By: Joseph Santoliquito
CHERRY HILL, N.J. (CBS) — Tears trickled down his face sitting in the car. Demola Onifade was overwhelmed by what was happening. He had sneakers on his feet that for once didn’t have any holes. He had a warm bed to sleep in, and clothes on his back that fit. He had a school and an organization willing to support him. And they have — with open arms.
Their wingspan may not match Onifade’s, though. The 6-foot-10 sophomore transfer student from Lagos, Nigeria arrived at Camden Catholic on April 10 and he suddenly makes the Irish a contender in South Jersey.
Onifade is also one of many student/athletes trekking into the United States from impoverished counties of Africa, grateful for the opportunity they’re getting.
In Onifade’s case, the Chester, Pennsylvania-based organization Youth Interlock Society (YIS) made the arrangements to get him into the United States.
The YIS website states, “YIS is not an AAU Club. We are a youth organization consisting of an academic enrichment agenda and athletic development programs. Many school administrators, college coaches, parents AAU Clubs, and other youth organization describe YIS as being unique because of our emphasis on academics, acceptance of less athletically talented student/athletes, and our dedication and loyalty to our organization and its volunteers.”
Dr. Earl Pearsall, who runs YIS, rescued Demola in a sense. He was from a rugged area of Lagos, with very little.
“Our priority is academics and these kids have close to nothing, if not anything at all,” Pearsall said. “We got sent the kids’ report cards, and we took a lot of them, and they were all A and B students. … Once I saw Demola’s report card, I saw he was an A-B student.
“You meet Demola and he’s so humble and so driven. He came over with 6-8 (Adeolu) Gabe Adesina, who is a junior at Chester High. Gabe weighed 162 pounds and could only do two push-ups. Gabe is over 200 pounds now.”
The only time Onifade was ever outside his village was to go to the airport before heading to the U.S. It’s almost as if he walked out of a different century. All he owned were used sneakers and hand-me-down clothes.
It’s why the first time he jumped into a car, tears began falling down his face.
“Demola has a great, great appreciation for this opportunity,” said Monsignor Andrew Martin, Camden Catholic’s president emeritus. “This was something we didn’t initiate at all. The Youth Interlock Society in Chester heard we started an international dorm, which we’ve had for two years now. We currently have 34 students living in Nazareth House, which is right on campus, so it’s easy for them to get to school. …
“They thought it would be good for him and for the school, and it has been. He’s an impressive kid whose English is excellent. He’s doing something for himself here and he gets emotional about it sometimes and how he’s been appreciated by the kids here and everything around him.”
Can he play, though?
Apparently he can. His offensive skills are still very raw, but his ability to block shots and rebound has been impressive. The Irish return three starters (junior guards Rob Brosh and Tom Organ and sophomore forward Brendan Crawford) from a team that finished 20-8 last season.
“I want to come here and prove I can play and keep working hard on basketball and in the classroom,” Onifade said in halting English. “My goal is to play college basketball in America. I’m very grateful for what I have. I played basketball in Africa, but I grew up playing goal keeper in soccer. Basketball in this country is a lot more physical than how they play in Nigeria. But I’m getting used to it. I like it. I’ve only been playing basketball for two-and-a-half years.”
Pearsall is very confident both Onifade and Adesina will adjust and progress. Adesina and Onifade had no computer access or electricity before they got to the U.S., wearing name brand sneakers you never heard of.
“The bottom line is just giving these kids an opportunity. They want to be No. 1 in everything they’re doing,” Pearsall said. “They’ve picked up everything so fast, except anything with sugar in it, they didn’t like. After they’ve been here for a month, they’re changing toward sugar. They drink soda now and put syrup on their pancakes.
“Demola, by the time he graduates, he’s going to be exceptional. He’s 6-9, 6-10 and he’s 16. He really wants to learn to play basketball and excel at it. He’s a hidden gem right now.”
But that could change very soon.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.