USA TODAY High School Sports and the Army National Guard have teamed up in search of high school athletes who embody the same values. We’re sharing stories of athletes whose personal courage has enabled them to overcome insurmountable odds -- born leaders who go above and beyond in their communities, and whose loyalty has inspired others to make the most out of every opportunity.
After seeing a flyer pinned up around school encouraging students to join the wrestling team during his freshman year, Nyonbou “Boo” Farley inquired with Kenwood (Essex, Md.) coach John Cooper.
Cooper was immediately intrigued even if Farley’s only exposure to wrestling was watching WWE on TV.
“He looked as though he’d lifted weights for 25 years,” Cooper said.
Fast forward three seasons, and Farley is a regional champion with realistic aspirations of wrestling in college. That’s a stunning turnaround for a kid who came to the U.S. from a Liberian refugee camp just eight years ago and up until high school had never played sports aside from occasional games of unorganized soccer.
Though the specific timing is murky, Farley says his circuitous path started on a farm, where he spent the early part of childhood waking early to scare away animals that would feed on his family’s crops. He spent all day in the sun walking through mud and grass to help clear land and plant crops.
“I really hated that lifestyle, but I had to help my parents,” Farley said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t eat.”
Farley eventually moved to his grandmother’s house in a nearby city to receive an education. But since his family couldn’t afford school, Farley relied on refugee aid from the United Nations for about 2 ½ years.
Finally, in 2005 Farley got the chance to move to the United States when his grandmother was brought over for medical treatment.
“I truly think Boo looks upon that as a gift,” Cooper said. “He has a lot of direction in his life as a result. He never takes a day or a moment in his life for granted.”
Farley moved in with his uncle just outside of Baltimore, about 4,500 miles away from his parents. He arrived in the middle of a school year with little more than a handful of African clothes. He spoke no English, so rather than enrolling in school immediately he learned basic words by watching TV. Once his uncle taught him how to write, Farley enrolled in school.
By the time Farley arrived at Kenwood for ninth grade, the adjustment was far from easy. His heavy accent made him the target of jokes, so he mainly interacted with teachers.
“My first day of school, I remember it was not really fun,” Farley said. “I didn’t feel good about (my accent). I felt ashamed.”
Farley dedicated himself to academics, and within his freshmen year he transitioned into Kenwood’s Sports Science Academy, a magnet program that prepares students for sports-related careers.
That same year, he joined the wrestling team. Without the means to purchase athletic gear, the school supplied shirts and shorts while the wrestling coaches gave Farley shoes left behind from former Kenwood wrestlers.
On the first day of practice, Farley says he was so physically taxed that he threw up in his mouth. That didn’t deter him. And despite the challenges Farley clearly faced, Cooper immediately noticed his natural ability — he was the fastest on the team during sprints and stairs and also the quickest on the mat.
Blind to his inexperience, Farley finished the season 12-0 and won a junior varsity county championship as a freshman. He also grew in other ways.
“I wasn’t really a sociable person at first,” Farley said. “Once I started wrestling, I felt comfortable talking to people. That’s how I gained confidence.”
Farley moved to varsity as a sophomore and finished 27-10, good for fourth place in the county and region. He also qualified for state.
This past winter’s season proved most successful. As a 160-pound junior, Farley went 34-4 and became Kenwood’s first regional wrestling champion in six years.
As successful as he’s been on the mat, Farley has made as big an impression off it.
After matches, for instance, he’s known to thank his opponents and praise their efforts. At workouts, Farley has a reputation of joining lagging teammates during sprints.
“In the wrestling room, I feel like we’re all family,” Farley said. “I want him to know he’s not alone.”
That goes well beyond his teammates. When Kenwood hosted a food drive last year, Farley went door-to-door around his neighborhood and collected 94 canned goods —
enough to fill three grocery bags, which he transported by himself on a school bus.
“Walking up the stairs was the most challenging part of it all,” Farley said. “Something in my heart tells me I have to. I help because it’s the right thing to do. It makes me feel good to make others feel good.”
That explains why he also volunteers for organizations like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and has helped run play days for children with special needs.
“The amazing part about Boo is that he always questions if someone needs it more,” Cooper said. “He wants to do good for everybody. It’s in his nature. I tell him all the time, ‘Boo, you’ve got to stop for a moment and think about yourself sometimes.’”
Now’s the perfect time to heed Cooper’s advice. Farley is just beginning the recruiting process, and he’s already started to receive interest from Division II programs. Cooper says D-I programs are likely to come calling as well.
Farely’s goal is to become the first in his family to finish high school and college. Either way, he’s come a long way from the kid who grew up chasing animals away from his crops.