It wasn’t until he was thousands of feet in the air, looking out the window as the highlands and rivers of Nigeria disappeared from view that Prince Tega Wanogho started to question his decision to leave home.
It all happened so quickly. One minute, he was practicing his jump shot in a barren gym, and the next he was pooling money to rent a van and drive seven hours to a camp where basketball coaches from the United States might be watching. He thought he was playing poorly until the camp’s organiser, Eyo Effiong, pulled him aside and asked for his contact information.
His film caught the attention of Todd Taylor, a high school coach in Montgomery, Alabama, who saw beyond the rough edges. In no time, Wanogho and Taylor were chatting on Facebook and making plans for him to move in with the Taylors and spend his junior year at Edgewood Academy. When Wanogho was officially offered a scholarship, “I went crazy,” he recalled. “I still didn’t believe it was happening.”
He went to the embassy a bundle of nerves, imagining all the ways they could turn down his visa application. When he was told he was in the clear, he screamed at the top of his lungs. His mother was sad he would be leaving, but she understood the opportunity — “not just for myself but for the family, too,” he said.
The six-foot-five Wanogho, the seventh of nine children from the Nigerian city of Warri, had always viewed basketball as his way out. To where, he didn’t know. He couldn’t locate Alabama on a map if his life depended on it. When he found out he was flying into Montgomery Airport, he immediately thought of one of Edgewood’s administrators, Susan Montgomery. In what would later become a running joke, he’d ask Todd, “Does Susan own the airport?”
More than five years have passed since then, and everything has changed. He’s a continent away, starring in a sport he’d only seen in the movies. Now a standout offensive lineman for Auburn, Wanogho has the potential to be an early-round NFL draft pick in 2020.
“It was exciting,” Wanogho said of leaving home. “I was ready for a new adventure. But, then again, as soon as I got in the plane I got low. I started thinking about my sisters, my mom. I’m leaving everybody.”
Doubt washed over him. What if where I’m going they don’t like me? What if I don’t do what I’m supposed to?
He didn’t know it at the time, but the Taylors were nervous as well. They’d never done anything like this. When Todd told his wife, Christy, his plans to house and feed a teenage boy they’d never met, she thought it was a joke.
When Wanogho arrived in August 2014, neither side let on how out of place they felt. His flight got in late, so they all went to Wendy’s for hamburgers and fries, then straight home to bed. The next morning, it was off to Waffle House. Overwhelmed by the size of the menu, Wanogho copied Todd’s selection: the All-Star Special. It’s the only thing he has ordered since.
He’d only brought the clothes on his back, so Christy took him shopping. Wanogho’s mother raised him to be respectful and he could tell the Taylors were trying, but it was still an awkward situation.
“I tried to put on a smile even though I didn’t feel like it,” he said. “Even though I missed my family back home, feeling sad, I put on a smile and just showed my appreciation because they don’t really owe me nothing and they’re here buying me clothes, feeding me.”
Time would eventually smooth out the rough edges of their relationship as he’d come to love and trust the Taylors. They went on a cruise together this summer. These days, he wraps his enormous arms around their 21-year-old son, Zack, and they joke that they’re twins even though they look nothing alike. But deep down, they mean it.
But time can’t heal everything. When Wanogho reflects on his journey, a certain wistfulness bleeds through. The Taylors notice it, too. They realise what he’s given up to get here and what he’s lost along the way. It’s why they supported him putting the NFL on hold and returning for his senior season. Christy’s eyes well up thinking about it. Given everything he’s been through, he deserves to be a kid a while longer, she says.
Wanogho didn’t really need to be at school in August, seeing as classes hadn’t started and basketball practice was still several weeks away. But he was curious. He knew Zach, who was also 16 years old, left home earlier that morning for football practice, and he wanted to see what the fuss was about.
Fine, Todd told him, we’ll take a look. He figured either way, it would be a good idea to get Wanogho acclimated with Edgewood Academy, a small private school in rural Alabama.
Wanogho and another basketball player milled around the sidelines. Bored and looking for something to do, they picked up a football and tossed it back and forth. Sizing up the boys from afar, head coach Bobby Carr asked whether they wanted to give it a try. Wanogho figured, “Why not?”
The school didn’t have any Size 16 cleats, so he tightened the laces on his Air Jordans and strapped on a helmet. He’d seen “The Blind Side,” “Remember the Titans” and “The Longest Yard,” but that was the beginning and end of his football knowledge.
Carr made it simple. He put the six-foot-five, 230-pounder at defensive end and told him, “Go get the quarterback. Go get the ball.”
All Wanogho had was a basic swim move and a bull rush, but it was more than enough. Right away, he dominated. And seeing how excited his teammates got made him excited to keep going. When he ran a 40-yard dash — in those same Jordans — he clocked in at a blistering 4.6 seconds.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn remembers the initial staff meeting when his defensive line coach, Rodney Garner, turned on the tape.
“A big guy that can run and be fluid,” Malzahn said. “You look at his body and say, ‘If he gets in a weight room and on a food program, boy, he’s going to be a big man.’”
He knows that home will never look or feel the same. The road back is almost unrecognisable. But he’s come this far, and there’s no stopping now.
• Culled from USA TODAY Sports