Lopez Lomong’s great escape

This article on future Olympian Lopez Lomong appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 26, 2006

SOLE SURVIVOR

Kidnapped by the Sudanese army as a child, Lopez Lomong escaped the life of a child soldier the best way he knew how — with his feet

By Ed Odeven

Lopez Lomong runs because he’s a good runner. In tough times, he ran as a means of survival.

As a 6-year-old in Sudan, Lomong, the second-oldest child of five, was attending a church service with his parents in their small African village. The, as quickly as he now runs an 800-meter race, his life completely changed.

Lomong was abducted by Sudanese soldiers. He didn’t know what happened to his parents.

Years later he found out.

“They told me that we were taken away and they (the soldiers) actually left them alone because they needed child soldiers like us,” said Lomong, an NAU freshman who competes in the 800 at the NCAA West Region Outdoor Track and Field Championships this weekend (qualifying is this afternoon, the final round is Saturday).

“I was taken with the other kids somewhere in Sudan,” he recalled.

But he didn’t become a child soldier in the civil war that has devastated his country.

“Me and two of my friends, we escaped from that camp and we ended up in Kenya,” he said.

How?

“Running … and running and running,” Lomong said.

***

Lomong, now 21, started living in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, when he was 6.

He became one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, one of thousands who were displaced by the war in Sudan.

His family didn’t know of his whereabouts, and he didn’t know where his brothers, sisters and parents were or if they were alive.

When he was 16, Lomong arrived in the United States thanks to the efforts of Catholic Charities, an organization which has helped thousands of Lost Boys resettle in the United States.

Lomong settled in the small town of Tully, N.Y., which is located in the Syracuse metropolitan  area.

“I was a minor when I came,” Lomong said. “So (Catholic Services) actually helped me out to find foster parents.”

Robert and Barbara Rogers, who had one child already grown up, were eager to have another youngster in the family.

“They are awesome people,” Lopez said, flashing a smile.

“They were giving me everything and teaching me everything, like switching on the lights and all those things. I didn’t know how to do ’em. … All the time, they helped me out (and to) adapt to a new culture.”

The Rogers’ outpouring of love and devotion included their support of his athletic pursuits.

“They were going to all my track meets in high school,” he said.

So they saw Lopez earn nine varsity letters in cross country and track and field. They saw him set several school records in cross country. They saw Lopez, a three-time team captain, win a New York state crown in the mile. And they saw him lead Tully High School to state titles in the 4×400-meter and 4×800-meter relays.

He also exhibited his running talents on the national stage, placing 20th at a Footlocker Nationals competition.

“Lopez was a dominant figure in all his races during his high-school career in the small town in upstate N.Y. where he went to school,” recalled Dr. Jack Daniels, the head distance running coach at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training who saw Lomong compete in high school when he was the cross country/track coach at SUNY-Cortland, a small school near Tully.

“What always set Lopez apart from many runners was his ‘go-for-broke’ attitude which is typical of the good distance runners in Africa. I have others tell me they just go as hard as they can hang on for the win, great; if not, they will try again next time.”

***

Since enrolling at NAU last fall, Lomong has had a successful freshman season as a student-athlete. He placed 19th at the NCAA Pre-National Championships race in Indiana last October.

He captured Big Sky Conference indoor titles in the 800 and 1,500 in February and replicated that feat two weeks ago at the Big Sky outdoor meet, crossing the finish line in 1 minute, 48.86 seconds and 3:48.64.

This, of course, put a smile on Robert and Barbara Rogers’ faces.

They routinely monitor Lomong’s track career via the Internet.

Said Lomong: “They are so happy about that and they are calling me (on the phone): ‘Keep going.’ ”

Lumberjacks head coach J.W. Hardy expresses the same optimism about Lomong’s racing, but does so in a more detailed manner.

“I don’t really think he fully understands what he’s capable of doing,” Hardy said, “and I think that’s really been the progression for him throughout the season. As the season has gone on, I think he’s getting a better understanding of what it takes to be a top-level athlete.

“(Distance running) coach (John) Hayes is doing a great job of bringing him along and getting him to understand what it really takes to be a force at the national level. I think he’s got amazing talent, and there’s so much more that he has to offer.

“We’ve just got to kind of wait and see how far his training will take him this season.”

Lomong is confident he’ll win the 800 Saturday.

His strategy?

“Run smart, relaxed,” he said. “I’ve got more speed than anyone else in the Big Sky Conference …. and a lot of endurance. (With) about 300 or 200 (meters) to go, it’s my race.”

To prepare for regionals, Hayes has guided Lomong through a series of challenging speed-related workouts, focused on lots of drills for 300s and 600s.

It’s paid off.

“I think it’s working really, really well. I’m ready,” he said.

And if there’s one thing Hardy has learned about Lomong in the past season, it’s that he’s not afraid of hard work.

“He cane in and had to battle through learning English, getting through learning another language, dealing with the academics and this and that in an American high school and then to be able to move on,” Hardy said. “…It’s been a joy to see him go out and improve, academically and athletically. I think there’s a lot left in Lopez. We’ve seen a lot in one year, but there’s so much more that we could see out of this young man out of the next three years.”

And, remember, this season’s not over yet.

Lomong has plenty of motivation for today’s 800, a race in which he’s seeded No. 3 (1:48.86; USC’s Duane Solomon is first in 1:47.74).

“If I make it to nationals, they’ll be there at nationals,” he said of the Rogerses, his American family.

***
Three years ago, Lomong was adjusting to his new life in the United States. He was struggling to learn American English. Before coming here, he had a limited knowledge of British English.

“It’s been kind of a challenge, studying. … Yeah, I came a long way,” he said.

Sudan. Kenya. Upstate New York. Flagstaff.

These are all destinations on Lomong’s life map. And throughout his unforgettable journeys from East Africa to the Western U.S., Lomong has grown into a bona fide running standout — “I think his ability is limitless in the 1,500,” said Hayes, citing his exceptional combination of speed and endurance — he never stopped thinking about his roots: his beloved parents.

Three years ago, Lopez learned his parents, Rita Namana Lomong and Lomong Lomong were alive. A U.S. organization had located them, he said.

“Some friends in Africa called me up and said, ‘You mom’s around here.’ I was like, ‘Wow, what a thrill,’ ” he said. “And I just called them and we talked. And she was crying. And I was crying. There was a lot of things going on, and trying to figure it out was very hard.”

His family now resides in Thika, Kenya, a small town near the nation’s capital city, Nairobi. His four siblings are there, too.

This has given him some peace of mind. But this much is clear: They are always on his mind.

In every race, Lomong demonstrates this.

“When I step on the track, I’m doing it for the school and also representing them back home,” Lomong said. “Every time I come to that lap, something flies through my (mind) and I can see their picture and I go and do work, you know.”

Lomong plans to visit Kenya in the summer of 2007, the first time he’ll see his family in 16 years.

He’ll run into their arms.

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College football feature flashback: Montana’s loss, NAU’s gain

This feature on two Montana-born linebackers appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 27, 2004.

Montana’s loss, NAU’s gain

By Ed Odeven

People said they were too small and too slow to play Division I football. Boy, were they wrong.

Northern Arizona seniors Vince Henman and John Perrigo have had a great impact on the Lumberjack defense — this season more than ever. An impact, one could equate, to the grand distance from their hometown of Laurel, Mont., to Flagstaff: 1,045 miles.

Injuries have reduced NAU’s depth and experience on defense. Henman and Perrigo are the lone returning senior starters save for safety Jeremy Thornburg. Even so, the Laurel natives have produced snap after snap, game after game.

Both seniors had exceptional outings last Saturday against the Portland State Vikings, a must-win game for the Jacks in their quest to remain a factor in the Big Sky Conference race. Henman finished with game highs of 12 tackles and three sacks and was graded out at 96 percent for the contest, while Perrigo had six tackles and two sacks. The duo combined for 4 1/2 tackles for a loss.

“You’ll find bigger bodies, you’ll find all the measurables that are faster and stronger, but I don’t know if are going to be able to find kids that are tougher than these two,” NAU coach Jerome Souers said.

But more than anything, both of them have an uncanny knowledge about what the other guy will do, how he’ll play. That comes from being buddies since elementary school, teammates since junior high.

“I think that that’s an example of synergy,” Lumberjack linebackers coach Greg Lees said of their playing style. “One plus one equals three. That’s John Perrigo and Vince Henman. That’s not two guys, that’s three guys.”

Well, those three guys, err, two, won’t need any fiery speeches to motivate them for NAU’s next two foes: Montana State and Montana.

“This is it for us,” Perrigo said. “It’s always nice to play the Montana schools. It’s a little extra added emotion.”

Especially after what occurred last season in Bozeman. The Jacks fell 21-17 to MSU, a game in which the Bobcats scored 14 points in the final 67 seconds.

“That was a hard game,” Perrigo said. “We’ve got to have some payback for that one.”

Payback is a driving force for what’ll happen in the next two weeks. Leadership and productivity, however, are the key ingredients for the Montana pals’ success.

“There’s just a presence about him,” NAU defensive line coach Bill Smith said of Perrigo. “He’s not a big rah-rah guy, but it’s still by example and the players really look to him to set the pace.”

Henman’s signature traits on the football field are strength and maturity.

“You can’t block him,” Souers said. “He doesn’t make mental mistakes.”

Long before they ever thought about what it’d be like to experience the rivalry with the Montana schools from afar, Henman and Perrigo had etched their names into the annals of sports history in the Treasure State. In 1999, they helped lead Laurel to the Class A state title, a 21-10 triumph over Hamilton. Perrigo was the defensive MVP of the championship game.

Henman rushed for a Montana prep record 4,669 yards, including 1,889 as a senior. He was a three-time all-state and all-conference selection at fullback and a two-time state champion wrestler. Yet the Henman name was not at the top of recruiting lists for the Montana schools.

Coming out of high school, Perrigo and Henman both wanted to play for either MSU or Montana, but neither received full-ride scholarship offers.

That’s when they took different paths: Perrigo to Flagstaff in 2000, Henman to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Perrigo’s brother-in-law, Josh Branen, happened to be a graduate assistant coach at NAU at the time. So he sent game film to the Lumberjacks. Then Souers’ staff contacted Perrigo, and he’s been a Lumberjack ever since.

“I thought this was my best opportunity to show what I had,” Perrigo said, adding that offers from NAIA schools were the best ones he received before coming to Flagstaff.

“It’s been great. I have no regrets,” Perrigo said of his days at NAU. “It’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Perrigo earned All-Big Sky honorable mention honors as a junior in 2003, starting every game for the second straight year and finishing with 7 1/2 sacks.

“I’ll tell you what, people missed the boat on him,” Smith said. “We were fortunate that he came our way. You’re looking at a guy that is one heck of a football player.”

Henman, meanwhile, spent two years at Air Force and played on the junior varsity football squad.

“I wasn’t ready for the military in my life at the time,” Henman admitted. “I think if you are going to be in the academy you’ve got to be all for the military and want to be in it and make it your life. At that time in my life, I wanted to play football and kind of enjoy college.

“I was better than I think they thought I was,” he said. “I kind of let Johnny know that I was going to transfer out.”

Which is precisely what happened. Henman arrived in Flagstaff as a walk-on in 2002.

“I don’t care where you come from, you’ve got to earn it,” Souers said, referring to scholarships.

Indeed, they’ve both earned them — and then some.

It could be first-and-10, on a game-opening drive, or fourth-and-goal from the 1, with 10 seconds to go. Either play, and all those in between, you know what you’ll get from Henman and Perrigo.

“We play with a lot of heart, good ol’ Montana boys. It’s what you gotta do,” Henman said. “You’re not necessarily the biggest, fastest and strongest, but we play with everything we’ve got.”

Indeed, they’ve come a long way since their days as energetic lads growing up in small-town Laurel.

“We didn’t have Pop Warner (teams). We had flag football,” Perrigo recalled.

“The first tackle football was in seventh grade,” Henman remembered.

Now, more than a thousand miles from home, Henman and Perrigo have strengthened the unbreakable bond that is their friendship. What does the future hold for them? They don’t know yet.

Perrigo plans to become a physical education teacher. Henman wants to become a private pilot and own a hunting/fishing lodge in Alaska.

In the meantime, they can reflect on their good times on and off the gridiron.

“It’s a great time. Me and Vince have been buddies since elementary school,” Perrigo said. “It’s just nice to have him around. We hang out all the time, go fishing, camping. Our girlfriends are really good friends and our families (too). There’s nothing more than I can ask for.”

Except for victories over Montana State and Montana the next two weeks.

‘Offensive linemen have to play as one group, one unit, and not as five fingers. They have to be one fist.’

This feature on the NAU (Northern Arizona University) Lumberjacks’ offensive line appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun  on Nov. 27, 2003.

The foundation

By Ed Odeven

Amidst the cacophony of whistles, blurted plays and banter, you repeatedly hear two of the most important words in a football coach’s vocabulary:

Set, hit. Set, hit, Set, hit.

Those are the words of Chris Wiesehan, NAU’s assistant head coach/offensive line coach, signaling the start of another blocking drill — offensive linemen vs. defensive linemen — during Tuesday’s practice.

Strong practices have translated into strong efforts in games for the offensive linemen, who call themselves “The Hogs.”

“We’ve been consistent for the most part,” Wiesehan said matter-of-factly.

Indeed, a lot of things have gone right for the 16th-ranked Lumberjacks (8-3) this season. One of the biggest success stories has been the determined, dominant play of the offensive line. The starting five — left tackle Sean Funke, left guard Matt Cary, center Matt Raivio, right guard Matt Ryan and right tackle Jake Sanders — has been the foundation of the offense’s success, an offense which averaged 428.3 yards per game in the regular season (13th-best output in Division I-AA). The Lumberjacks’ 282.3 passing yards per game (No. 8 in the nation) is a direct link to the sufficient time true freshman quarterback Jason Murrietta has had to make plays.

Wiesehan, who received a master’s degree in sports administration from Fort Hays (Kan.) State, doesn’t need to write a 77-page thesis on what makes an offense click in order to explain why NAU’s offense has gone from being the Big Sky Conference’s worst (313 yards per game) a year ago to the aforementioned 428.3 ypg, the league’s best output.

It really only takes two numbers: 46 and 22. The former represents the number of sacks given up by NAU in 2002, the most in the Big Sky; the latter is the league-lowest total this year.

HEALTHY AND PRODUCTIVE

Another huge key for the Lumberjacks this season has been the health of the offensive line. While the unit was besieged by injuries last year, this year’s starters have all played in 11 games.

And as any coach will tell you, you cannot overstate the importance of a healthy offensive line.

“The health of the line, that’s the one position on the field that it’s very tough to exchange personnel, because it’s not like putting a new wide receiver in the game. It’s not like putting a new running back in the game,” Wiesehan said.

“Offensive linemen have to play as one group, one unit, and not as five fingers. They have to be one fist.”

Seniors Funke and the three Matts (Cary, Raivio, Ryan) were returning starters when the season began. Sanders, a true freshman, was inserted into the starting lineup for the season-opening Saint Mary’s game and stayed there.

Three months later, the quintet plays and thinks alike, down after down.

“Yeah, definitely being together as a group for more than a year helps a lot,” said Cary, a native of Juneau, Ak.

For the four returners, that continuity has helped them improve their productivity this season.

“Overall talk and communication with everybody (is better),” said Funke, who hails from Kentucky.

And, of course, that trickles down to the rest of the offense.

“The offensive line basically stabilizes the whole offense,” said the team’s primary ballcarrier, speedy Roger Robinson, who has rushed for 100 or more yards five times this season. “They are the foundation of the offense and without them nothing happens.”

ECHO OF THE WHISTLE

Wiesehan, the players will tell you, is a stickler for details. He’s a demanding coach who expects his players to perform up to their potential every game.

“He’s a real intense coach,” Funke said. “He gets you motivated and makes you work hard. It pays off on Saturday when you come out and play hard every down, every snap.”

Or as Sanders said, “He’s helped me a lot, because I didn’t even know the offense. He helped me learn the offense and gets me prepared each week.”

Others have noticed how prepared and effective Sanders, a Buckeye High School graduate, has become as the season’s progressed.

“He’s done an amazing job,” Robinson said of Sanders. “I know at the beginning of the year I was a little worried. It’s one thing to be a true freshman and start, but to start on the offensive line is even more impressive just because it’s basically a street fight down there and he’s fighting against guys that are three and four years older than him…

“He’s just another guy in there now. He’s not a freshman anymore.”

With Sanders picking up his assignments, Wiesehan has had more time to spend coaching the group as a whole. Here are a few characteristics that he looks for when analyzes the play of the line:

* Relentless

* Aggressive

* Consistent

“We look to be a violent line that finishes in the run and the pass and finishes their opponent,” said Wiesehan, who’s now in his third year coaching the line.

“We (strive) to find ways to play to the echo of the whistle. I think this group recognizes their talent and they recognize their deficiencies.”

Essentially, Raivio, an All-American candidate at center, jump-starts the line with a hard-nosed, intelligent persona. Wiesehan refers to him as the line’s anchor, the catalyst that ignites NAU’s high-powered offense.

“He does so many things from a mental perspective, getting us into the right checks, getting us into the right plays at times, recognizing the structures of (an opponent’s) defense and really getting our line from tackle to tackle on the same page,” Wiesehan added.

NAU coach Jerome Souers said credit must go to Wiesehan and strength and conditioning coach Casey Bond for maximizing the potential of these guys.

“You really have to credit the kids for the determination and the effort that they’ve had, the resolve that they’ve had to do it on their own,” Souers said. … “They are vastly improved in their technique. Their ability to communicate and perform as a unit has brought a lot of offensive production for us.”

After a game, running backs, receivers and quarterbacks fill the stat sheet with gaudy numbers. The offensive linemen, however, are more concerned with one statistic: knockdowns.

It’s knockdowns, after all, that lead to first downs … and touchdowns … and victories.

Funke leads the Jacks with 111 knockdowns, while Cary has done it 96 times.

That stat never makes it into the box score, but that’s fine with Wiesehan and his unit.

“It’s just the nature of the position,” Wiesehan said. “You are the workhorse and you understand your role.”

It’s a role these guys are filling admirably and effectively.

(Column flashback) Remembering the late Johanna Nilsson and one of her finest hours as an athlete

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Dec. 3, 2005.

Note: Johanna Nilsson was one of the most supremely talented athletes I’ve ever seen. She passed away at age 30 in June 2013 in an apparent suicide.

Nilsson’s run-away cross country championship was no small feat

By Ed Odeven

Winning should be enjoyable for any athlete. Sometimes, though, it’s even more enjoyable for a coach.

Such was the case for NAU cross country coach John Hayes on Nov. 21 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.

While at nationals, Hayes witnessed history being made in the women’s 6-kilometer race. Lumberjacks standout Johanna Nilsson took first in a field of 253 runners, setting a course-record of 19 minutes, 34 seconds in the process. Nilsson shared or held the lead for the entire race.

“As a coach, you may or may not ever have another NCAA cross-country champion,” Hayes said, flashing a million-dollar smile a week later. “It’s different than track, where there’s all the events. These are all the best distance runners. So I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her this year, and if it works out that she’s able to repeat or come close to a repeat, I’ll be more than happy to be there.”

What’s more, Nilsson, a junior, obliterated the competition, winning by an astounding 12.1 seconds.

Is this really a big deal? You betcha.

Let Dr. Jack Daniels, the head distance coach at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training and one of the world’s foremost running experts, explain why.

“It is not often that a runner can run with the pack, including some very talented runners, for 5,000 meters and in the final 1,000 run away from second place by (almost) 13 seconds,” Daniels said. “You just don’t beat that many good runners by that much in that short a distance.”

It was the fastest time on the course since the 2002 NCAA Championship Race, when North Carolina’s Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line in 19:36.

In other words, it was an exceptional performance.

Or as Hayes put it: “It’s the best race I’ve seen from her. It was so dominant. It was hard to say she could’ve done better.”

During the race, Hayes ran back and forth on the course’s big loop to observe how the seven Lumberjack runners were doing.

It didn’t take Hayes long to realize Nilsson was having an exceptional day. His eyes and ears told him as much.

“With about 800 (or) 1,000 meters to go, I had heard the announcer say she had gapped the field by 15 meters,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, that happened pretty quickly.’ About two minutes later, that 15 meters had become 80 meters. So I knew she was in pretty good shape.”

A week after her extraordinary triumph, Nilsson didn’t appear to be in a state of glee. In fact, when she spoke to reporters about winning her second national title — she won the indoor mile at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Meet — Nilsson downplayed her win.

“I don’t think I’ve been thinking about it that much,” she said. “I mean you notice it because people come up and (and say) congratulations and all that. It’s fun, I guess, but other than that it’s just school and normal life again.”

Nilsson’s response didn’t surprise her coach.

“She’s got so much ability and she’s worked so hard that she tries not to overemphasize one thing,” said Hayes, a former Russian linguist in the Army. For her, she enjoys winning, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of life. It was nice to win. And so we try not to put too much importance on one race.”

Nilsson competed in five races during the fall season, taking first at the Aztec Invitational, Big Sky Championships, NCAA Mountain Region Championships and nationals. At the Pre-National meet, she placed seventh.

Something was special, though, about Nilsson’s performance Nov. 21. And she knew it as soon as the race began.

“In the race I felt really good all the time,” she says now. “I was, like, positive, of course. .. It was a nice feeling. I was like, ‘Maybe this is going to turn out really good.'”

“I guess I’m pretty either/or, up or down with everything I do, maybe that reflects in racing, too,” she added. “I either have good races or (bad) races. When I’m on, I’m on, and when I’m off, it’s bad.”

And how big a deal was Nilsson’s victory back home? Three Swedish newspapers interviewed her within two hours after her title-winning race.

Nilsson’s older sister, Ida, closed out her collegiate career by winning the 5,000-meter race at the 2005 NCAA Indoor Championships. She also won the 3,000 steeplechase at the 2004 NCAA Outdoor Championships. And she set more than 25 Big Sky Conference records during her days at NAU. (She’s now in South Africa at a training camp while rehabbing from an injury.)

Does that means Johanna’s success in running has something to do with genetics?

“It’s so hard to figure,” Hayes said. “There’s always the question with great athlete: Is it because they work so hard? Or) is it because they have natural talent? I think you’ve got to have the combination of both, and she’s someone that’s stayed around. She does the extra drills. She does extra stretching where the team is long gone.

“Johanna is doing all the little things to allow her to win in such a dominant fashion.”

Naturally, when she first began participating in running events in her hometown of Kalmar, Sweden, Nilsson enjoyed these activities like other kids enjoy an adventurous game of hide-and-seek.

“It was like you ran (a kilometer) you got an ice cream and candy and you were all happy,” she said. “It wasn’t that competitive.

“You run the 800, you do the 16 (1,600), you do the shot put, and you’re just rushing around. … But then I ended up not being very good at anything else,” she said, laughing.

So she decided to stick with distance running.

It’s unclear, however, if Nilsson’s future will involve competitive running. She did place second at the 2002 Swedish National Cross Country Championship and could probably earn a spot on the 2008 Swedish Olympic team.

“I don’t really have long-term goals,” she said, “because I don’t really function that way too good I guess. So we’ll see what happens.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do,’ like some of the kids have that dream when they are young.”

Is she a future Olympian? I asked Hayes.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“She’s just trying to figure out what she wants to do in her life, and over the next few years I’m sure it’s going to become more clear,” Hayes said.

Then, he added, “If she wants to be (an Olympian), she will be.”

It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

Helping others: A football player embraces Locks of Love

This featured appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 15, 2003.

A CHARITY MOP

By Ed Odeven

Lee Haws always followed the same routine. He shaved his head during the spring and summer months. When football training camp began, he would start letting his hair grow out.

This routine changed in October 2002 after Haws visited a good friend, NAU student Jason Redford, who was going through some difficult times. Around that time, Redford’s father and grandfather had both been diagnosed with cancer.

During his visit, Haws noticed Redford was growing his hair longer than he usually does. Haws inquired about the change.

“I asked him, ‘Hey, how’s your wife liking your hair?’ Then he told me about Locks Of Love, so that was the first I’d heard about it,” said Haws, a fifth-year senior on the NAU football team who has seen time at linebacker, fullback and now tight end during collegiate career.

Redford is growing his hair as a tribute to his father, Lamont. Haws is following suit by growing his hair. Both will eventually donate their hair to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization which provides hair pieces to financially disadvantaged children across the country who suffer from long-term hair loss.

“I admire the guy. He’s a really good friend, so I decided to be supportive of him,” said Haws, who knows Redford from their Mormon Church.

Haws’ nappy mane, which now measures 7 3/4 inches, has been an attention-getter. He’s become a walking billboard of sorts for Locks of Love.

“When people ask me about my hair, some people know about it and some people don’t. It’s pretty much an education for them,” Haws said.

And here’s a quick primer on Locks of Love:

The organization accepts hair that’s a minimum of 10 inches in length.

After the hair is chopped off, bundle it in a ponytail or braid.

To mail it to the organization’s Florida office, place it in a plastic bag and then a padded envelope.

It generally takes 10 to 15 of the aforementioned ponytails to make one hairpiece, which generally costs $3,000 or more when purchased.

Most of the recipients of the hairpieces are girls, but boys also receive them.

Interestingly, the majority of the hair is donated by children.

The main purpose of the organization? Giving kids these hairpieces helps them regain their self-esteem.

For more information on Locks of Love, visit http://www.locksoflove.org or call 888-896-1588.

Last season, NAU teammates dished out some good-natured ribbing to Haws about his new hairdo, telling him to “cut the mop,” he recalled. They called him “Shirley Temple” and “Crusty the Clown.”

“They used to give me a really hard time, but then as my story, or the reason why I was growing it out, got more and more prominent in the locker room, people started to understand why I was doing it,” Haws said.

Junior free safety Brent Daniels is one of the guys who recall some of the playful locker-room banter.

“For a while we were calling him (Jeremy) Shockey from the Giants and saying that he was trying to copy that (long hair),” Daniels said, smiling. “His hair’s crazy. For whatever reason he wants to grow it out, it’s his business. Lee’s a great guy, and Lee can shave his head, shave a Mohawk and he’ll still be a great guy. I support whatever he wants to do with his hair.”

So, what’d Haws’ wife, Allison, think of his longer locks?

“At first she was not too thrilled about the idea,” said Haws, a psychology major who plans to attend graduate school next year. “She’ll be happy when the day comes that I can cut it off. She supports me and she realizes why I’m doing it, and so she’s happy for that reason. But I think she likes the clean-cut Lee Haws and not the Granola-looking Lee Haws.”

NAU coach Jerome Souers said Haws epitomizes the type of student-athlete he loves to coach, one who is a role model on and off the field. He said he’s happy Haws is making a difference for Locks of Love.

“He’s an unselfish man, he’s principled by his faith. I don’t mean it lightly when I say that I think he’s a complete man,” the coach added. “At that age, that’s pretty unique. He’s able to handle his studies, being an athlete, being a husband and a father and still finding time to give to others as unselfishly as he does.”

Haws, who plans to get a trim in April or May, isn’t the only Lumberjack athlete who plans to help out Locks of Love. NAU soccer player Carin Larkin, a junior midfielder, also plans to have her hair cut in the near future.

In the meantime, don’t be shocked if NAU’s “Shockey” is the recipient of a couple locker-room gag gifts

“Well, we’ve got a few wigs floating around that might find their way into his locker,” Daniels said, with a good-natured chuckle. “You never know. Of course, they’d have to be really disgusting.”

Family ties: A college football player dedicated his play, life to late mother’s memory

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 5, 2005

In memory of Mom

By Ed Odeven

Receiver Geoff Ducksworth plays every game for his late mother, Andrea

Like other college football players, NAU senior receiver Geoff Ducksworth thinks about the keys to victory before every game. He remembers what his team learned about its next foe from watching film. And he knows what’ll be expected of him in the next four quarters.

Ducksworth’s pregame routine also differs from many players’.

“Before I play a football game, I point to the sky and know she’s watching before I come out the tunnel,” Ducksworth said Wednesday, revealing how he remembers his late mother on game day.

“I’m not trying to celebrate it or (want) people to think it’s a a cocky thing or some kind of showboating. I try to keep myself private in that respect. But I tell it like this: Every day I live is a representation of her and how she raised me.”

Ducksworth was born in New Orleans. His father, James, died when he was 4. His mother, Andrea, a nurse, raised him and his sisters Sara and Yvonne and brother James Jr.

They lived in Ontario, Canada, for a dozen years and later relocated to Germany before settling in the Valley of the Sun. It was there where Ducksworth came into his own as an athlete.

A 2000 graduate of Paradise Valley High School, he rushed for a school-record 1,819 yards and had a pair of 97-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns as a senior.

Fast forward to December 2002. Ducksworth was a standout receiver at Glendale Community College. His team had earned a No. 4 national ranking and went on to play in the Valley of the Sun Bowl.

As his team prepared for the bowl game, Ducksworth’s life changed drastically.

“My mom had been sick,” he recalled. “She’d been battling blood clots and things like that, so she went to the hospital and stayed the night. It was pretty much a regular occurrence for about six months, so I didn’t think too much of it.”

Then he received a shocking phone call.

“The doctor told me she had lung cancer,” he said. “My father passed away from lung cancer when I was 4 and she had quit (smoking) for about 20 years. So it took me by surprise. It just happened so quickly.

“They gave her maybe six months (to live), but they didn’t even want to guarantee that because she could’ve been gone at any time.”

TRYING TIMES

In 2003, Ducksworth planned to transfer to a university, continue his studies and play football. He had received interest from Northern Illinois and Idaho State, Southern Utah and NAU, among other schools. But when it was time to finalize his plans, Ducksworth chose NAU.

The decision was a no-brainer.

“I wanted to make sure that I could redshirt because I wanted to be with my mother every weekend as much as I could,” said Ducksworth, who was a walk-on and didn’t play in 2003.

Ducksworth’s mom stayed at a Phoenix-area hospice during her battle with cancer. He managed her account there because his older brother lives in Canada.

Besides juggling his academic workload and the physical demands of being a college football player, Ducksworth struggled with the emotional hardships of seeing his mother in pain.

“But the coaching staff was (very accommodating),” he said, “Anytime I needed, they let me go (visit her).

“My family and I, we’ve gotten a lot closer dealing with this, but it was a very, very stressful time. I had anxiety attacks and things like that.”

Through it all, Andrea Ducksworth tried to remain positive.

“She did tell me she was going to beat it,” her son said.

This outlook, he said, helped her.

“My mom, she had goals, she set goals,” he said. “She wanted to see my sister graduate and that would’ve been about eight months. She had another goal to make sure that we were all OK — that we were all going to do well for ourselves. I think when she finally realized we were all going to do all right, I think that’s when she passed away.”

“I remember she told me she was ready to go.”

She died April 8, 2004.

ON HIS OWN

Andrea Ducksworth’s death gave her younger son a chance to reflect on his upbringing, a chance to apply in his daily life what she had taught him.

“I’m not a quitter and she never raised me to be a quitter,” he said. “I stuck with it.”

For Ducksworth, this meant taking out student loans to help support him and his younger sister, Sara. It meant waking up early to study for classes. It meant working at Fry’s Food & Drug Store on Route 66 after a long day of school and practice — he unloaded the produce trucks between 6 p.m. and midnight.

“Geoff Ducksworth has had a very difficult life in my opinion,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said. “Maybe nobody’s life is real easy, but his is a lot tougher than most I’ve seen, yet his attitude is unmoved.”

Last spring, the Lumberjack coaching staff gave Ducksworth a scholarship for his senior season. It’s a reminder of his importance to the team, on and off the field.

“Being independent and self-sufficient is something that he’s learned to do,” Souers said. “He has great balance of learning football’s important, but so is school and so is being a role model. It’s important to him to be a good friend, to be a good teammate. I think you’ll find the closer you look at Geoff Ducksworth you’ll find great qualities that you’d like to see in any young man.”

Gary Guthmiller, NAU’s receivers coach, said Ducksworth has been the consummate teammate and the Jacks’ most well-prepared receiver.

“I can put him anywhere on the field and expect that he knows everything that’s going to go on at every position,” Guthmiller added.

“He’s my rock. He’s the guy I can count on. He’s the guy I can trust.”

FAMILY INFLUENCES

In NAU’s 38-24 loss at Sacramento State last Saturday, Ducksworth, who also plays gunner on the punt-return unit, had a season-high three catches for 59 yards. He said it’s tough to find satisfaction from personal accomplishments because the team lost.

That said, he realizes his sticking with football was the right thing to do.

“My mom was proud of me,” he said candidly. “She let me know that for sure.”

Ducksworth’s athleticism comes from his father’s side of the family (several family members played on Southern University teams and one uncle was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals).

His mother’s interests and talents were artistic. She performed in off-Broadway musicals and took an acting class taught by famous instructor Lee Strasberg.

“She was in the same class as Marilyn Monroe,” he said, smiling.

And though she supported her son’s athletic endeavors, she also tried to give him a well-rounded childhood.

“She made sure that for every sports camp I went to I had to take pottery class or an acting class or stuff like that,” Ducksworth said.

But more than anything, Andrea Ducksworth taught her son how to endure tough times.

“I feel like I’m a strong person because of her,” he said.

Ducksworth turns 23 in November. His future is up in the air, he admits. He’s expressed interest in selling homes in the Valley or playing in the Canadian Football League.

Yet through it all, one thing remains certain:

“I’ve dedicated my life to my mom,” he said.

A feared pass rusher (Jeff Charleston)

This feature story on future NFL defensive end Jeff Charleston appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in November 2005.

RISING TO THE OCCASION

By Ed Odeven

If you ask Jeff Charleston to explain how he became a successful first-year starter on the Idaho State defense, he’ll give you a modest answer.

“It was pretty much having to come in and work every day,” Charleston said Wednesday.

If you ask coaches why he’s become one of Division I-AA’s most feared pass rushers, you’ll get a more detailed response.

“He is extremely fast,” said NAU coach Jerome Souers, whose team plays host to Idaho State Saturday at 3:05 p.m. at the Skydome. “He has a great feel for the game and he’s a tenacious player. … You’ve got to know where (he’s) at on the field at all times.”

But even if you know where Charleston is, he still makes plays. He is fourth in I-AA in sacks (11) and is one of 16 finalists for the 2005 Buck Buchanan Award, which is given annually to I-AA’s top defensive player.

Four times this season, Charleston has recorded two or more sacks, getting three against Eastern Washington and two apiece against Southern Utah, Montana State and Sacramento State. He has 51 tackles (25 solo stops) in nine games for the 5-4 Bengals.

This productivity doesn’t surprise Bengals coach Larry Lewis.

“The biggest thing is his relentless work ethic,” Lewis said. “He just never quits.”

One textbook example illustrated this point, a scene repeated week after week on the Pocatello, Idaho, campus.

After practice, “he’s just in the dome (working out) when we get done,” Lewis said. “He’s self-made. Nobody can outwork him (on this team). I’ve just seen very few kids work as hard as Jeff Charleston does.”

Charleston, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound senior defensive end, grew up on a 50-acre farm in Monmouth, Ore. It is there where he learned the value of hard work, while tending to cattle and sheep and bailing hay, and how much fun it is to play football.

“Every summer after you get done working, you look forward to football camp. It’s a lot easier than working in the field,” said Charleston.

Nobody’s ever said it’s easy to go up against 300-pound offensive linemen for four quarters. But Charleston makes it look easy.

“If you’re a tackle and you know he’s on the outside edge, you are going to have your hands full,” Souers said. “You’ve got to have great technique.”

NAU’s young offensive line — senior Jacob Wolfe at left tackle, two sophomores and two freshmen are slated to start Saturday — will be tested by Charleston and his linemates.

“As a game plan, we cannot be in a dropback, predictable (passing) situation,” Souers said. “That’s when he’s at his best.”

In 2004, Charleston transferred to Idaho State from Division II Western Oregon, a school in his hometown. He said he just wanted a change of scenery and a chance to play at a higher level.

Or as Lewis put it: “He really wanted a bigger challenge. Jeff had great goals ahead of him. He needs that challenge every day. He wants to prove that every day (he’s one of the best).”

Charleston had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.

Which is why Charleston has made such a big splash on the I-AA scene this season.

This year, NFL scouts have started to pay big-time attention to Charleston.

“He was off the radar a year ago,” Lewis said.

And now?

“They said, ‘We haven’t seen this kid. We don’t have video on him,'” Lewis said, recounting conversations he’s had this season.

“He’s gone from a kid whose gone from nothing to ‘oh, man we better go see this kid,'” Lewis added.

And in the process Charleston has drawn comparisons to ex-Bengal sack maestro Jared Allen, who won the 2003 Buck Buchanan Award as a college senior. He’s in his second season with the Kansas City Chiefs and leads the team with five sacks through Sunday.

Now as his college career winds down — the Bengals have two remaining games — Charleston has his sights set on a career in the NFL. Yet he still looks back on his college career with fond memories.

“Just being able to play on Saturdays is a big thrill,” he said.