Thursday, November 22, 2007

A gem of a football player

GARDEN GROVE - He is just one, one of 52, one of a group brought together perhaps by the love of football or the wish to be among friends or maybe the desire to fit in.
Each has a reason for being here, but only one has his reason for being here.
“The civil war,” Sarh Hemmor says, and it’s clear this isn’t just another high school athlete.
This senior at Pacifica High is from Sierra Leone, the republic in West Africa famous for its precious diamonds and internal strife.
After a recent practice, Hemmor stood with a couple of teammates, discussing his homeland, matter-of-factly talking about dismemberment, about dodging death by moving from village to village based on radio reports of the whereabouts of the rebels.
“They kind of bombed our houses and all that,” he says. “It was really scary. These guys would come in at any time, in the middle of the night when you’re sleeping.”
Perhaps because he survived this violence, Hemmor arrived at Pacifica more than three years ago as a fresh breath of optimism. Initially teased because of his accent, he soon was embraced and celebrated, his classmates calling him “chief.”
He spoke only broken English but was fluent in friendship. His voice, thick and loud, attracted attention. His laugh, even thicker and louder, punctuated that attention.
This is a scene that sums up well Hemmor’s first days at Pacifica: For more than a month, he could not figure out how to work the combination on his locker. He never had seen such a thing. Didn’t matter, though. There was always someone there willing to open it for him.
“He was on the outside a little bit at first,” teammate Jason Middenway says. “Now he’s just another brother, another part of the family.”
Adds another teammate, Brett Bird, “It takes Sarh forever to walk between classes because everyone stops him to say ‘Hi.’ ”
Hemmor’s mother, Nikki, already had been living here with relatives for a few years when she sent for her son. She had seen the continuous images of unrest in Sierra Leone while watching CNN and feared for his safety.
When Hemmor’s plane landed, Los Angeles might as well have been another planet, so foreign was the environment to him.
The first time he heard a phone ring, he had to be reminded what the noise was. He never regularly had seen television. While leaving baggage claim at LAX, he didn’t understand why people stared as he carried a piece of luggage balanced on his head.
“The guy who picked me up there saw me carrying that bag and said, ‘No, no, no. This is America,’ ” says Hemmor, now 17. “Everything was so different, too different. I didn’t know anything about anything. It was way too funny.”
During his freshman year, one of the teachers gave an assignment that involved the use of a computer.
“What does a computer have to do with homework?” Hemmor asked one of his classmates. “Where I come from you barely see lights.”
It required a lot of extra work, before and after school, and still does. Hemmor meets with tutors regularly and remains amazed at how quickly even small children can work a computer keyboard.
Early on, noticing Hemmor’s athletic ability in gym class, a couple of fellow students asked if he planned to play football. He said, yes, he’d love to, thinking they were talking about soccer.
“If you guys really want me to play,” Hemmor told them, “you should help me with my homework.”
So they did, and, starting in his sophomore year, he attempted to hold up his part of the deal. Unfortunately, he never had seen American football. He didn’t know offense from defense, didn’t understand even the object.
Varsity coach Guy Gardner started by showing Hemmor video of a Pacifica game. He explained what a huddle was, what the sidelines were and how much a touchdown was worth.
“Six points seemed like a lot,” Hemmor says now. “I was thinking of soccer where everything’s worth one.”
After learning for two seasons – one of which was cut short by a broken arm – Hemmor is a varsity defensive lineman today. He doesn’t play a lot, but when he does, he’s all hustle and energy, succeeding with his athletic skills.
What he contributes mostly is attitude, an upbeat tempo accentuated by his locally famous laugh. Hemmor laughs while running practice-ending sprints. He laughs when the team is punished and has to run extra. He laughs at what others say and what he says, too.
“It’s addictive, that laugh,” Middenway says. “He tells jokes and you might not get them but you laugh anyway because of the way he laughs. It’s contagious.”
They’ve been hearing that sound at Pacifica going on four years now.
“Physically, he’s pretty well put together,” Gardner says. “But his character is what sets him apart. His attitude is infectious. Sarh’s just a positive guy.”
He’d like to return to Sierra Leone one day, maybe to teach kids there about American football. He loves to tease his friends at Pacifica about how he grew up petting lions and chasing tigers.
Asked if he stands out walking around school, Hemmor smiles and says, “Sure, I’m the only guy from Africa. Just ask for the African.”
Then he laughs his laugh again, this teenager who just last week was spotted carrying his books on his head.
Sierra Leone, the place with so many diamonds, apparently exports other gems.

Life: football, pacifica high school, sierra leone, garden grove, west africa, Sarh Hemmor - OCRegister.com