Amara Darboh: From Sierra Leone war orphan to prized Michigan recruit

That Amara Darboh signed a national letter of intent to play football at the University of Michigan on Wednesday was remarkable. Not because of an lack of talent or ability on Darboh's part, mind you. Rather, Darboh's future is remarkable because it's almost a miracle that he is even alive.

Dowling wide receiver Amara Darboh —
Dowling wide receiver Amara Darboh —

Darboh is a native of Sierra Leone, the once war-torn African nation which was engulfed by civil war between 1991 and 2002. Darboh was born right in the middle of it, in spring 1994, to parents whose lives would both be taken by the conflict by the time he was 2.

According to this fabulous feature from, that's when Darboh was taken in by his aunt and older sister in Freetown, the national capital, at which point the entire family bounced from house to house in desperate search of safe shelter from the war. When they couldn't find any, the evacuated to Gambia, then Senegal and finally the United States.

That's when Darboh's luck and life began to change forever. The 7-year-old and his sister were among 14 members of their familial clan who were taken in by a Christian community in Des Moines, Iowa. For two years, Darboh and his sister lived in a two bedroom apartment with 12 other immigrants, trying to adapt to life in the U.S. Those who lived at the house struggled to make ends meet, and Darboh's opportunities were limited until he earned a scholarship to compete in the Beaverdale Little League.

Suddenly, Darboh found himself excelling in sports and with English. He quickly made a close friend among his teammates, and his friend's father later asked him to join his basketball team.

Darboh wanted to play, but he didn't have basketball shoes. The father offered to buy them for Darboh, and he got a pair of Air Jordans … but intentionally bought them two sizes too small. When asked why he would buy overly tight shoes, Darboh admitted that he was afraid his housemates would steal his shoes if he bought the right size.

The family who bought the shoes -- the Schaefers -- were approached about officially adopting Darboh a matter of weeks later. They didn't hesitate when given the chance.

"It didn't take us more than a couple hours to decide," Dan Schaefer, Darboh's adoptive father, told "We were pretty surprised. It's not every day you're asked to adopt a child.

"But when [Darboh's sister] approached us -- I don't want to get spiritual or anything, because I'm not a spiritual guy -- but it's kind of like it was meant to be. It felt right, and it's always felt right, looking back on the years we've had together."

Years later, all of the lucky breaks seem like karma paying Darboh back for surviving his early struggles. The wide receiver only began playing football at West Des Moines (Iowa) Dowling High because his adoptive brother Max was on the team and the coach approached him. He scored three touchdowns in his first game, but could tell that the ball didn't look quite right, a trigger which led to Darboh getting glasses and contacts.

Pure athleticism practically guaranteed that Darboh would get an opportunity at big time football. He has, and he decided to try and make it count at Michigan. After all, after surviving for years as a war orphan, Darboh knows that he has to take advantage of chances when they come his way.

"I'm more about moving forward, and not about the past," Darboh said. "I haven't even really asked about my parents and going through war. My sister isn't really that comfortable talking about it.

"I don't like to ask about the past, because bad memories come back, and I don't want my sister to think about that. I kind of just move on."

Want more on the best stories in high school sports? Visit RivalsHigh or connect with Prep Rally on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.