Jerry Ben and Innocent Nwoko came to America from Africa seeking a better life, a better education and a chance to play soccer.
Nwoko is from Lagos, Nigeria, and left behind a mother, father, three sisters and two brothers. He’s the second-youngest child at 18.
“I talk to them every week,” Nwoko said. “We Skype and Facebook. I miss them a lot.”
Ben is from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where he left behind a mother, father, four sisters and a brother. He’s the oldest child at 17.
Their paths brought them to Austin Catholic Academy as sophomores in September 2013.
Talented soccer players having honed their skills since they were about 4, they ventured to New Haven High School in search of the soccer coach.
Basketball coach Tedaro France II spotted them first.
It wasn’t difficult. Ben stands 6-feet-10, and Nwoko is 6-11.
Someone must have heard his prayers and sent two tall answers, right?
Well, not at first.
“New Haven High School and Austin Catholic Academy have a co-op agreement in which both schools play sports together,” France said. “I saw them and was like, ‘Wow, they are tall, they must be able to play basketball.’
“I go to my office at the school and pull out a basketball. It was very interesting to say the least. They kicked the basketball that day more than they dribbled it, and both could barely dribble or even dunk a basketball. They both were very uncoordinated and unorthodox handling a basketball.
“Next came the soccer ball, and they were doing trick kicks, running and kicking the ball all over. You could tell they were very comfortable and familiar with the soccer ball. It was amazing to see these two tall boys kick around and handle a soccer ball the way they did. They were amazing.”
Nwoko played soccer last year and scored 30 goals. Ben played one game, scored three goals and walked off the field because the competition wasn’t up to snuff.
“We had 4- and 5-year-olds at home with better fundamentals and passing skills,” he said.
However, they would learn their futures wouldn’t be kicking a soccer ball, but dunking a basketball.
It has been a slow process, but both have achieved their respective goals. Both carry a 3.6 grade-point average and have improved enough in basketball to garner scholarships for 2016.
After what they hope will be a Class B championship run next year, Ben will enroll at Cornell and Nwoko is headed to Central Michigan.
Part of it is potential, part of it is their size, but in the process the tall, polite, determined young men have captured the hearts of the community and are local celebrities.
That’s why Ben cried after the basketball team lost its only game of the season in the state quarterfinals to Detroit Henry Ford.
“I saw the gym full and people coming in with walkers and on canes to see us play,” he said. “I felt like I let them down. I saw the disappointment in their faces. I cried. I want to be able to get to the Breslin and win a championship for them.”
The two also have left an indelible mark on the France family.
“They moved in with us around January,” France said. “They call my wife (Tanya) momma. They have become our sons.
“The experience has humbled me. It’s not about basketball, because when they got here they couldn’t play. They are good kids who want to better themselves. When they go their separate ways after next year, it’s going to be tough for our family to see them go. They’ve been through so much and overcome so much.”
France’s son Tyree, a budding seventh-grade point guard, and 6-year-old daughter Paris realize how fortunate they have it since Ben and Nwoko moved in.
“They slept on cots back in Nigeria,” France said. “They didn’t have a bed until they moved here. When they see my kids waste food, they tell them ‘eat that’ and let them know how fortunate they are. Television, iPads, cell phones … they didn’t have any of that.”
Nwoko didn’t like American food at first, but has grown to appreciate ribs and chicken. “My mother would ask me was I eating, and I told her I didn’t like the food,” he said. “She told me to eat.”
Both have added 15 to 20 pounds of muscle in two years. Both plan on playing soccer as seniors next year and starting for the New Haven basketball team.
At first, France barely played them together because they were so new to the sport.
“I started playing maybe a year before I got here, but I couldn’t dunk,” Nwoko said.
Said Ben: “Coach kept working with us, and I had to learn the plays and the speed of the game. It was an adjustment. Soccer for me here was easy. I had only been playing basketball eight months.”
Nwoko played some AAU basketball last summer. CMU coaches saw him play a few times and liked what they saw. They came to a workout and watched him play in an open gym a few times.
“They also liked the fact that he played forward/striker on the soccer team, which is a position utilized by the team’s faster players,” France said. “At 6-11, he was outrunning everyone on the soccer field. They invited him up to a football game last fall and offered him a basketball scholarship.”
Nwoko wasn’t happy with how his soccer season ended last year, a loss to Imlay City in the state tournament.
“They were a bunch of little guys, and they surrounded me,” he said. “They kept a guy right in front of me to keep me from getting to the ball.”
Ben’s scholarship offer came a few days after the basketball season ended.
Cornell basketball coach Bill Courtney came to watch Ben work out. He was impressed and liked everything about Ben, especially what he saw on the basketball court, but was more impressed with his character, France said.
“He offered Jerry that day before he left,” France said.
“Both have come a long way in their growth and knowledge of the game. It has been a lot of work, and both have experienced many failures along the way.
“They had to learn how to simply play and understand the game in terms of the rules, violations such as 3 seconds, sets and plays. They also had to work on the basic fundamentals such as catching, dribbling, shooting, jumping and moving.”
France cut his playbook in half to make life comfortable for his twin towers. Now they can bang and bump each other, take the ball between their legs and throw lobs to each other.
They don’t always go in, but the potential is there.
Ben likes science and chemistry, and Nwoko is looking at engineering and business. Both would like to be in a positon to bring their families over after college.
A career on and off the court is another goal.
When informed about the legendary NBA career of Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon, they smiled.
“He was a good soccer player,” Nwoko said.