Inside Alphonso Soko's Journey from Refugee to Troubled Teen to CFB Scholarship

Sanjay Kirpalani@@SanjayKirpalaniNational Recruiting AnalystJanuary 27, 2017

Running back Alphonso Soko [purple jersey, No. 26] has overcome many hurdles to become one of the top players in the state of Iowa for the 2017 cycle.
Running back Alphonso Soko [purple jersey, No. 26] has overcome many hurdles to become one of the top players in the state of Iowa for the 2017 cycle.Credit: Tim Doyle

Even though he's run far enough to create a better future for himself, a reminder of Alphonso Soko's past is just one look in the mirror away.

Spending his early childhood years in war-torn Liberia, Soko and his family relocated to the United States, and he's found success as a star running back at Muscatine High School in Iowa.

He's also found a home, school, community and family that have welcomed him and helped him earn a scholarship to continue his career at the University of Northern Iowa—where he committed to earlier this week.

However, an inches-long scar on his forehead tells the story of the life he escaped in his homeland.

"I remember in Africa one day, and this is the biggest memory I have from my time in Africa, there were some guys in trucks with guns; they came to our house," Soko told Bleacher Report. "My mom and I and everyone else in the house who was there, we just panicked and took off and starting running. My mom had me on her back while we were trying to escape. Everyone was freaking out and panicking. I just fell down. My whole face got messed up."

He admits the subject is still something he struggles with. It's a constant source of emotion.

Some days, it's pain and depression that get the better of him. On others, his past fuels his drive to make a better way for himself and his family.

"To me, the scar, I was scared to make eye contact with people. It's a reminder of where I'm from. It motivates me. Just looking back on it and how far I've come, I could've been so depressed about it. There was a point I was so depressed about it because I thought everyone looked at me weird everywhere I went. I could've done something crazy at that point. But instead of looking at it in a negative way, I used it as motivation. I will never forget where I come from."

Soko's journey has been difficult at times since he and his family came to the United States nearly 10 years ago.

But now, the 5'9", 185-pound speedster is on the right track as a member of the 2017 recruiting class thanks to the support of a community that embraced him at a time when he was headed down the wrong path.

Soko's stepdad, Gus, whom Alphonso affectionately calls "Dad," arrived in the United States in 2005. Alphonso, his mother, Nataline, and the rest of his family arrived in the U.S. in 2008, when they settled in Chicago for a short time before moving to Muscatine. Recently, he's gotten in contact with his biological father, who remains in Liberia.

After a brief stint in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during the spring semester of Soko's freshman year, he returned to Muscatine, mostly due to the comfort level he had built with his peers and the coaching staff there.

However, his early years in Muscatine—which is located on the banks of the Mississippi River, just across the Illinois border—were filled with bumps for a multitude of reasons. His struggles with the cultural differences, the language barrier and fitting into the norms of society almost derailed the opportunity to capitalize on his athletic gifts.

Jake Mueller is the head coach of the Muscatine program. He also serves as Soko's guidance counselor at the school, which gives him a unique insight to his pupil's abilities and the hardships he has had to endure.

"I don't think [Alphonso] would let on to it, but I think the culture and the language, early in middle school and high school, it affected him in how he interacted and communicated with some of his peers and teachers, and that made school more difficult. Some of the things, like time management and organization, have kind of been a struggle for him, and he's still working on those things."

Furthermore, his scar was a source of indignity when dealing with his peers.

Alphonso said he would find ways to cover it up as often as possible. That meant wearing hoodies or headbands frequently.

"I think that experience has shaped him quite a bit," Mueller said. "There is a lot of emotional hardship that is still inside of him. I think he still struggles with it sometimes. I don't know what he witnessed and went through and saw growing up as a kid. I can't imagine some of the things he probably went through."

Mueller worked with Soko to help him overcome his insecurity in public about the scar. As both attested, that mission is still a work in progress. Yet it's an area where he has grown during his time at the school.

David Summers and Alphonso Soko.
David Summers and Alphonso Soko.Credit: Kelly Summers

"Coach Mueller, he's the type of guy who knew it was my fear," Soko said. "So he called me out to speak in public to help me just get over that fear."

His transition in athletics also played a big role in helping him acclimate socially. Soko grew up in Liberia playing soccer.

During his middle school years in Muscatine, he remembers Gus and his cousins watching NFL games. He also remembers his peers playing football during recess, which sparked his curiosity.

He would go home and practice running and throwing the ball with his sisters.

He knew his mother would resist letting her son play football because of the physicality of the game. So he got the permission slips forged. Nearly two years later, during his freshman year in high school, his mom found out he was playing when a co-worker asked her if she was going to see him play that night.

His introduction to football gave him a sense of purpose and acceptance, which he was lacking during his early years in Muscatine.

"It taught me about responsibility and not to take things for granted. Football is like a life lesson," Soko said. "One day, you are having a good game and things are going good. The next day, it could be bad, but you have to keep going and working hard. Football has helped me become a better character overall."

The lessons learned on the field would slowly bleed into his growth away from it.

Soko admits he was headed down the wrong path until Mueller took notice of it and helped steer him toward the gridiron.

"Without him, right now, to be honest, I would probably be in jail or worse or just in a load of trouble," Soko said. "In Muscatine, the community that we used to live in, it was not a good place. There was trouble 24/7 on the streets. I remember one day, he called me to his office and just talked to me. He wanted to tell me he had plans for me. Hearing that from a guy that barely knew me, it meant a lot to me to have someone like him to sit me down and talk to me straight up."

Credit: Kelly Summers

Although they live in Cedar Rapids, Nataline and Gus are never too far away from Alphonso. His mom attended a local community college, and his stepfather teaches at the same school.

Despite the progress he was making on the field, his family's move to Cedar Rapids—which is roughly 70 miles away from Muscatine—during the second semester of Soko's freshman year threatened to derail the strides he had made there.

After finally feeling a sense of comfort, starting over was admittedly a tough process to face again.

So he began texting his Muscatine teammates in hopes of finding a place to live.

One teammate, safety David Summers, immediately made a suggestion to his parents, Kelly and Tim. David and Alphonso had formed a bond competing on the practice field, and David wasted little time in making the case to his parents for him to invite Alphonso into their home.

"Their initial reaction was kind of hesitant," Summers said. "But I think when we just started talking, what won them over was seeing how it could impact his life and how he could change our life and open up our perspective on life in just helping him out."

The couple had room in their home after two elder siblings moved away, but they still had their doubts about letting a stranger enter their lives.

"To be honest, we were unsure about it," Kelly Summers said. "We didn't know Alphonso or his family that well. Finally, I called his mom, and we had a nice conversation. We talked a lot about it and decided to go ahead and do it. I think he moved in a couple of days before school started."

The process of acclimating to his new surroundings was slow. But his adopted family has played a critical role in helping him look forward instead of being held down by his past.

"It's meant a lot to me. They've taken me in as their own son and given me the same rules and not playing favorites," Soko said. "I'm really open to them. I treat them like my actual mom and dad, and they treat me like their own son. It's good having that second family you can go to and rely on. I'm very thankful to have them in my life."

The arrangement has also had a profound impact on the Summers family, even though Alphonso has moved out and is spending his final semester of high school living with his 19-year-old sister, Melody.

"Everything he's gone through, it kind of opens up the perspective of life of really just appreciating the small things in life," Summers said. "In learning about his past, it really makes us appreciate what we have had all our lives and knowing what he has been through in his life."

An ankle injury caused Soko to miss the last two games of his senior season, but according to Mueller, he's played well enough to earn the offer from Northern Iowa and interest from fellow in-state schools Iowa and Iowa State.

He's enjoyed a standout career for the Muskies, having accounted for 2,420 yards of total offense over the last two seasons while racking up 36 total touchdowns. According to the Quad-City Times, Soko was a Class 4A first-team all-state running back. Summers was one of two teammates who joined him on that team.

Even though he confesses that an FBS offer would be "the ultimate goal," Soko, who carries a 2.5 GPA and has tentative plans of majoring in either sports management or mechanical engineering, remains excited about his future.

He also recognizes that it wouldn't be possible without the sacrifices of many people—mainly his family, his friends, the Summers family, his coaching staff at Muscatine and a community that embraced him at the perfect time.

After reflecting on his journey, Soko's goal is to inspire others who may find themselves in a similar predicament to the one he faced just a few short years ago.

"No matter where you are from or where you have been, you can still turn things around and make a better life for yourself," Soko said. "There are people out there who complain about their background and how it stops them from learning or doing the things they want to do. But if you are willing to change and put the work in, that can definitely happen for you. That's what I keep in the front of my mind. There's no making excuses. You just have to go and get it."

                                                            

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com.