The hero of Kwity Paye's journey to the NFL is his mother who escaped civil war

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Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·5 min read
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Assuming the buses are running on time, it takes two of them and almost an hour to get from the Lockwood Plaza Apartments in Providence, Rhode Island, to Bishop Hendricken High School, the state's all-boys athletics powerhouse.

As he made the trip home at night, after a day of honors classes and football or track practice, Kwity Paye would stare out the window and think about the sacrifices his mother had made — and was still making for him — and the day he'd be able to show her it was all worth it.

Agnes Paye escaped the West African nation of Liberia when she was 12 and fled on foot to Sierra Leone. Her father, the man Kwity is named after, was one of the roughly 500,000 people killed during Liberia's first civil war. When Kwity was still in diapers, Agnes and her two sons settled in Providence, where thousands of Liberian refugees found a home in the 1990s and early 2000s.

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Providence and Lockwood Plaza were safer than Liberia, but for a single mother who didn't speak English, it wasn't easy. Agnes studied to become a nursing assistant and worked multiple jobs, and still the family needed government assistance to keep food on the table. 

Kwity found football, first playing with neighborhood kids and then following them to formal practices. He struck up a relationship with Will Blackmon, the last player to make it to the NFL from the tiny state, and when Kwity found out that Blackmon had gone to Bishop Hendricken, he decided he needed to follow.

One huge problem: Hendricken's tuition, which was over $10,000 a year.

As Agnes recalls, Kwity literally begged her to enroll him in the school, and if she did, he guaranteed he'd get a Division I scholarship for a free college education.

She relented and worked more. Agnes worked so much she never saw Kwity play a snap at Hendricken, never saw the plays that made him a three-time all-state defensive end and running back, never saw him lead the Hawks to state championships in football, never saw him win long jump and 4x100-meter relay state titles in track and field.

On national signing day in 2017, in front of his peers and teachers, Kwity committed to Michigan and told the story of his mother's heroism, which sadly — though not that surprisingly, since he was bringing glory to the school through his football exploits, which far too often is all that matters — no one at the school had bothered to learn about before that moment. 

They didn't know about the bus rides from Hendricken's manicured grounds to the nondescript, low-income housing complex on the edge of the buzzing hospital campus he made every night, about Agnes' story, about the petite, singular woman who had trekked barefoot to escape Liberia, who crossed an ocean to give her sons a better life and worked constantly to provide for them.

Kwity Paye is shown on a screen after being announced as the 21st draft pick with Roger Goodell and a Colts fan on stage in Cleveland looking at the screen.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announces Kwity Paye as the 21st selection by the Indianapolis Colts during the first round of the 2021 NFL draft on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Kwity had done it. He'd secured a college scholarship on the strength of his football ability and exceptional academic record. He fulfilled the promise he'd made to his mother.

He didn't stop there, though. At Michigan, he made himself into one of the best pass-rushers in this year's draft and was an Academic All-Big Ten student and earned his degree in African American studies in 3 1/2 years and jumped in to help with a charity called TUFF — The Uniform Funding Foundation — that helps kids from backgrounds similar to his.

And on Thursday night, as he did an interview with ESPN on live television after being drafted 21st overall by the Colts, in his custom-made, Chadwick-Boseman-as-Black-Panther-inspired suit, surrounded by family wearing coordinated blue and rust orange tunics and dresses, draped in the flag of Liberia, the land his mother fled but still loves, his arm around his own personal superhero, Kwity told Agnes and everyone watching:

Her days of working were done. She's retired. Their family cheered. Agnes did a little dance, then wiped a tear, overwhelmed by the moment.

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"It means everything," Kwity told a Providence reporter. "That was my goal my whole life, growing up. Seeing how hard she worked, that's what made me work harder. Being able to tell her that she's done means a lot."

He's a hero in Rhode Island, the first kid from the state in over 80 years to be a first-round NFL draft pick. He's a hero in the Liberian community in Providence and neighboring Pawtucket, to the parents and kids who can point to him and his older brother Komotay, who got a scholarship to play at New Mexico State, and see a tangible example of the greatness they can have. 

Kwity has never had to look far to see his hero, and on Thursday night the rest of the world met her, too.   

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