Motherly love guides Kekuta Manneh far from homeland
Cameron Niccum was deep into answering an essay question that would be a critical part of his application to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Though he can't remember the exact wording of the question, Cameron remembers being asked to explain why he believed, as a West Point cadet and a future leader in the United States Army, he could handle working in a very diverse environment.
"I started out writing about soccer," recalls Niccum, who just finished his first year at West Point, where he is a defender on the soccer team. "Because I grew up playing in Houston with so many Hispanic and African-American players. But when my mother started to read the essay she pointed out to me that something important was missing."
LaRhonda Niccum laughs when recounting the story.
"I was like, 'Cameron, hello? What about your brother?'"
In 2010, Kekuta came to the US from Gambia to join Cameron's club soccer team, Texas Rush. The Niccums (right; photo courtesy of LaRhonda Niccum), at first, were Kekuta's host family. But after two and a half years of getting to know him, and learning that his mother had passed away when he was 10 years old, they asked him if he'd like to be adopted by their family.
The rest is history, including the family's move to Austin when Eric took a new job, a switch in clubs from Rush to the PDL's Austin Aztex, to the MLS SuperDraft, where the Whitecaps FC took Kekuta with the fourth overall pick.
And, of course, the part about Cameron forgetting to mention Kekuta in his West Point essay.
"I said, 'Cameron, you do realize Kekuta is African, right?'" LaRhonda says, her Southern accent dripping with sarcasm. "'You might want to mention that in the essay.'"
Cameron can share a laugh with his mother. He has even told her she's soccer's version of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the adoptive mother of Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher. You might remember her as the women played by Sandra Bullock in the movie The Blindside. Like Leigh Anne, LaRhonda is equal parts, loving, protecting, but also no-nonsense.
WATCH: Whitecaps pick Manneh
"My mom was on top of everything Kekuta did," says Cameron. "From his schoolwork to his manners, to disciplining him just like me, my brother and my sister."
And on Mother's Day, Cameron would like his mother to know that the likely reason he didn't remember to mention Kekuta in that essay was, simply, because she did such an exceptional job of making a boy from Gambia feel just like any other brother to him.
LaRhonda was the team manager for Texas Rush. She handled all of the club's travel plans and administrative work. So she was more than aware of Manneh's immense talent on the field – "One 'wow' moment after another," she recalls – but she also wanted to make sure he understood there needed to be more than just soccer in his life.
"You can be injured and then it’s over," LaRhonda says. "So we tried to balance things. I was a math teacher and I was really concerned with the educational aspect because he was so far behind. I wanted him to have stability. By the time we adopted him he was already used to us as a family, and we had already fallen in love with him."
A Christian family, the Niccums did not consider trying to convert Manneh, who is Muslim. Instead, LaRhonda said they encouraged him to embrace his faith while they tried to understand more about his culture and upbringing. There were instances, however, that Mom had to teach her adopted son that his way was not always all right.
"When my parents were disciplining him, maybe for staying out later than curfew, or not doing his chores, he wouldn't make eye contact," Cameron recalls. "He explained to me that, in his culture, it was considered disrespectful to make eye contact with someone when you are being disciplined. But, my parents were like, 'Look me in the eye,' the same way they'd be with me if I'd made a mistake that deserved punishment."
The scoldings were far outweighed by laughs and hugs, not to mention the movie nights, games of "Just Dance" and good-natured kidding about Kekuta's singing.
"He’s just a really laid-back kid," LaRhonda says. "Everyone immediately loved him and he makes friends really easily and just takes the cue that this is where I’m supposed to be, and he goes in with a positive attitude where he goes. He loves chicken and rice, movies and TV shows, the Big Bang Theory. He is just part of the family."
"I can go to college while I’m playing or when I’m done," Kekuta says. "But I want to follow my dream. I think it’s the right time for me to do that.”There was a time when LaRhonda wanted Kekuta to go to college, but his talent, coupled with his desire to play professionally, won out in the end.
Now, LaRhonda tries to make sure Kekuta understands finances and the importance of saving money, like any good mom. Meanwhile, she's also understanding that Kekuta holds a special place in his heart for his biological mother.
"He adores his mother and misses her so much," says LaRhonda. "Recently I saw a picture of her. It was the spitting image of Kekuta. So beautiful, just like her baby boy."
And while sometimes Kekuta has found it awkward to call the Niccums anything but "my host family," he is coming around, and is grateful for the love they've shared.
"I consider [the Niccums] my parents,” he says. “They’ve done a lot for me.”
Since Manneh's move to Vancouver, LaRhonda says she talks, texts or Skypes with him just about every day. She has also been able to attend three 'Caps games so far.
"We keep an eye on him," says LaRhonda. "When we can't be at the games, we've got them on the TV or the computer. We are very proud of the man he's becoming."