Former Syracuse soccer player Gogo Kollie uses childhood struggles, mother’s death to guide future

first_img Published on May 7, 2015 at 9:23 am Facebook Twitter Google+ Emmanuel Kollie was trained to find home on his own if violence broke out.At 11 years old, he walked three miles from his house in Daloa, Ivory Coast to visit his sister, Rose. It was 9 in the morning on a scorching hot Thursday, and people gathered in the streets to exchange goods.That’s when Kollie heard gunshots for the first time. He started shivering and thought he was going to die. Masses of people began running, even police officers, and Kollie followed suit.He ran the entire three miles back to his mother, Lucy Johnson. She told him to go to his aunt’s, since her house was where the family normally gathered. Kollie ran another six or seven miles, and laid flat on the floor for three or four hours.“You can’t be idiotic and stand up because you might get shot,” he said.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text**Kollie traveled a lot, mostly just to stay alive.That included stops in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Guinea before moving to the United States in 2005. He’s spent time in Philadelphia, a junior college in Colorado and now Syracuse, where he’s played soccer the past two seasons and will earn his Bachelor’s Degree from this weekend. And while his mother died in February from diabetes, what she taught him through a rocky childhood inspires him to eventually return home.Despite the struggles, he’s done it all with a vibrant personality and embraces his heritage — something his mother instilled in him. He doesn’t regret anything about growing up in Africa, and knows he can make strides now because of what he’s already survived.“If you haven’t been through hell and hot water,” he said. “…you don’t know what it takes.”**Kollie doesn’t remember many specifics from the first six years of his life in Liberia, but has heard stories of the struggle.He talks about how local businesses would last less than two days before being ransacked by rebel forces. He discusses his mother refusing to eat the small amount of food she’d accumulated just so her kids could. He uses the metaphor “the country never sleeps,” because it literally couldn’t afford to.But Kollie remained carefree. His love for soccer was forged in Liberia, where he’d play on dirt fields without shoes. It was then that his father gave him the name he’s now called by, Gogo.“You put him down when he was much, much younger and before you look, he’s somewhere else,” Rose said, chuckling. “He’s just going around the place.”After moving to Ivory Coast, Gogo and his friends made makeshift soccer fields wherever they could find space. The fields were 20 meters wide and long and miniature goals served as nets. Gogo couldn’t afford cleats — it wasn’t until he was 14 that a friend gave him his first pair — and either played barefoot or in sandals that closely resembled Crocs.The Kollies didn’t have a kitchen and had only an outdoor bathroom. Gogo was sometimes sent home from school because his mother hadn’t paid the proper tuition. Still, he said it was a time in his childhood he actually enjoyed.But on top of that, there was the violence.Rebels would come into the town and brainwash kids, handing teenagers guns and forcing them to kill people. To escape it, the Kollies went back to Liberia for a month until another round of ceasefire in November 2002.The same evening, the Kollies began walking to the border of Guinea. The walk took two days. Rebel forces would shoot at people who tried to drive.“I don’t know how many kilometers it is, but it’s legit,” Gogo said.In Guinea, Rose said the United Nations bought a plot of land and cut down trees to make room for tents for refugee families. Up to 25 families lived in one tent, there were no mattresses and candles were the only source of light at night.But after two or three years, they got their chance to leave.**When Gogo’s Aunt Eva sent for the Kollies from the U.S., a series of questions had to be answered. Date of birth, exact relation and available housing, among others, all had to be confirmed before Gogo, his nephew, Rose and their mother came over.They flew into John F. Kennedy Airport at night in 2005, and Gogo’s vision of America was coming to fruition.“I think the government purposely do this, they bring you to the country at night so you can see all the lights and stuff,” Gogo said. “When you see light, you’re like, ‘Yes!’”After not leaving his temporary New York City hotel for a week, Gogo moved to Philadelphia. The first morning he woke up, he questioned if he was still in the U.S. since the place was so dirty.And at school, it didn’t get any more glamorous. Gogo was made fun of for talking like a typewriter. He was afraid to talk in class because of his accent. There even came a time that he resented his culture.At John Bartram (Pennsylvania) High School, there were three metal detectors. Kids carried guns and knives to school and would fight on Fridays. One day, Gogo was being pressed so hard that he put a kid in a headlock and started punching him.But when John Dunlop, the head coach at Father Judge (Pennsylvania) High School, noticed Gogo through the nearby Starfunder non-profit organization that helped kids with education through soccer, Gogo got his big break.Dunlop said the Kollie’s house was the size of a garage and that they literally had no money. Dunlop knew Gogo’s mother worked as a maid, and thought he deserved a better chance. Father Judge’s tuition was $5,000 but the Kollies couldn’t afford that. So on top of the financial aid the school provided him, Gogo’s club coach, Paul Ferreira, paid for the rest and Gogo attended high school for free.In the hallways, he wore what Dunlop called goofy red and yellow reading glasses and kids would scream “Gogo, Gogo!” within two weeks of him enrolling. Gogo could be his extroverted self since he didn’t have any girls to impress at the all-boys school. On the field, he earned first-team All-Catholic League and first-team all-state honors.“He was electrifying,” Dunlop said. “If you don’t know him, you have no idea who this kid is and what he’s been through. And then when you find out everything, it’s like amazing.”After high school, Gogo attended Otero (Colorado) Junior College for three years. He was homesick, not eating the right food and stressed out living on his own for the first time. But it proved he could sustain himself, and an opportunity to move back east eventually opened up.Nick Bibbs, Gogo’s friend and a former SU midfielder, suggested that former Orange assistant coach Mike Miller give Gogo a look. Miller saw raw talent that could be developed in a structured environment, gave Gogo a chance and he joined Syracuse before the 2013 season.But in his first year with the Orange, Gogo’s flashy, individual play struggled to adapt to head coach Ian McIntyre’s desired style. He made up excuses for missing practices and played only five games in 2013. And in his second season, a knee injury prevented Gogo from even dressing for a single game.“Everything happens for a reason, like I don’t regret me being in Syracuse,” Gogo said. “After going through all this, it makes me a different person.”**It was 7 a.m. on Feb. 10 and Gogo was woken up by a call from his sister, Nancy. He didn’t pick up, but when she called again and he heard his aunt’s tears on the other end, Gogo knew his mother had passed.She had been in the hospital for almost two months, even spending some time in a coma. Gogo would sit in her hospital room over winter break and talk to her, even though he knew she couldn’t respond.He was never emotional about his mother’s death because he couldn’t believe it. But over spring break at the funeral was when it really hit him and to this day, whenever Gogo’s tired, he says he’ll dream of his mother five or six times if he falls asleep.Though she’s gone, he carries what she taught him toward his future, a future that he never envisioned including college.“What he’s had to overcome to get where he is now is remarkable,” Miller said. “The fact that he’s going to leave with a Syracuse degree is unbelievable.”Time after time, Gogo emphasizes how he’s proud of his roots and never regrets being born into struggle.“If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going.”Gogo rattles off the saying, among other quotes his mother would tell him. It inspires him to return home one day to create a non-profit organization for kids that educates them through soccer, a game that was introduced to him in Liberia and has guided him since.Sitting on the couch in his South Campus apartment, 10 days from graduation, he’s quick to point out a player on his team in FIFA. It’s George Weah, the only Liberian-born player to be named FIFA World Player of the Year.He has finished icing his knee after a workout in the hot sun, more than 4,600 miles from where he was born. He leans back, extends his arm and taps his knuckles to the Liberian flag hanging on his wall.“This is me, this is who I am. My mom had a great impact on my life with that,” he said. “The fact that she gone, I can sustain myself, I can do better stuff with my life.” Commentslast_img

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