As a kid in the ’90s — even in New Jersey — there was only one team that I thought had it all: the Dallas Cowboys. Every Sunday, I’d sit in front of our TV and watch them. Emmitt Smith. Deion Sanders. Troy Aikman. Michael Irvin.
But whenever I’d watch with my uncle, he’d just wave his hand at the screen and tell me how Walter Payton was his guy, how Walter Payton was his dude. He was always talking about Walter Payton.
I wasn’t really having much of it. How could I? Walter retired well before I started watching NFL games. And I had Emmitt Smith in front of me every week. But my uncle always said that Emmitt was nothing compared to Walter.
Then Emmitt broke the rushing record. And when he was interviewed afterward he mentioned one guy.
When I saw the best running back in the league talk about another guy, I wanted to know who that guy was. My uncle had some old tapes of Walter’s games (like I said, he loved Walter), so we sat down to watch them. That was when the switch flipped.
Oh, I get it now.
Walter was just so tough. That’s what I loved about him. He wasn’t like any other running back I had ever seen before. He could run. He could catch. He could do it all. When I was growing up, I didn’t cover the walls of my bedroom with posters of athletes. But if I had, Walter would have been the only guy up there.
Of course, when I was a kid, I didn’t have a room of my own.
My family struggled when I was growing up, but my mom always worked to give us whatever she could. I was born in New Brunswick, N.J., but my family moved to Sierra Leone, where my parents were from, when I was just a baby. When I was six, my mother brought my brother, my sister and me back with her to New Brunswick. I saw my dad some, but mostly it was the four of us together in New Jersey.
We rented a bedroom and a living room in a house on Robinson Street. Another guy rented the other bedroom, and somebody else rented the room in the basement. We didn’t even have a bathroom to ourselves — we had to share with these random guys. So my mom and my sister would sleep in the bedroom, and my brother and I would sleep on a pullout couch in the living room. Every morning before school, we had to fold it back up. And every night before we went to bed, we had to pull it back out and throw the blankets and the pillows on top.
Life wasn’t just tough inside the house. Outside our door wasn’t the safest of neighborhoods. There was some gang violence and families who were struggling. I kept myself out of trouble for the most part, but I knew a lot of people who didn’t. There weren’t a lot of stories about people making it out of my neighborhood and going on to make it big.
At night, laying on that old pullout, I’d think about Walter. I’d think about the Cowboys. And I wouldn’t just think about their moves on the field, but also everything they had off of it. I realized that maybe football could be a way to have a nicer life, my own bedroom, my own bathroom — a wall where I could put up a poster.
Even though we lived in such close quarters, I didn’t see my mom a lot when we lived in New Brunswick. She worked long hours in a nursing home, and also worked two other jobs. A lot of nights, she wouldn’t come home until after 11, when I was already sleeping. And by the time I woke up in the morning, she would have already left to start the whole process over again.
My sister, who’s 13 years older than me, also worked while she was finishing up high school. My brother was taking classes and playing basketball. So a lot of times, I had to take care of myself, even at six or seven years old. I had my go-tos for food, like Oodles of Noodles or cereal. I ate a lot of cereal when I was younger. We also lived right across from a Chinese restaurant, so I’d eat Chinese food once in a while, or a dollar slice of pizza.
I didn’t really know anything different. That was life. Everyone pitched in and did what they could.
When I got to middle school, we moved about five miles east, to Sayreville. My sister had gotten married, and my mom, my brother and me all moved into a two-bedroom apartment with her, her husband and their son. Things were still tight. I slept in the living room with my brother, but for the first time, we weren’t sharing an apartment. We had our own space. There was a little bit more money coming in, and my mom would cook dinner almost every night.
Plus, I was finally old enough to play peewee football.
In our town, kids played for the Sayreville Leprechauns, the Morgan-Parlin Panthers or the South River Knights. I can still remember when my mom and I went to sign up for the Leprechauns. I was so excited to finally get to wear shoulder pads and a helmet — to just go out and play.
When we went to the sign-up table, a woman handed my mother a form. As she started to fill it out, the woman looked up.
“We’ll just need a check for $300, please,” she said.
I could see the pen in my mother’s hand stop moving. She looked down at me and I knew right away. She couldn’t pay that much money just so I could play football.
“I’m so sorry, Mo.”
So we thanked the woman and left. No football team. No helmet. No shoulder pads.
Later that same week, I was outside playing football with some of my friends when we saw a car pull up next to our game. A guy we didn’t know got out. We all thought it was a little weird, some random guy pulling up to a field of kids playing football. But we kind of just kept doing our thing.
At one point, I returned a punt for a touchdown, weaving around tacklers just like Walter. I leapt into the end zone, dropped the ball and danced. Just like Deion.
The guy, who was hanging by the fence, called out to us.
“You kids can really play!”
There were a dozen or so of us out there, and we all kind of wondered, Who is this dude and why is he on our field? He went back to his car and came back with a bunch of papers in his hands. He started handing them out.
“You wanna play on my team?” he asked.
I looked down at the paper. The guy was Vinny Jackson, the coach of the South River Knights. We couldn’t believe it. We all grabbed the forms and ran home to our parents to ask if we could sign up. I knew what my mom would say, but Coach Jackson came to our apartment to talk to her personally.
“We tried to sign him up in Sayreville, it was too much money,” she said.
“Don’t worry about that,” he told her.
Coach Jackson waived the fee so I could play. I’m not sure if he paid for it himself, but I do know that he gave me a shot and I don’t know where I’d be without him. He saw potential in me and gave me the opportunity to play. And at that first practice, I got it all. The helmet. The shoulder pads. The cleats and gloves. And my very first jersey.
I knew right away what number I wanted: 34.
For every season after that, I worked to prove I was worthy of wearing that number. So I’d watch video of Walter on the computer. I wanted to play like him. I wanted to be him.
“There goes Sweetness,” my coach would say when I’d run the ball into the endzone.
And by the time my freshman season started, I had gotten my first letter from a college recruiter. More soon followed. It was around that time I thought, I could really play Division I football and go to college for free. My NFL dream finally seemed possible.
The first school to really push for me was Rutgers. Joe Susan, who was the tight end coach at the time, saw me flash on film and asked me to come to campus to meet with him. Now, for a kid who was not only the lone freshman starting for the varsity team, but also the only one getting calls from college recruiters, everything sort of went to my head. I didn’t really take school too seriously, and would horse around in class. I got my report card back at the end of my freshman year and right next to mathematics was a giant letter F. The thing is, math was a class that I knew I was good at, but I was only thinking about my football stats and didn’t care about anything else. What did it matter how well I did in school? I was playing varsity football, and a college had already talked to me about coming to play for them.
Then I got another call from Coach Susan. He’d seen my report card too.
“Hey man, we like you a lot and we’d like to offer you a scholarship,” he said, “but with these grades you can’t get into school.”
Everything I had been working for on the field, all the sacrifices my mom and my sister had made, I was about to throw away. The chance that Coach Jackson had taken on me, the chance Coach Susan wanted to give me, I was about to waste them both.
I needed to kick it into gear. And in my sophomore year — and for the rest of my time in high school — it was all A’s and B’s. The effort that I was putting in on the field? I made sure I was doing the same with my schoolwork. I even finished my classes by December and graduated six months early.
I returned to New Brunswick to enroll at Rutgers in January and was able to join the team for spring practice. The helmet. The shoulder pads. The jersey. I was a Scarlet Knight.
Growing up, I hadn’t really thought about college. It wasn’t until I moved into my new dorm room at Rutgers — and hung posters on the wall — that it really started to sink in. I had come a long way, but I hadn’t traveled very far to do it. I walked outside and recognized the streets and the neighborhood. I walked a few more blocks and saw the sign: Robinson Street. And another block down was the house that we had all crammed into.
I remembered sitting in that apartment, watching those Cowboys games and wanting more. And now, I was a college football player. The NFL — if I worked hard for it — wasn’t that far away.
Looking back, it would’ve been so easy for me to go the other way when I was growing up in New Brunswick. And the neighborhoods there are only getting tougher. Once I made it to the NFL, I really started to think about how I could give back. I had put in a lot of hard work to play pro football, but I knew there was a whole crew of people who had helped me get to the NFL.
My mom and my sister. Coach Jackson. Coach Susan. My uncle and his tapes of Sweetness.
So last year, in partnership with the Embrace the Kids Foundation, I created the Sanu’s Crew football camp for kids in the New Brunswick area. There hadn’t been any camps I could go to when I was a kid — not that I would have been able to afford one if there had been. So I want to give these kids an opportunity I didn’t have. We charged $25 that first year, but I know how hard it can be to pull even that much money together. So this past summer, for the camp’s second year, we made it free for all campers.
If Coach Jackson hadn’t given me the chance to play football, who knows what would’ve happened to me. And if Coach Susan hadn’t called to tell me how hard I needed to work, who knows where I’d be.
So I try to do both for the Sanu’s Crew campers. Sure, they ask me about how much money I make, or who’s the toughest DB I’ve ever faced, but at the end of camp, we also talk about dedication. I tell the campers that it doesn’t have to be football that you choose to be great at. You can be great doctor, a great lawyer, a great fireman. When you find something that you want to be, dedicate yourself to it.
I met one camper — whose uncle I had known when I was growing up — who already scored 30-some touchdowns last season. He works hard and does well in school. We spoke about his favorite players and he named a lot of the guys I go up against today. He talked about their end zone celebrations, their jukes and all that.
But when he asked me about my favorite player, there was only one guy I wanted to talk to him about.
For more information on Sanu’s Crew and Embrace the Kids Foundation, visit http://www.embracekids.org