College Sports

‘Opportunity comes once.’ Koby Quansah’s improbable journey from Africa to Duke football.

Koby Quansah’s route to becoming a starting linebacker for Duke began more than 5,200 miles away.

His arduous path included a 2002 move from Ghana’s searing heat in equatorial Africa to Minnesota’s frozen winters when he was 4.

There were unsupervised nights with his older sister, when both were elementary school students, while their single mom worked in a hospital kitchen.

There was an uncertain drive from Boston to New York City one weekend when his mother, escaping a failed engagement to an abusive man, took Quansah and his sister to live with their aunt in the Bronx while she sought work and shelter and yet another fresh start in Connecticut.

Quansah and his sister bounced from house to house and school to school, from Minnesota to Georgia and finally Connecticut, while the immigrant family lived with different relatives while chasing the American dream.

All along the way, Quansah adapted, kept a sunny outlook and was quick to make new friends at each new school. And he possessed an athletic ability that provided opportunities that he as a kid didn’t know existed.

Once those opportunities came his way, he took full advantage.

“I always tell my son and my daughter,” Quansah’s mother, Naana Boakye, said in a telephone interview with The News & Observer. “The opportunity comes once, and when you get it you have to grab it. You have to appreciate it.”

Now a 21-year-old senior, Quansah is on track to graduate from Duke in December with a degree in psychology. He’s also leading the Blue Devils’ football team in tackles with 66 through seven games. He hopes to be picked in April’s NFL draft.

Last month he was one of 22 college football players nationwide named to Allstate and the American Football Coaches Association’s Good Works Team for off-field charitable endeavors.

“Koby is one of those guys that’s a rare individual,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Been through a lot in his life. But he’s always giving, always sharing. He could be just the opposite with the path that he’s had to take to reach Duke University. It’s pretty unique.”

Broken family and a big move

Born in 1997 in Ghana, Quansah became the man of his house at age 2. His father left him, his older sister, Melanie, and his mother and moved to London.

For the next two years, with plenty of family around, Boakye did her best to make a life for her young family.

Living with his grandmother, Quansah remembers an uncle driving him and his sister to get toy water guns, which they used to squirt each other while riding in the back seat. There were plenty of family meals.

But Boakye wanted more for her family, more than Ghana could provide.

“It wasn’t easy back home,” she said.

She obtained a visa to travel to the United States, where several of her relatives were living. It was time for her family of three to make a big move.

“I didn’t want to leave my kids back home,” Boakye told the N&O. “I’m not smart with the books. But the opportunities I got, I wanted to give them to my kids.”

Quansah said an uncle living in the Minneapolis area sponsored the family’s move, so they boarded a plane for the long trip to a far different climate.

“I wasn’t scared,” Quansah told the N&O. “My first time seeing a plane, it was just a big machine. It was surprising, shocking, kind of exciting.”

He started adjusting immediately to his new life in Minneapolis.

“Seeing snow for the first time was a shocker,” Quansah said. “You have to dress up to go outside.”

Boakye found work where she could, be it a custodial job in a hotel or at a hospital kitchen, often a night. She dreaded leaving her young children on their own but felt she had no other choice.

“I didn’t know how to pay for a babysitter,” Boakye told the N&O. “In my situation, that’s what I had to do.”

“It was always me and Koby staying home after school. Just taking care of ourselves,” Melanie Quansah told the N&O in a phone interview. “Sometimes our mom used to make us meals and leave in the fridge after school. Most of the time it was me and Koby.”

Another family hardship

English being a prominent language in Ghana helped the family with their transition. Koby and Melanie Quansah settled into their schools and became U.S. citizens.

After a few years in Minnesota, the family moved outside Atlanta for a few months. Boakye became engaged to man from Attleboro, Mass., and moved the kids there in late 2005.

That move, though, proved to be a mistake.

“This person wasn’t treating me well,” Boakye said. “Me and my kids were miserable.”

She called her sister in New York, saying “Can you help me? He’s trying to abuse me and the kids.”

They made a plan. The sister would take care of the kids while Boakye moved to the Hartford, Conn., area where their cousin worked in healthcare taking care of elderly patients. Boakye would establish a life there and the kids would join her later.

Quansah and his sister stayed with their aunt and attended P.S. 97 in the Bronx for six months while, in Connecticut, their mother started working in the healthcare industry and became a certified nursing assistant. The two then moved to Manchester, Conn. to be with their mother.

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Melanie Quansah started noticing a social trait her brother possessed that made all the moves easier on him.

“It was hard for me because I was always that shy girl who kept to herself,” Melanie Quansah told the N&O. “But my brother always makes friends everywhere he goes. He was always wonderful. He would meet someone and they were friends. It was amazing.”

Around sixth or seventh grade while living in Connecticut, Quansah remembered, he saw Ohio State and Michigan playing their annual football rivalry game on television in late November.

Having started playing schoolyard football with his friends, he decided on his future path. Or so he thought.

“I don’t know why, I just kind of picked Ohio State and they became my team for a while,” Quansah told the N&O. “I just wanted to go to Ohio State. But I didn’t know how the recruiting process worked. So I thought once you are done with high school you just go and play. I didn’t know you had to have a scholarship. I thought you would just go and that’s it.”

Help from everywhere

Upon reaching middle school age, Quansah began displaying athletic skills superior to his friends.

Soccer was the most popular sport in Ghana but he took up basketball and football in the U.S.

A friend asked him to play in the city’s recreation football league so Quansah joined. That boy’s father, Tylon Smith, coached the team and also ran a local AAU basketball team.

Quansah said Smith “became my father figure” and the two still remain close.

For all Smith did for Quansah, Boakye said, others helped along the way as well.

Quansah said he noticed kids at his public school who weren’t taking academics seriously. Smith told him about Kingswood Oxford, a private school Quansah could attend through high school where he could play football and basketball.

Boakye saw the private school costs — $37,700 annually for middle school tuition, $41,000 for high school — plus the added burden of getting her son to school, practices and games as something she couldn’t make work.

“If I don’t go to work they aren’t going to pay me,” she said. “Lord Jesus. How am I going to pay for private school?”

Kingswood Oxford helped cover Quansah’s tuition through its need-based financial aid program, which the school’s website says awards an average of $6 million per year. As for getting Quansah to camps, practices and games, another student’s mother, Holly Nesbit, helped with that. Quansah said he even stayed with Nesbit’s family some nights.

“She became a second mother to my son,” Boakye said. “I can’t thank that woman enough. There are people on the road that helped me a lot.”

Choosing football and Duke

Quansah liked basketball, but his lack of skills began to hinder him as he grew older and got ready for high school.

“You could tell I was a football player on the basketball court,” Quansah told the N&O. “I had no handles, just charging through people. I played from sixth grade through the end of freshman year. At that point, I knew basketball wasn’t going anywhere for me. I was only doing it to stay in shape.”

Football was different.

Playing in a low-level private school league, he had 94 tackles as a freshman and 103 more as a sophomore. He was clearly a standout but many questioned whether he could play Division I football.

“He was like a diamond in the rough,” Jim Knowles, the former Duke defensive coordinator who recruited Quansah at Duke, said in a phone interview with the News & Observer. “The kid just shone with personality. You loved what he did athletically. The football wasn’t very competitive. But he stood out.”

Quansah’s first scholarship offer came from Rutgers. Ohio State showed up near the end of his sophomore year with schools ranging from Syracuse and Massachusetts to Temple and Arizona State recruiting him along with Notre Dame, Michigan, Boston College and Duke.

His affinity for Ohio State changed, though, when he talked to the Buckeyes coaches and they failed to offer him a scholarship.

“All of these guys offered me without me visiting the school,” Quansah said about Ohio State. “You keep coming here. I don’t know why you keep coming here? You see me work out. You see me lift. I don’t know why you wouldn’t just offer me. I hated it when they won the national championship. Then they were `We don’t come to you, you come to us’ kind of stuff. I never visited. At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to go. Again, it’s the whole business side of things.”

Quansah narrowed his list to schools that could also offer him a quality education. That gave Duke, Notre Dame and Michigan an edge, he said. Boston College also had the added plus of its proximity to Connecticut and his mother.

“I said Koby, c’mon. North Carolina?” Boakye said. “How am I going to buy a ticket?”

Quansah visited Durham while on a 2015 spring break trip down the Eastern Seaboard with a friend and fellow athlete from Kingswood.

“I kind of fell in love with the school and started doing research about what Duke could do for me,” Quansah said. “Before that, I didn’t really know about Duke. Actually sitting down and taking consideration, I actually thought about committing on the spot. But I had to have my mama see it. I’m a big mama’s boy.”

They visited together a few months later, on Father’s Day weekend in June. That trip and his strong relationship with Knowles and Cutcliffe sealed the deal for Duke.

“There were a handful of coaches that I liked that I knew weren’t (messing around),” Quansah said. “I didn’t think the coaches here were (lying to) me. They kept it real.”

Knowles, who’s now a defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, wasn’t surprised to hear Quansah describe the recruitment that way.

“He is definitely a kid who knows what he wants,” Knowles said. “He does see through all the (mess). He sees through it.”

Quansah, who’s 6-1, 230 pounds, joined the Duke football program in 2016 and contributed immediately for the Blue Devils. He played in 12 games as a freshman reserve and, while being named to the Academic All-ACC team as a sophomore in 2017, started three times while playing in 13 games.

He followed the advice his mother gave him when he picked Duke.

“The scholarship you have, don’t abuse it,” Boakye said she told her son. “Get something. Bring a good name to me and you and our family.”

With Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris entrenched as Duke’s starting linebackers from 2016-18, Quansah became a top reserve. His starting assignments came when one of them was injured or when Duke utilized a three-linebacker alignment when facing a triple-option team like Georgia Tech or Army.

But he stayed ready

“Put your pride aside,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to play your role. The guys ahead of me were great. Play your role. When your time comes, it comes. I had my role on special teams.”

As a junior last season, Quansah suffered a pair of foot injuries, including one that required surgery. He admitted those injuries bogged him down mentally.

“I wasn’t living right, wasn’t eating as healthy as I could have,” he said. “I wasn’t keeping my body in shape so if I could return I would be fine.”

With Humphreys graduated and Giles-Harris now with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, Quansah’s path to a starting job was clear this season.

He faced some adversity with injuries to both thumbs, having surgery to repair a broken right thumb in late August.

But he’s started and played in all seven Duke games so far this season, wearing casts on both hands. He was determined not to let injuries get him down as they did last season.

His teammates voted Quansah a team captain and he continues to show how much he appreciates the opportunities that have come his way and all the people who have played a role in his success.

“God had a way to open a door for my kids to come to this country,” Boakye said. “I asked God to help me and show me the way. You have to appreciate everything people give to you.”

Duke at UNC

When: 4 p.m., Saturday

Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill

Watch: Fox Sports Carolinas

Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.