Saturday, November 19, 2016
Class B state championship game: No. 1 Elkhorn South vs. No. 2 Omaha Skutt
7:15 p.m. Tuesday
Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
The spacious walls are painted his high school colors — blue and gold. A mounted frame displays his favorite pictures. There’s last year’s state championship team. There he is in a red No. 7 jersey before his first Husker game seven years ago. There he is (multiple times) with his girlfriend.
A hilarious homemade sign — his sister’s artwork — shows his 17-year-old face photoshopped on the Biblical prophet’s robed body: “Part the Red Sea. Beat Aurora.”
This is how the world knows Moses Bryant, the running back with 39 touchdowns who leads undefeated Elkhorn South into Tuesday’s Class B championship game at Memorial Stadium. It is not, however, the only world he knows.
Before coming to the U.S., Elkhorn South’s Moses Bryant admired soccer player David Beckham. Bryant has become a top running back. In 12 games, he has 1,547 rushing yards (8.5 per carry) and 35 touchdowns. He has another four TDs as a receiver. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Beneath all the typical trappings of a teenage bedroom, a framed photo rests on Moses’ nightstand, his last memento of his first home.
“When I look at that picture,” Moses said, “I remember what I went away from.”
A year from now, Bryant will have broken or challenged most of the state’s 11-man rushing records. Two years from now, he’ll be playing Division I football, perhaps at Nebraska. He’s going places fast.
But what stirs Mo’s imagination — what keeps him awake some nights — is the childhood he left behind. The mom he doesn’t remember. The dad he won’t forget. The orphanage where he learned to read and write, to climb high and eat quickly, to believe in an American family he’d never met.
In three seasons at Elkhorn South, Moses has rushed for 3,914 yards. It’s merely a blip in how far he’s come.
* * *
Let’s turn to a different photograph, the one that got this whole thing started.
In 2003, Darrell and Diana Bryant’s second daughter, Melissa, was searching through websites full of lonely little faces. The family had considered adoption for years, but they already had four kids and life was hectic enough.
Melissa, 14, didn’t give up. “Mom, God told me we need to adopt a little girl from Africa.”
Diana’s response: “Well, God’s gonna have to tell us, too.”
One day, Melissa stumbled on an orphanage in Sierra Leone with dozens of children. Diana felt an immediate connection with one of the boys, 4 years old.
“Something about him.”
Darrell, she said, look at this. If we were going to adopt, just out of curiosity, which of these kids would you choose? He scrolled down and pointed to the same boy.
Coming to Nebraska from Sierra Leone was a big culture shock for Moses.
If that wasn’t a message from God, what was? There began their midlife mission. They expected adoption to be done in a year. It took 4½.
Diana says she could write a book about all the false starts and missteps, the days she wanted to pull out her hair thinking about Moses growing up parentless in one of the world’s poorest countries. To get him, the Bryants wrote fat checks. They consulted lawyers. They hassled officials on both sides of the Atlantic. They thought they were on the right track, and then the United States shut down all adoptions out of Sierra Leone because of child trafficking concerns.
At one point, Darrell said, they wasted 18 months because of misinformation. A lawyer said they needed a court date to fill out a critical form. Turned out, they needed the form to receive the court date.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
The Bryants might have pulled the plug, if only they hadn’t set their hearts on Moses ... if only they hadn’t sent the boy photos of their family.
“We felt that he was our son and we wanted to get him out of there and bring him home,” Diana said.
Finally, in late 2007, they booked their flights to Freetown, Sierra Leone. They got off a ferry and entered the dirt streets, where women in colorful dresses transported objects on their heads; where officers randomly stopped taxicabs and searched them; where wooden storefronts, cloaked in chicken wire, weren’t much wider than their living-room couch.
The Bryants arrived at the orphanage, where they were escorted upstairs. Darrell looked out a window into a paved lot and saw a group of young boys, stripped of their clothes, taking a bath with a bucket of water.
There was his new son.
* * *
He was born Sept. 23, 1999, during the worst period of a civil war that killed more than 50,000 people, a war that inspired a Hollywood movie, “Blood Diamond.” He carried his father’s name, Moses Bangura.
His dad may have participated in the war; Moses isn’t sure. The boy’s first memory of the man is his large hands. His father would carry a bowl one-handed, cupping it from the bottom.
“I was trying to do that and I spilled my food,” Moses said.
Moses’ mother died when he was a toddler; he doesn’t know how. One of her best friends worked at the orphanage in Freetown. Moses’ dad was in the military and couldn’t take care of his son, so he gave the boy to the orphanage.
Moses eats a meal during his last day in Africa before his flight to the United States with his dad.
Moses knows the stigma attached to that word — “orphan.” But his home for those four or five years was safe and fun, he said. He was loved.
“I was just a normal kid.”
The “compound,” as they called it, was surrounded by a fence. Moses was free to roam, as long as he stayed inside. He and his friends climbed trees. They watched soccer on TV — Moses loved David Beckham. At night, kids shared a large bunk area — maybe 50 in one room.
Moses was oblivious to the Bryants’ bureaucratic headaches. The orphanage just told him that a family was interested in him. Then, one day, Darrell and Diana showed up. Moses greeted them with hugs.
“I fell in love with them right away,” he said.
They gave him a pair of shoes — and a bag of Skittles. He ran off and shared the candy with his friends. The Bryants asked “Uncle Steven,” who ran the orphanage, if Moses was sure he wanted to leave. Steven and Moses convened behind closed doors and returned with good news.
The Bryants ordered dinner for the whole orphanage and the kids performed dances. The deal wasn’t done, though. They needed paperwork.
Sierra Leone is a former British colony. When they entered the courthouse, their American-educated lawyer approached them in a black robe and a white wig, something out of the 18th century. The judge heard their case and didn’t say a word. She just began writing ... and writing ... and writing. It felt like an hour. It was probably 20 minutes.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Diana said.
Finally, the judge looked up and recommended that the Bryants take Moses back to America immediately. The deal took another four months as Darrell and Diana completed another round of field investigations back in Nebraska.
One day, Uncle Steven pulled Moses aside and told him it was time to go. Moses started crying. The children cheered for him.
The next morning, he climbed on the back of a motorcycle, driven by his friend, Bokuri. They took a ferry to the airport, then boarded a flight to Senegal, where Darrell Bryant was waiting. He and Moses stayed at a big hotel and shared a bed.
“It felt right away like he was my dad,” Moses said.
Somehow, between the Sierra Leone orphanage and the Senegal airport, Moses lost a little bag packed with pictures of his birth parents. The only memento he carried to America was a photo Darrell snapped on the final day — Bokuri and Moses in front of a Hertz window — the picture that now sits on his nightstand.
On April 27, 2008, the day after his new mom turned 50, Moses landed in Omaha. The whole Bryant family greeted him at the airport.
* * *
Moses celebrates his 10th birthday 18 months after his arrival in Nebraska.
That’s what Uncle Steven called him at the orphanage. He had such a big personality, he acted like he ran the place. The phrase took on a new meaning when Moses arrived at his new home, a refurbished century-old, three-story gem in Valley. He looked at it from the outside and wondered, “Is it actually a house?
“I thought it might be a big open space with beds inside.”
Culture shock barely scratches the surface of Moses’ assimilation. He’d never been to a grocery store or a restaurant. Never ridden on paved roads. Never heard of the Easter Bunny.
At dinner, he didn’t understand why his four siblings received their own helping — “I was really surprised they weren’t jumping at the food.” (No wonder he gained so much weight that first summer.)
“To me, it felt like it was a heaven,” he said. “How things were so much easier. I wasn’t used to it.”
Change wasn’t always good. When you bop classmates on the head in Africa, it’s a game. When you do it in an American classroom, you go to the “problem-solving room.” (Moses spent a lot of time in the problem-solving room.)
He got in trouble for fighting with his new brothers, for disrespecting his teachers, for cursing.
“I finally told ’em that (in Africa) the bad words were not bad words,” he said.
In Sierra Leone, Moses spoke a variation of English called “Krio,” and his accent was hard to understand. A few classmates mocked him, specifically his struggles to pronounce his “Rs”.
“Those were the times that I wished I was back where everyone sounded the same and kids understood me,” he said.
Most kids, though, gravitated to Moses. They wanted to be his friend. He was sweet, handsome and — oh, yeah — really, really fast. Moses dreamed of being Beckham until he saw his first American football game. He joined his first team a few months after adoption.
Coaches put him on defense and turned him loose — “Hey Mo, just go get the ball,” said his first coach, Scott Charron. “And Mo would go get the ball.”
On offense, Mo fumbled a lot. And he often went right instead of left, or vice versa. It actually worked to his team’s advantage.
“That was one of our better plays,” Charron said. “Everybody on defense was following him” and the quarterback was free to run to daylight.
Moses loved the game ... until November when it got cold. He wore so many layers that he could barely run. “Moses!” his dad shouted from the sideline, “it’s not cold out.”
For a kid who’d never experienced a day under 60 degrees, it was cold out.
* * *
Moses runs the ball in 2010 for his team in fifth grade. COURTESY OF STEPHANIE WEISS
Moses Bryant attended his first Nebraska football game in October 2009. He went with Peyton and Nolan Weiss. Bryant is putting together a high school career that could attract NU or other Division I schools.
By junior high, Moses had toughened up. He’d become so good that opposing parents and coaches questioned his age, sometimes in hushed tones, sometimes openly. No way he’s only 14, they said.
They didn’t know that Darrell and Diana had his birth certificate from the orphanage. Nor did they realize how small Moses was when he first came to America. The rumors “drive me crazy,” Charron said.
In the critics’ defense, the kid was a phenom. The first time Guy Rosenberg got a close look at Moses was football camp in the summer of 2014. Elkhorn South was doing a defensive pursuit drill. The tailback takes off to the sideline and the defenders cut him off on the sideline. Rosenberg, the head coach, did a “double-take.” Nobody could catch Mo.
It wasn’t long before he earned a varsity promotion. When Rosenberg pulled him from the freshman squad, assistant coach Tom Mueller stopped practice and told the other rookies,
“There goes your meal ticket. You guys are on your own.”
Those remarks opened the door to jealousy. If you ever cut corners, if you ever stop working hard, Rosenberg told Moses, teammates will resent your success. It’s just human nature.
“He’s always such a level-headed kid,” Rosenberg said. “He understood that already.”
Moses was the first freshman in Class B to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. MARK DAVIS/THE WORLD-HERALD
As a freshman, Bryant rushed for 1,186 yards. He also shagged field goals at practice. Two years later, he’s still quick to distribute credit.
“We’ll be in the huddle and one of the linemen will say, ‘Follow me,’?” Bryant said. “I’ll say, ‘Yes sir.’ And every time, it’s there. Having guys like that to play with, it gets really exciting and fun.”
When former Husker Tony Veland first watched Bryant as a 170-pound freshman, he predicted Mo would be the best player in the state as a senior. Now Bryant is 5-foot-11, 195 pounds and on track to validate Veland’s prophecy.
In 12 games, Mo has 1,547 rushing yards (8.5 per carry) and 35 touchdowns. He has another four TDs as a receiver.
“I don’t think it would be any different if he was in Class A, to be honest with you,” said Veland, who’s helped Bryant train periodically. “His ability rivals any kid out there.”
The bigger the game, Rosenberg said, the better Moses plays. The best evidence came a week ago at McCook, the Class B semifinal. Elkhorn South, winners of 24 straight games, trailed by a touchdown in the final minute. On third-and-13, quarterback Braden Wright hit Bryant over the middle at the 25-yard line. Moses outraced McCook’s secondary to the pylon.
“You give a kid like that the ball in space, and he’s just deadly,” McCook coach Jeff Gross said.
In overtime, Bryant scored two more TDs in power sets.
“When he has a defender’s shoulders squared and they’ve committed inside, he is gonna bounce it and outrun you to the perimeter,” Gross said. “And if you box your shoulders outside, then he’s gonna get it up inside through a crease.
“It’s been a long time since we played a back that could do the things that this kid did.”
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* * *
One week before the McCook thriller, the day Moses rushed for 184 yards and four touchdowns against Aurora, he and his dad traded text messages. “You’re gonna have a great game tonight,” Darrell said.
Mo’s response: “Thanks, Dad. I’m playing for you guys tonight.”
Darrell could pick out a lot of highlights from the past 8½ years, but that one text jumped out. He sees his son maturing.
Moses’ future is full of daylight, but the past is never far from his mind. Like when he hears an Ebola joke at school and bristles — the virus has terrorized Sierra Leone. Or when he hears his mom, Diana, reminisce about her children as babies — Moses thinks of his birth mom and what it’d be like to hear her stories.
“I have no idea what she looks like,” he said.
Sometimes at night, after he’s turned off the lights, his mind drifts across the Atlantic. He wonders what life would be like there. A while back, he checked the orphanage website and saw that it closed for lack of funding. What happened to his friends? What happened to Bokuri and Uncle Steven? What happened to his father?
“Sometimes, I think of what he did after he dropped me off,” he said. “Like how he felt, or just how he reacted to me being gone. He was just by himself.”
Moses recalls only glimpses of his birth father, but he does remember exactly what Moses Sr. said before their goodbye.
“He told me that he wants a better life for me and that he was going to go away for a little bit. My new life is gonna be a lot better.”
It took 4½ years. It took an American family’s love and faith and determination. It took the courage of an 8-year-old African boy to say yes. Moses’ birth father was right about his future. If only he knew it.
Moses hasn’t told his adopted parents this. But someday, after high school and maybe after his football career is over, he wants to reverse his journey. Board a plane for Sierra Leone, take the ferry into Freetown, walk the dirty streets and find the man who carries his name.