From refugee to NFL draft, Azur Kamara cherishes a remarkable journey

·11 min read

The road trip began in Abidjan. On an early-2000s morning, in the Ivory Coast’s bustling coastal capital, a young boy and his mother stepped up into a transport bus. And for hours, they rumbled northwest, along highways and dirt roads, away from home. They rumbled through rural West Africa, past greenery and barrenness, toward Guinea. To visit an uncle, the boy assumed.

It wasn’t until later that the boy, Azur Kamara, realized his assumption was only partially correct.

It’s the type of snapshot that will flicker into Kamara’s head every so often, even as he chases a professional football career two decades and thousands of miles away. Snapshots of childhood; of the upheaval that filled it; of the challenges encountered.

But the snapshots don’t, he clarifies, haunt him. They aren’t scars. They’re reminders to be grateful. And reminders of what he can overcome. They’re reasons he’s built himself into a 6-foot-4, 248-pound edge-rushing menace. And reasons NFL teams see late-round potential for much more.

They are, Kamara says, the reasons “[I’m] the man I am today.”

But those hours on the road aren’t the reason he’s telling this particular story. The bus arrived safely at his uncle’s house in Guinea. When it did, young Azur bounded off with his cousins to play.

He’s telling this story because when he came back to the house, Mom was gone. And although he didn’t know it at the time, he’d never see her in Africa again.

STILLWATER, OK - NOVEMBER 16:  Quarterback Spencer Sanders #3 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys rolls out to avoid linebacker Azur Kamara #5 of the Kansas Jayhawks in the first quarter on November 16, 2019 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  OSU won 31-13.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders rolls out to avoid Kansas' Azur Kamara. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Guinean life

Azur Kamara’s mother, Djaka, is his role model. Back in the early 2000s, he couldn’t explain why. He wasn’t fully aware that she “was going through a lot, some really tough times.” But he saw her toil. Day after day. Whatever it took to put food in her three children’s stomachs; clothes on their frail bodies; a roof over their heads. Azur remembers peddling her homemade sweets to neighbors. He also knows there was so much he didn’t see, or doesn’t remember; some ”family stuff going on,” stuff he won’t delve into.

At the time, though, he was young. And after Mom dropped him off at his uncle’s house, then continued on her way, life continued on too. Azur settled into a routine he recalls fondly. The prayers at the mosque next door. The watery-rice breakfasts his auntie would make. The 20-minute walk to Arabic school. The 5-on-5 soccer games afterward, the ball skidding on dirt, his friends chirping away, their smiles worry-free. It didn’t matter that some days there was no breakfast at all. Didn’t matter that four grades were packed into the same classroom. Didn’t matter that the field had no grass.

Then there was life in the Guinean village where extended family would convene once a year. Azur and his cousins, all of 7 or 8 years old, trekked miles to fetch water every two or three days. They’d fill buckets or containers at a well. They’d lift them onto their heads and march back, under a beating summer sun, every spilled drop representing effort wasted. Everybody back at their mudhouses – 15 people per three bedrooms, Azur estimates – was counting on them.

In the village, Azur would reunite with his sisters, Amie and Fatu, who’d been staying with other relatives. They, too, were parentless, with Dad out of the picture and Mom’s whereabouts unknown. They, too, had not heard from her since she dropped them off in Guinea.

Until, a couple of years later, an uncle got a phone call. He relayed the message to the kids.

Mom was in the United States.

The American journey

Amie cried. Azur didn’t know how, or why, Mom had fled. The siblings were vaguely aware that a civil war raged in the Ivory Coast while they were gone. But Mom had never talked about her plans. Never said grand goodbyes. And the United States? The kids could barely even conceptualize what the United States were.

Soon, however, they found out they might be able to join her.

Ever since settling in Arizona, Djaka had been navigating bureaucracy; crawling through uber-complex refugee processes; and hoping. She communicated intermittently with family members 7,000 miles away. She hadn’t abandoned the children. She sought asylum in the U.S. as a means to a better life — not only for herself, but for them.

So with the war having died down, Azur, Amie and Fatu reconnected and returned to Abidjan. And around five years after their mother had departed, they received permission to follow her. They knew no English and had few belongings. But their flights — the first intercontinental ones of their lives – were booked.

They loaded one suitcase apiece. They took off from Abidjan, landed in Paris, deplaned and reboarded, then embarked for New York. High above the Atlantic, Azur’s nerves rattled. His eardrums screamed silently in pain. Flight attendants served American food the siblings had never seen before. Sleep and comfort were elusive.

When they landed in New York, mysterious white flakes were falling from the sky. They stepped outside, into cold they’d never experienced. On a bus ride to a different terminal, they cruised by dozens of cars. Amie asked the bus driver if they were for sale. No, the driver explained, they were simply parked.

The following morning, sleep-deprived and overwhelmed, the Kamara kids sunk into seats for the final leg of a 24-plus-hour journey. They arrived at Phoenix International Airport, retrieved their luggage, and scanned a crowd for a first glimpse of their mother in half a decade. One of Azur’s sisters was the first to recognize her and scream. Pretty soon, all three darted toward her. Tears streamed down her face. The reunited family draped limbs around one another and squeezed tight. It was Day 1, Hug 1 of a new life.

Azur Kamara at school in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Amie Kamara)
Azur Kamara at middle school in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Amie Kamara)

Life in a foreign land

The new life was difficult. Azur enrolled at a nearby middle school. Everybody spoke a language he’d never learned. And when he glanced at his first sixth-grade math worksheet, “I saw letters and numbers mixed up,” he says with a laugh, recalling his bewilderment at algebra.

“In Africa, I wasn’t learning none of that.”

Even the classroom arrangement was a world away from what he knew. His sixth grade teacher gave him an invaluable book with French translations. But the culture shock was real. His grades were poor. His classmates would make fun of the way he dressed or spoke, just as his stepfather had warned they would.

Through it all, his positivity and patience rarely faltered. Azur attended four different schools his first four years in the U.S. He made some friends, but, shy by nature, largely kept to himself. He played soccer and studied. He once watched a Packers game with a few buddies, his first exposure to American football. They tried to explain the sport to him. Other than the first down concept, he struggled to grasp it.

His life changed forever, though, the summer before his freshman year at Central High School in the Phoenix area. On registration days in July, head football coach Jon Clanton would camp out in his office and eye incoming students. When a 6-foot, roughly 160-pound Azur arrived to enroll, Clanton introduced himself and asked: Do you play football?

Azur not only didn’t play it, he’d never played. Clanton urged him to try. Both are grateful he did.

‘We had to teach him everything’

Today he’s an NFL prospect. Seven-and-a-half years ago, Azur received his first set of pads and didn’t know what to do with them. Teammates had to help. When he tugged a helmet over his head, he was taken aback by its heft. “How do I run around with this for all four quarters?” he thought.

“We had to teach him everything,” Clanton says. “How to get in a stance, how to do ... everything.”

But Azur was a quick and willing learner, in individual drills and summer workouts. He picked up pass-rush moves and footwork, tackling technique and defensive concepts. As he improved, he also learned to love the game. By sophomore year, he was a varsity defensive lineman. A torn ACL took away the latter half of that season and most of his offseason. But by the middle of his junior year, Clanton says, he was “unblockable.” By senior year, Saturday film sessions had become Azur highlight shows. He doubled as a bulldozing offensive tackle, and tripled as a kicker, and even took a kick return back to the house. Major college programs took notice.

The biggest impediment, however, was school. Community college became his path to Division I. As he helped Arizona Western to two national JUCO title games, he needed help in the classroom. He attended daily tutoring sessions. Math still troubled him. In one class, he teetered on the brink of failure. A passing grade was his ticket to the big time. Anything less …

But no. His mind wouldn’t go there. Couldn’t go there. “Failure wasn’t an option,” he says. “If I had failed that class, I would’ve had nothing else to do.”

Instead, his mind raced back through the years, remembering and reliving the hardships.

And it concluded: “I came too far to let one class ruin my career.”

‘I thank God everyday’

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 29: Linebacker Azur Kamara of Kansas runs a drill during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 29, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Azur Kamara of Kansas runs a drill during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on Feb. 29, 2020, in Indianapolis. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Azur Kamara thinks about this often. He thinks, actively and consciously, about his remarkable 22 years on Earth. He thinks back to that Guinean village; to the miles-long treks with gallons of water crushing his tiny head; to the mornings with no breakfast and cramped living quarters and no parents. He thinks about braving sixth grade with no English aptitude. He thinks about learning football from scratch.

He also thinks about his mom, and her toughness, and her sacrifice. About all the times she could have given up — on her own future, and on her children’s. Azur knows that thousands of parents do surrender. His mom never did. “She’s still pushing to this day,” he says. “I don’t know how she does it.”

He thinks about this whenever adversity hits, however forcefully. And about the moral of his story, a lesson his mother taught him.

“My family’s been through too much,” he says. “My mom’s been through too much, to put me in the situation I am today, for me to selfishly let that go.”

The journey fuels every extra agility drill; every last weight-room rep; every extra 15 minutes of study. It fueled him through that math class at Arizona Western, and to Kansas, where he made honor roll and flashed potential as an edge rusher. It fueled him in December and January, as all-star game invites went out and none arrived in his inbox. Nonetheless, morning after morning, he arose before 5 and arrived at a training facility by 8. He attacked speed drills and lifts. He was invariably back in the afternoon for more, his positivity relentless.

And then, on a Monday in January, his phone rang. Kamara didn’t recognize the number. He picked up. And his unseen work was rewarded. It was Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy. “Honestly,” Kamara says, ”one of the biggest moments of my life.”

He’d been packing for the Hula Bowl. Instead, the following morning, he hopped on a flight to Alabama. He arrived just in time for practice. He impressed some NFL talent evaluators, enough to earn a spot at February’s combine, where he ran a 4.59 40. In scouting parlance, he’s “raw” and a “project.” In common English, he’s long and athletic, with a lot to learn and an eagerness to learn it.

In NFL draft terms, he’ll either hear his name called next Saturday or sign as an undrafted free agent. Either way, he’ll celebrate with family. He’ll go to sleep that night a professional football player.

And at around 5 a.m. the next morning, he’ll wake up. He’ll dress. He’ll cleanse himself.

He’ll raise his bulging 35-inch arms, then fold them. He’ll bow forward, and lower his chiseled body to the floor. He’ll pray.

And rather than rue anything he hasn’t had in life, he’ll be grateful for what he does have.

“We’re just blessed, to be honest with you,” Kamara says. “I thank God everyday.”

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