And he said, ‘I’m his [younger] brother.’”

 

Ralph followed the boy into the house and within a few minutes the 15-year-old emerged.

 

“Out walks this Grade 9 bo-… well, I was expecting a boy,” said Ralph. “I kind of looked at his shoulders and his wingspan. When I shook his hand, I noticed it was bigger than mine. My first impression of seeing him off the field was a physical specimen and a smile you remember and a look in his eye you take notice of.” ​

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Matthew Peterson (left) and Ajou (right) 
Team Alberta, 2016 International Bowl

 

Ralph had seen Ajou months earlier, playing for Team Alberta in the Canada Cup championship in Lethbridge, where he’d been wowed by his size and physicality.

 

He didn’t need to be sold on him as a football player. He needed to know that Dut was on board with him leaving home to attend one of the biggest high schools in Alberta.

 

“I wanted to ensure to her we would be there as more than just a football coach and sports mentor,” said Ralph. “We would help him achieve some things and make sure academics were taken care of… and wanted to let her know we would be there for him.”

 

The uniqueness of Ajou’s situation was not lost on the coach.

 

Here was a boy from a single-parent immigrant family whose mother still struggled with English, with a path all laid out in his mind for where stardom was going to take him.

 

“He knew what he wanted and figured out the plan to achieve the goals he wanted,” said Ralph. “He wanted to play high school at the highest level, and he had goals at all levels – university and pro … The dream was there early.”

 

Ajou and his mother both sat quietly that day, doing more listening than talking. When it was over, Dut told Ralph that she would support her son’s wish to move north. He would live with his aunt and take public transit to school.

 

Despite the prevailing local sentiment that Ajou should stay in Brooks, he was going to go his own way. It was a decision Ajou kept secret from McColl, fearing she would simply tell him “no” as she so often did.

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​“I didn’t know he was going until he was gone,” McColl said. “I called him and said, ‘So…’ And he said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d let me go.’ ”

 

Ajou’s impact in Edmonton was immediate. In his first season as a Grade 10 student, he played receiver and helped Harry Ainlay win a provincial football title. The next year they won another city championship, a season in which he played both receiver and safety as Ralph and his coaches couldn’t resist playing him both ways.

 

 “He’s got an unnatural physicality to him, in terms of exploding into contact,” said Greenslade, Ralph’s assistant at the time. “He was doing stuff [at safety] up here that was pretty amazing … I’m getting chills just thinking about some of the stuff he did.

 

“I remember one time he talked to our DB coach the week before a game and said, ‘They are running a skinny post … Do you want me to lay him out or pick it off?” Our coach said to get a pick and score. He called his shot, he waited for it, picked it off and he scored. You look back and you say yeah, he had some stuff going on that not everybody does.”

 


In track and field Ajou set a provincial high jump record at Harry Ainlay in the spring of his grade 10 year. In basketball he walked onto a varsity team stacked with Grade 11 and 12 students, many of whom would go on to player university ball in the U.S. and Canada, and was part of a provincial championship in that sport as well. 

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Ajou Ajou, Harry Ainlay Titans

 

Head basketball coach George Hoyt had heard the school’s new football recruit could “hoop it up pretty good.” So he invited him to a gym session with some varsity players to see how he measured up. 

 

“What I was really impressed with was about half-way through he knew he was over his head a little bit and he said, ‘I want more of this,’” said Hoyt. “That’s when I knew he had the desire to do it … He just loved it, loved it.” 

 

Ajou was getting exactly what he hoped for in his move to Edmonton.

 

“We’re considered to be one of the best basketball and football combination programs in Western Canada,” said Hoyt. “And Ajou knew that and wanted that.”

 

Even in a much larger environment, Ajou continued to attract attention the same way he had in Brooks – through his personality, athletic exploits and love of dancing.

 

He loved to entertain, dunking a basketball while soaring above fellow students who stood below the hoop. And he danced everywhere he went, as if it were automatic.

 

Ajou Ajou Dunk

Ajou Ajou dunks over two students in high school.

 

“He in some ways is a kid who seemed more comfortable and more of his personality [burst out] on the stage,” said Ralph. “Here’s this young guy, a new student in Grade 10, and he didn’t let him hold him back at all … I think he felt comfortable right away and had a certain personality and was looking to have fun, laugh and put on a show. Whether it was a school assembly, a dunk contest or a track meet … he just had a way of luring people to see what he was going to do next.

 

“He just brought a certain energy out in school and people just took a liking to him and knew he was … He got popular in a hurry.”

 

But for all the athletic success, there were challenges off the field without McColl there to reinforce expectations. It became Ralph’s job to maintain the standard he had laid out for Ajou’s mother.

 

“Ajou took a bit of time to figure out the expectations of our football program,” said Ralph. “There were some rocky weeks and we have specific rules where if you have unexcused absences or a series of lates you miss a half of playing time. And nobody missed more time than Ajou that year, not even close … we had to several times ask ourselves what was best for him, his development and long term … missing a half a game sucked for him and us, but we were hoping it would teach him lessons for down the road. We hoped he trusted us. He never argued or showed attitude.”

 

By the end of his Grade 11 football season, a question Ajou had never had to answer in his life was becoming overwhelming: focus on football or basketball? From an early age he’d loved and excelled at both sports.

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While he loved basketball, he understood that players with his size, speed and physicality in football were rare. The conversations were agonizing at times as he struggled to choose between the two games.

 

“They were endless, “said Hoyt. “There were times when there were tears and there were times when there was laughter and times when people were trying to guide him down a route that was beneficial to them, not Ajou.

 

“He struggled with it for 10-to-12 months … I think he made the right choice. Physically, he’s in a different category in football than in basketball … and football is his first passion, 100 per cent.”

 

Since he’d arrived in Edmonton, Ajou had entertained the idea of trying to get himself to a U.S. prep school for more exposure to big-time football programs in the NCAA. By the end of his Grade 11 season at Harry Ainlay, he was ready to pursue that path.

 

If the big boys of college football weren’t going to come to him, he would go to them. Plus, he was weary of the tension that existed between him and Ralph over discipline.

 

Embedded Image“Not crazy or anything … he was just trying to teach me the values of life,” said Ajou. “I was getting really fed up with it, so I was, l was like, ‘You know what? I might just go and play football down south and do what I wanted to do.’ I was getting [college] letters, but no one really offered me. So I was like … I’ve got to get where I can be seen by people.’”

 

Ralph didn’t disagree. He recognized how hard it is for players at skill positions to land big-time college offers out of Canadian high schools. The trend across the country is for those players to finish high school in the U.S. Ajou had taken notice and was determined to do the same.

 

He decided to transfer midway through his Grade 11 year to a Clearwater Academy International in Florida, a prep school that was being attended by a number of young Canadian football hopefuls. 

 

If he went in January, he would be known by the spring when colleges host camps for high school prospects. And that’s where he wanted to be. 

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Ajou Ajou, Clearwater Academy International Knights

  

His calculations also included not telling McColl about his decision, knowing she would not support him moving to Florida barely past his 17th birthday. While she ultimately supported his move to Edmonton, this was different. Florida was far away and she didn’t know anything about the school he was going to attend or the people who would be taking care of him there. 

 

But like his Edmonton move, the decision was made. And soon enough offers from some of the biggest college football programs in America came flooding his way.

 

“Once you see this guy with your own eyes you don’t have to be the smartest guy to notice him,” said Ralph. “I knew it wouldn’t take long.”

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By the time his plane had touched down in Florida in January of 2019, Ajou already had two offers coming his way from Division I NCAA football programs, Florida Atlantic University and Indiana, based solely on a video of him dunking a basketball.

 

“They didn’t even see me,” Ajou said. “My coach sent them my basketball dunk and they were like, ‘Yeah, we want him.’ I was like, ‘Oh wow, from a basketball video.’ ”

 

Over the months that followed, other offers flowed in from more than two dozen schools, including the University of Alabama in the late spring, a perennial national power that has had multiple receivers taken in the first round of the NFL draft.


So too has Clemson, which at that time was the reigning national champion, having destroyed Alabama 44-16 in the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship game.

 

Clemson’s assistant coaches got an up-close look at Ajou when they visited Clearwater twice during the spring, and an invitation was extended to Clemson’s camp in June, where head coach Dabo Swinney, a former receivers coach himself, would get an up-close look at him. 

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Ajou with Mom and McColl at
Howard's Rock, Memorial Stadium

 

At that time, Ajou had 29 offers – from schools such as Florida State, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Penn State, Washington State and West Virginia.

 

“We had a small window and we learned so much in a small amount of time,” said McColl of the whirlwind of attention Ajou was receiving during the winter and spring of 2019. “It was an eye-opener to what official visits are like. Everything he wanted they did for him. We just talked about how crazy it was.” 

 

At the Clemson camp, Swinney saw that his assistants had not misled him. He’d never had a receiver quite like Ajou – so big and agile all at once. He revelled at the thought of coaching up Ajou’s potential for his team. 

 

“[After the camp] Dabo comes up to me and says 'I really like you, you could be a special player.' He said we’re offering you a full scholarship to Clemson university. I said Oh my goodness …,” said Ajou. “It was all a dream. Everything seemed so fake. I was pinching myself saying, ‘Yo, wake up, wake up.’”

 

Clemson allowed Ajou to take his time before accepting their offer. They’d invited him to attend a barbecue for recruits in July. McColl was flying down from Brooks to attend with him, at which time the pair would get a tour of everything the South Carolina school had to offer.

 

 “(Ajou) told me, ‘I’m going to commit when we’re down there,’” McColl said. “I said, ‘Okay, but I get to call ‘no’ if there’s something I don’t like about it.’ ”

 

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Ajou and Hofer at signing day in Brooks, AB

McColl was not shy about fulfilling the parental role in the recruitment process, which was impossible for Dut. As always, she tried to protect Ajou from those she worried wanted his athletics gifts without understanding his story.

 

“I ask questions that embarrass him because I want to make sure he will be in a situation where people will care about him, not just as an athlete,” she said. “I would ask, ‘What happens to the kid who screws up? Is he still here?’ ”

 

“Clemson had the best answers for how they deal with atypical athletes. It just felt like they understood our situation. They took the time to know us and talked to me. Everyone else was talking [only] to Ajou, but you have to care about him and the people he cares about.” 

 

At the end of the campus tour, Ajou went upstairs and told the coaches he had made his decision. McColl broke into tears.

 

The “official” visit at Clemson is reserved for players who have already to committed to the school. So in January of 2020, McColl and Dut flew to South Carolina to be there with Ajou. 

 

Clemson sent a car to pick up the pair at the airport, and they were taken directly to Swinney’s home, where the woman who’d grown up in refugee camps to escape the horrors of war in her homeland stood in the living room of one of the most iconic coaches in all of college football. This was where her son’s dream, and the support of a small city in Alberta, had led her. 

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Ajou and McColl after the game vs
Georgia Tech after scoring first TD

Dut was overwhelmed by the experience and struggled to put it into any sort of context, the culture and importance of college football in the south being far beyond her understanding. This was her son’s journey, but it had been driven by his appreciation of all she’d gone through in her life, all she’d done and continued to do for him and his four siblings. 

 

“Ajou tells me, ‘Mom, pray for me so I can succeed in what I am doing so I can help you and relieve you from all the misery you’ve gone through,’ ” said Dut.

 

The biggest decision of Ajou’s life had been made. But signing his letter of intent to Clemson wouldn’t happen in South Carolina or Florida. 

 

It would take place back in Brooks in January, before all the people who’d had a part in making his dream come true, in the community that had raised him, among those who love him, including Dut, his four siblings, McColl, Hofer and others.

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“He was happy sharing his excitement with people who were excited for him,” said McColl. “Excited not because he’s an amazing athlete, but because of everything else. It was a very proud moment for me and there’s nothing better than seeing your kids happy.” 

Clemson football players have a unique tradition of taking to the field before a game, emerging from a doorway partway up the interior of Clemson Memorial Stadium, touching Howard’s Rock, a piece of flint donated by a former coach from the 1960s, then running downhill on a long orange cloth that extends to the grass.

 

Ajou has made it an art form. 

 

He emerges at the top not in step, but in dance, keeping his own rhythm, then bouncing his knees apart while putting his hands together and then slamming them down on the rock.

 

He then skips down the top part of what’s known as “the hill,” his arms swinging like those of a gleeful child. When he gets to a rise in the slope, he effortlessly thrusts himself high into the air, kicking his feet apart and then landing as if weightless and entering the field in a gentle jog that is every bit as fluid as his dancing, arms stretched at his side as if tense from adrenaline.

 

If you wanted to see what joy looks like in a football uniform, this is it.

 

That boy back in Brooks, the one in the documentary eating ice cream, he was born for this.

 

And just like when he moved to Edmonton, the folks in South Carolina have a taken a shine to the freshman wide receiver’s presence, illustrated by his starring role this fall in a Clemson-produced takeoff of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

 

 

There are moments where he wonders if it’s all really happening, when it feels like only yesterday he was kid in middle school, getting picked-up and driven everywhere by everyone.

 

Swinney, who has coached nine receivers who are currently in the NFL, says Ajou is going to be an “unbelievable player.”

 

He is far from Brooks, further from Africa but he can see the road ahead.

 

Just as clearly as he could see his path to the goal line on that sunny day in October, when he took a screen pass at the 37-yard line against Georgia Tech and zigzagged his way to the end zone, eluding and evading tackles, before falling across the goal line for a score under brilliant sunshine. 

 

 

It was one of those dreams-do-come-true moments that most never get to experience.  And for once, the kid who grew up thriving in the spotlight, was overwhelmed by it, simply clutching to the hope that this was all really happening.

 

“I wanted to do like a little dance but I couldn’t move,” he recalls. “I just looked up and everything was blurry .... Then I hear everybody screaming and I’m like … what in the world?”

 

At the end of the game, Ajou came to the stands where McColl leaned over the wall.

 

“I said, ‘Holy f---, you just did that!”

 

The world can’t wait for what Ajou Ajou will do next.​