For football players, two-a-days in summer heat is merciless. Offensive linemen driving them to the ground is tough. Two minutes left in the fourth quarter with muscles aching is mind-over-matter time.
Penn Wood High School’s Kenny Ngaima experienced a different type of struggle, a life or death type, before he ever stepped inside the white lines of a football field.
Ngaima was forced to grow up at a young age due to being born in Sierra Leone in 1998 in the midst of the country’s civil war which he says he was “blessed” to survive.
“In America you’re allowed to have a childhood. There, you were too busy trying to survive to have a childhood,” explained Ngaima, who at five years-old, was mentally prepared to take care of his family.
“I have never stolen anything,” he says, pausing for a beat, “but I have stolen water.”
The weight of his words obliterate the age of a high school senior speaking. “Just to survive…that’s how crazy it gets.”
In Sierra Leone, many people walked to streams to wash clothes or used wells to pump water which was sometimes dirty. The wealthy had pipes run water to their homes and Ngaima’s family didn’t have access to such luxury. He took his bucket, opened up some of the pipes and took water, mindful not to be caught in the act.
Two steps behind Ngaima is a water fountain in the library where he has joined his teammates for study hall. With the press of a button, a steady stream of water. The wonder is not lost on him.
“I’m grateful for every part and I want to keep making the most of it,” said Ngaima. “When you come over here, you can’t fail… it’s not an option. It would be a waste.”
So far, Ngaima has made the most of his opportunities since coming to the states in Dec. 2007. He overcame the traditional language barrier and the athletic version. He played some soccer but was more interested in the sport where big guys were hitting each other. At his first practice in seventh grade, the coach told him to line up at linebacker.
“What’s linebacker?” Ngaima asked.
He started watching football movies – The Longest Yard, Gridiron Gang, Remember the Titans — to learn the game. In eighth grade, he got better but his freshman season was derailed in the homecoming game against Chester when he got cut blocked by his own teammate and tore his MCL.
“I didn’t think I would be playing football again,” he recalled. He not only had to recover from the injury, he had to convince his worried parents to let him play again. He eventually did, reminding them of his high academic standards and the possible opportunity for a scholarship through football.
Head football Coach Nick Lincoln saw a player with the frame and size to play at the college level but needed to develop his technique and get more experience. During his junior year, Ngaima began working diligently to improve. In 2015 he recorded 30 tackles, five sacks and one fumble recovery for a touchdown.
In the summer leading into his senior campaign, Ngaima dove into the (non-Hollywood) side of football film and worked more with his position coaches. He studied everything he could about the game and analyzed opponents.
“I could watch film and know exactly what play they were going to run and yell it out to the rest of my team. I felt like a mastermind at my position sometimes,” said Ngaima.
For the Patriots in 2016, Ngaima did-it-all, playing defensive end, left tackle and handling the kicking duties.
A leader by example, when he does speak he displays a wisdom his teenage peers may not be used to hearing but Ngaima has the experience to back up the words.
“One thing I learned, is (that) the best leaders can get people to do stuff. It’s not all about doing it yourself. I want to be able to inspire people,” added Ngaima.
Early in the year, he admitted to putting it on all on his shoulders but he eventually began calling the team into his study sessions to point out different formations.
“Now they are just as prepared,” he observed.
As a captain, he led the way with 98 tackles and 10 sacks, earning him First Team All Del Val, First Team All Delco, and Second Team All-State Southeastern PA Football. He was also the first Penn Wood High School athlete to claim the Martin Kennedy Memorial Scholar-Athlete Award by the Chester Chapter of PIAA Football Officials.
Ngaima didn’t have any scholarship offers his junior year and for most of the summer, but his breakout senior season caused schools to take notice.
On Feb. 7th, Ngaima signed his letter of intent to play football on a full scholarship at the United States Air Force Academy.
“I always knew something would happen,” said Ngaima. “I worked too hard at it. There are some things that I know. If I put this amount of energy into it something, it has to happen. It just can’t all go to waste.”
Off the field, Ngaima maintains at 3.86 GPA and has spent four years on the Distinguished Honor Roll. He also interns at Franklin Mint Credit Union, plays basketball and runs outdoor track.
“He does all the little things right off the field,” added Lincoln. “It made it easy for him to get these opportunities. People see what he can do on the field and the first question is, ‘Can I see his transcript?’ and it’s pretty flawless. He’s a hard worker and always willing to improve on his work.”
Ngaima chose Air Force from six Division One scholarship offers based off the incentives they offer when he graduates college. The Darby resident plans to attend medical school with hopes to become a doctor and open his own practice.
“My whole deal is taking care of my family,” said Ngaima. “I came a long way. I always want to remember where I came from so I never forget,”
He has everything from water fountains to his geyser of talent to remind him.