Football

Junior Gnonkonde’s journey from Africa to UNC includes storybook moment at Georgia Tech

North Carolina’s Junior Gnonkonde (44) returns a fumble by Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (5) in the fourth quarter on Saturday.
North Carolina’s Junior Gnonkonde (44) returns a fumble by Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (5) in the fourth quarter on Saturday. rwillett@newsobserver.com

They had driven about 225 miles from tiny Lakeland, Ga., to Atlanta on Saturday, unsure if they wanted to sit through the rain, unsure that Junior Gnonkonde would even play, before the moment came when they rose from their seats and celebrated as if he was one of their own.

In a lot of ways he is. Gnonkonde, a junior defensive end at North Carolina, had grown up in Abidjan, the largest city in the African nation of Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire). He had left home when he was 14 and wound up in Lakeland, in rural south Georgia.

He had arrived without knowledge of English and without much knowledge of American life and culture. He knew nothing about football.

Yet there he was Saturday, early in the fourth quarter of UNC’s 38-31 victory at Georgia Tech, breaking through the line of scrimmage and picking up a fumble and running with it while about 25 people from his hometown – his U.S. hometown – went wild.

“It was a lot of excitement for us,” John White, a former athletics director at Lanier County High, said during a phone interview Monday, “and I know it was for him.”

In a figurative sense, the town of Lakeland and the Lanier County High community adopted Gnonkonde and three other Ivory Coast natives when they arrived for their freshman year. White, though, adopted Gnonkonde in more of a literal sense and became his legal guardian.

“I’ve been pretty much his dad since he got here at age 14,” White said last week.

Doubts about trip

And so White and one of his three sons had been planning to drive up to Atlanta on Saturday for UNC’s game at Georgia Tech. When it came time, though, White wasn’t sure he wanted to go.

He knew Gnonkonde had been recovering from a back injury that had limited his ability to practice. It was unclear if Gnonkonde would play. And then there was the weather.

Friday night, White, who helps coach the Lanier County High football team, stood drenched on the sideline while he watched his biological son, Matthew, the team’s quarterback. White wasn’t looking forward to more rain.

But, he thought, how many times would he have a chance to drive to Bobby Dodd Stadium and watch Gnonkonde – the first, and only, Lanier County High football player to earn a scholarship to a Division I school? And so father and son got in the car and headed north. On the drive up, White shared a vision.

“I told my son on the way up there, I wish there’d be one of them plays where he’d get a sack and a fumble and pick it up and run it all the way back for a touchdown,” he said.

If his parents and seven siblings back home in Ivory Coast could see him now, playing on Saturdays in front of tens of thousands, playing at large stadiums in nationally televised games, “They’d be in shock,” Gnonkonde said recently.

He hasn’t been back to Ivory Coast or seen any member of his family in seven years, going on eight. Still the Tar Heels’ game Saturday represented something of a homecoming – or as much of a homecoming as there can be when home is 5,000 miles away.

Decided to stay

After completing the eighth grade in Ivory Coast, Gnonkonde came to the United States, to San Francisco, for an international basketball tournament when he was 14. He hasn’t been back to Africa since.

“I decided to stay and see if I can have a better life than (in) Africa,” he said last week.

Gnonkonde was sitting on the fifth floor of the Kenan Football Center, overlooking the field at Kenan Stadium, looking back on a strange, long journey that led him from Africa to San Francisco to Atlanta to Lakeland, Ga., where one day he saw this strange game kids were playing after school.

He asked his basketball coach at Lanier County High what it was all about. Football practice, the coach told him.

“Oh,” Gnonkonde said, recounting the story. “What is football?”

His coach led him outside where Gnonkonde watched practice for a while.

“Can I try?” he asked.

Gnonkonde didn’t speak much English then. When he arrived in the United States, he could speak several languages. He spoke the two most common languages in Abidjan. He could speak French. He knew German and Spanish.

A Spanish teacher at Lanier County High eased the transition. She communicated with Gnonkonde in French and started him in a Rosetta Stone program through which he learned the basics of English.

Gnonkonde is fluent now, though bashful about his improvement. He laughs and brushes off compliments about how far he has come since he began learning the language.

“I’m not there yet,” Gnonkonde said, though he said the same about a lot of things: his development on the football field, his physique, his studies.

‘A little hostile’

Gnonkonde has come a long way, literally and figuratively, though the distance of the journey is somewhat unclear, given there are some things he’d rather not talk about. Gnonkonde doesn’t talk a lot about home, besides how much he misses his family.

“I really wish I knew about his life back in Ivory Coast,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said last week. “Because from my understanding, it was pretty tough.”

Gnonkonde, whose given first name is Bohou, doesn’t talk much about the political landscape he fled. Or much about the civil war that broke out in Ivory Coast a few years after he left.

“It was a little hostile,” he said last week of his homeland, and there were “government issues” that influenced his decision to seek a new life an ocean and a continent away. For the first time since he left, he hopes to visit home next summer. He imagines what it might be like.

“Oh, I might cry, you know?” Gnonkonde said. “Because I haven’t seen my mom and dad for eight years. And my little brother. I know everything would be different. I hope I’m going to be ready to see and adapt to the change.”

He has become adept at that. His life has been nothing but a series of dramatic changes: leaving home, creating a life in a new place, learning a language, fitting into a new community and school, learning a new sport and on and on.

Gnonkonde wasn’t alone, at least, in his journey. Eight members of that Ivory Coast basketball team decided to stay in the United States after they came to San Francisco for the tournament. Four of them, including Gnonkonde, made the journey to Georgia.

They all wound up in Lakeland, Ga., because its basketball coach at the time knew a former junior-college coach who knew of a group of kids from Ivory Coast who needed a place to go. Eventually three came to live with White, who took legal custody of Gnonkonde.

White, no longer the school’s athletics director, said “everything his first two years was really, really slow.”

White likes to tell the story of the first time he took Gnonkonde and others from Ivory Coast to a buffet-style restaurant. The boys had never experienced one of those, White said.

White, who speaks in a thick south Georgia accent that offers a distinct juxtaposition to the accent Gnonkonde brought with him, remembers that first trip to the buffet as a “wild sit-down.”

“That was a two-hour session,” White said. “Now, they got them a plate, I went back and got me another plate, and they looked at me kind of funny and I said, ‘Y’all done?’ I said you get all you want to eat. Their little eyeballs popped open, and the next two hours was, ‘Get it, son.’ 

After a couple of years, during which White helped Gnonkonde through the immigration process and helped him obtain a green card, the foursome from Ivory Coast “became Americanized,” White said. Their clothing changed, and gradually they became more comfortable.

Yet one thing stayed the same, White said: the boys’ dedication to making the most of their fresh start. White said Gnonkonde and the three others from Ivory Coast made As and Bs throughout high school. They approached school and sports with a sense of gratefulness others might have lacked, White said.

“All the luxuries that kids over here complain about, they were very appreciative of all the stuff that our kids take for granted,” White said.

By his junior year, Gnonkonde, who played basketball from the start at Lanier County, was thriving on the football field. College coaches – intrigued by his size, physical attributes and the thought that he’d improve significantly given he’d just started playing the game – began making scholarship offers.

Gnonkonde didn’t really know what a scholarship was. Or what college football was, for that matter. One of his coaches explained it to him this way: Colleges will give you a free education in exchange for playing football. All you have to do is make the grade and stay out of trouble.

“I said, ‘OK,’ ” Gnonkonde said. “I said, ‘I can do that.’ 

He wanted to do it at Georgia Tech. Gnonkonde committed there and stopped considering other schools. Then during his senior season, weeks before national signing day, Georgia Tech rescinded his scholarship offer.

There were concerns about Gnonkonde’s transcript, White said, that prompted him to hire an attorney to ensure Gnonkonde’s college eligibility. Beyond that, White said the Georgia Tech assistant coach most responsible for recruiting Gnonkonde contacted Gnonkonde excessively – to the point, White said, that the school was concerned it might have committed an NCAA violation.

All of a sudden, Gnonkonde was without a scholarship offer to his dream school. He wasn’t sure where he’d wind up.

“They kind of took everything away from a kid,” White said of Georgia Tech.

Fedora’s first class

Still, Gnonkonde didn’t lack for interested suitors. Central Florida wanted him badly. So did South Carolina. Florida made a late offer. Then there was North Carolina. Asked what he knew about North Carolina, the state, when UNC began recruiting him, Gnonkonde said he knew “just the name.”

When he visited Chapel Hill, the UNC basketball team happened to be playing against Georgia Tech. Gnonkonde nearly committed on the spot and was a member of Fedora’s first recruiting class at UNC.

Since his arrival in Chapel Hill, Gnonkonde – a double major in African American studies and Peace, War and Defense – has been roommates with Justin Thomason, a senior defensive tackle.

Gnonkonde is a “different character,” Thomason said, smiling, and is the chef of the place – always cooking chicken and rice. The way Thomason tells it, sometimes Gnonkonde will walk through the door singing a song, and though Gnonkonde is “always a positive guy,” some things remain difficult.

“I’m from Atlanta, and that’s six hours away,” Thomason said. “And I struggle sometimes missing family. So it’s got to be tough. I know it’s a hard thing to do.”

Gnonkonde uses phone cards to call home. He emails regularly with his parents and siblings abroad – he’s the second-youngest among four sisters and three brothers – and when he does, his dad asks about his grades, and his mom tells him not to get hurt playing a game that’s foreign to her.

“I try to explain sometimes, but I don’t think they get it,” Gnonkonde said.

His parents have never watched him play, not even in games broadcast over the Internet. Neither have his brothers and sisters. They keep up with him, he said, by Googling his name and reading about him.

That means that after Saturday, they might have read about how Gnonkonde made one of the most important plays in one of UNC’s most important victories in years. His fumble recovery in the 38-31 victory at Georgia Tech represented the game’s most dramatic momentum swing.

Days earlier, Gnonkonde had thought back to his recruitment. He thought about having wanted to go to Georgia Tech, about his plan to go there before that plan fell apart.

“I (will) make sure that they’re going to regret that,” Gnonkonde said then.

His moment came early in the fourth quarter. White, Gnonkonde’s guardian, had been waiting for it, as had a group of about 25 others. The group included Malick Kone, one of Gnonkonde’s closest friends. Kone, a basketball player at the University of West Georgia, followed the same path as Gnonkonde to Lakeland, Ga.

They all had a chance to celebrate, briefly, after the game before they went their separate directions – White back to Lakeland, Kone back to Carrollton, Ga., and Gnonkonde back to Chapel Hill. White thought about what he’d hoped for on the drive up: the fumble recovery for a touchdown.

“I got half of it,” he said.

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