An NFL dream lost, a new dream found in the military: a 2020 graduation story

Clad in military fatigues, a young man in Warwick prepared for one of his proudest days – he was about to be commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony was being live-streamed to his apartment.

He is 22 and his name is Power Kanga, an echo of his early years in Liberia before his mother sent him to Rhode Island for a better life.

As Kanga set up his computer, his mind was filled with images of his unlikely journey.

The 4 a.m. wake-ups at age 16 to do pre-workouts alone for the Hendricken football team.

The full ride offered by URI.

The dreams of the NFL.

Then the dream dashed by injury his freshman year, and the heartbreaking loss of his mom.

But now here he was, proud both of his new rank and soon, graduation from URI as the first in his family to finish college.

Kanga clicked onto the live-stream and the ceremony soon began.

Because of the pandemic, this year’s college commencements are mostly out of sight.

As a result, many tales of graduation triumph have gone untold.

Here, from URI, is one.

Power Kanga was 7 when he and his sister Susan left war-torn Liberia for Pawtucket to live with his aunt and uncle, Roseline and Edwin Cheaye, who had three kids of their own.

“It was pretty crowded,” Kanga recalls.

Family friends often watched the children while the Cheayes did long hours to support everyone, Edwin as a community worker and Roseline as a certified nursing assistant.

By his teenage years, Kanga was working summers and weekends. He washed dishes at Oki, the former North Providence hibachi restaurant, and retrieved grocery carts at the Branch Avenue Stop & Shop in Providence.

He remembers five-hour shifts in a freezing parking lot.

But his mom, Marie Cheaye, a Pentecostal pastor back in Liberia, taught him education is everything and hard work the way to get there.

Power Kanga thought of all that as the commissioning ceremony began.

Standing at attention, he remembered his endless high-school days, leaving home at 5 a.m. to get to Hendricken in Warwick on time, catching a 5:30 a.m. bus and waiting in downtown Providence for the 6:37 connection.

He would do the same in reverse at day’s end after sports, arriving home at 9 p.m.

The night bus time meant leaving football practice early, so to make up for it, Kanga would wake at 3:50 a.m., jog a mile to a gym whose owner agreed to open early for him, then do lifting and hill sprints at a nearby field before jogging home.

He became one of the state’s top track sprinters, but football was everything to Kanga, both a sport and a “classroom” teaching teamwork and resilience. The physicality was a release for the emotions of worrying about his mom back in Liberia.

The work paid off. Playing cornerback to defend against passes, Kanga was a major part of four straight state championship teams.

He prayed it would be his ticket to college – it would be hard to afford without help.

Hendricken had given him partial aid, but it was a struggle for his aunt and uncle to cover the rest.

College would be all on Power Kanga.

Junior year his cell phone rang while he was at home; it was URI head football coach Jim Fleming.

“We’d like you to join the Rhody family,” he remembers Coach Fleming saying. “We’re willing to offer you a full ride.”

Six others had joined Kanga in his apartment last Friday at noon for the commissioning ceremony, including his sister, three nieces and his girlfriend Nicole Douglas, 23, a URI nursing student wearing fatigues as a National Guard medic.

This would be the moment Kanga graduated from URI’s ROTC and was “pinned” as an officer.

More than 20 fellow ROTC students were “alongside” him on computer.

Some would be going into the military full-time, some the National Guard, and a few like Kanga into U.S. Army Reserve. It would be the start of a five-year commitment but Kanga planned to give it more, having found meaning in service to his country.

On the computer, the lieutenant colonel in charge told the cadets to rise.

Power Kanga stood, his mind flashing back once again to the ups and downs that had brought him to this moment.

Like the injury.

It happened in his fourth game freshman year, against the University of Maine.

Kanga was on cornerback, a solid 190 pounds and 5 feet 11 inches tall. But his opponent was far bigger, more than 265 pounds, barreling his way with the football. Kanga aimed his shoulder at the ball and the two slammed together at top speed.

It worked – Kanga knocked the ball out and URI recovered – but his shoulder felt strange after the play.

Kanga was sure it would fade, so he stayed in. A few plays later, he was back out as a right corner blocking for his punt returner when an opponent tried to get by him by grabbing and yanking that same arm.

Kanga still remembers the sound of his shoulder tissues tearing.

It was a big injury – rotator, cartilage, bone chips.

After surgery, the doctor told him he was sorry, but it wouldn’t be safe for Kanga to play football again.

The coaches still welcomed him to observe practice as part of URI’s football family.

Kanga tried. But the sidelines were too hard for him.

He retreated to his dorm room, so depressed he barely went out for meals. He lay there thinking: all those 4 a.m. mornings, and hopes of the NFL, lost.

It was the lowest point of his life.

But after two weeks, Kanga’s thoughts began turning to his mother.

She’d sacrificed everything to send him to America. He’d promised he would look after his sister, and make something of himself.

He needed to honor her by re-embracing life. And also honor God, who clearly had another plan for him.

Power Kanga began putting all his focus into his classes.

But he didn’t realize how much he was still struggling mentally.

Soon, he got back his first grade in Introduction to Engineering.

He’d failed.

The tradition for an Army commissioning ceremony is for a loved one to pin on the officer’s new rank. Kanga had chosen a fellow soldier – his girlfriend, National Guard Specialist Nicole Douglas.

As Kanga stood at attention, he was still wearing his cadet label, a square cloth insignia with a black dot in the middle.

Then it was his turn. Over the computer, the lieutenant colonel called out Power Kanga’s name.

Specialist Douglas stood at attention opposite him, then took off his cadet pin and replaced it with a second lieutenant insignia bearing a gold bar.

Everyone in the room – and his fellow cadets on the computer – began to applaud.

Some other URI students who had gotten failing grades in Introduction to Engineering decided to drop the major. At first Kanga considered doing the same.

But the same professor who gave him the failing grade, Manbir Sodhi, reached out to assure Kanga he had potential.

Prof. Sodhi told Kanga he shouldn’t study for grades, he should seek to master the material, and grades would follow.

Sodhi took such an interest in Power Kanga the professor brought him on an academic trip to India to study global sustainability,

Other URI professors told Kanga they believed in him, too, and it inspired him to re-embrace the same grit that drove him on those 4 a.m. workouts.

His grades turned around.

By sophomore year, he also found himself drawn to ROTC as a challenge to replace sports. But it was more than that. Kanga thought often of the poverty in Liberia and wanted to serve the country that had given him so much.

He even refocused his major to Industrial and Systems Engineering because such skills would fit in with the military.

Power Kanga was once again on track.

Then, on March 22, 2019, he was at a morning ROTC training session when his cell phone rang.

His sister.

She was crying. For what seemed a long time, she couldn’t get the words out.

Then she said it – it was their mom. She’d just passed away.

It turned out to be complications of diabetes that likely would have been fixed in the U.S. health system, but not there.

Kanga stayed strong for his sister on the phone, then sat in his car and wept.

“She was my favorite person in the world,” he would later say of his mother.

Not long after, Kanga was in a month-long ROTC cadet camp at Fort Knox. It involved rigorous challenges that all cadets had to pass, including navigating at night, rappelling down towers and a 12-mile fast-walk with a 35-pound rucksack.

Those who failed would be disenrolled.

Still overcome by his mom’s loss, Kanga struggled.

One day, he ranked in the bottom 15%. It put him in danger of being dropped.

From his bunk he called his girlfriend Nicole to say his heart wasn’t in it.

Nicole told him his mom would not ask him to grieve like this. She’d want him to do it for her.

After the call, Kanga prayed. He realized God was behind everything that happened, even the football injury. There was a greater plan for Kanga.

The next day, among the hundreds of cadets, he ranked in the top 5%.

Standing last Friday in his apartment as a newly minted second lieutenant, Power Kanga faced Specialist Nicole Douglas.

She would be his first salute as an officer.

Standing at attention, she lifted her hand.

Kanga rendered a salute in return.

For long seconds they both held it.

Then, following ritual, he dropped his first, and she second.

It was hard for Kanga to hold in the emotion.

Two days later, Sunday, Power Kanga again set up a computer in his apartment for live-stream, this time to graduate from URI. He already has a good job prospect – he’s in final interviews with a Middletown firm that does defense engineering on submarines.

Friends and family were around him.

He knew, somewhere, his mom was there, too.

That’s where his thoughts went as he was declared a URI graduate.

In his heart, he vowed to continue to make her proud.

mpatinki@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7370

On Twitter: @markpatinkin

RELATED READING: Nov. 1, 2014 — Hendricken’s Power Kanga seizes his opportunity

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