Samuel Teah awakened early, as he usually did, on Dec. 27, 2008, to get out to do the road work that is a part of the fabric of life for a boxer.
He was awakened by the sound of his television. On this day, he stopped briefly to listen to the Philadelphia newscast about a house fire the night before that had killed most of its occupants.
As he went about his business getting ready for the day, he passed by the television and heard more details about the fire.
“It was a big story and they were talking a lot about it,” Teah said.
The significance of what he was hearing didn’t strike him at the time. He felt empathy for the people involved, but he was getting ready to go to his mother’s house for an after-Christmas gathering with his family.
A number of his siblings lived out of town and were going to leave for their homes later that day. So, the family planned to get together for one last holiday meal before they went their separate ways.
The get-together held a bit more significance than usual for Teah. On Christmas Day, he was planning to go to his mother’s home for the holiday celebration. He spoke to his mother on the phone and they got into an argument.
“I was actually in the car on my way to the house when I called my Mom,” said Teah, who was 21 at the time. “We had a little argument over the phone, and I asked her if I could speak to my sister. As I was talking to my sister, I said to her, ‘Listen, that lady has an attitude. I’m not coming over there. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.’ ”
He would soon live to regret that decision.
As he listened to more and more details of the house fire that had occurred, the details began to sound far too familiar.
It sounded a lot like his mother’s home.
Teah knew he had to check on his mother, if nothing else than for his own peace of mind. He drove over and when he was two blocks away, he could see the smoke and the fire trucks near her home.
He called his godmother, and she didn’t pick up. On her voicemail was a verse from the Book of Matthew:
“Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”
That verse would soon have great personal meaning in his life.
Panicking, he redialed his godmother and this time she picked up. She told him the awful news. His sisters, Vivian, 24, and Jennifer, 17; his brother, Eliott, 24; his nephew, Zyhire, 1; and his brother’s step-children, Ramere, 8; and Mariam, 6; as well as a local man, 54-year-old Henry Gbokoloi; all died in the fire. They were found together, clinging to each other.
The cause of the fire was determined to be misuse of a kerosene heater. Teah said his mother had sent his sister to a local gasoline station to purchase more kerosene. She was inadvertently given gasoline and when it was put into the heater, it caught fire and the three-story duplex was quickly engulfed.
Teah’s mother and three others survived the fire, but his life changed dramatically as a result of one horrible mistake.
_________________Teah is now a boxer with a 12-1-1 record, hopeful that one day he’ll win a world championship. On the back of his trunks, the super lightweight always wears the date of the tragedy that took the lives of so many people he loved.
It’s his way of telling the world he’s fighting for them, that his achievements are theirs, that he’s motivated to make them proud.
He’ll fight unbeaten Montana Love on Friday on Showtime’s “ShoBox” series, where so many future champions got their start.
Teah is desperate to add his name to that list, and his deep faith in God has convinced him that against all odds, despite a rugged childhood and the terrible tragedy that befell his family, he’ll one day reach the top. He has faith that it will come together, as that Bible verse on his godmother’s phone reminded him.
“What has happened is part of God’s plan,” Teah said. “We’re living out God’s word. The story has already been written and God has already orchestrated it. We can only be amazed by what God does every time he does it.
“For me to be here, doing what I’m doing, it’s groundbreaking to so many people who knew the younger Sam. They knew how defiant and aggressive I was, and for them to see me now and see how tranquil and poised and professional I am now, it’s an eye-opener for a lot of people. And I’ll be honest with you: Sometimes, I sit back and I’ve lived this life, and even I can’t begin to fathom that I’m here and how I got to this point considering where I began.”
_________________Teah was born in Monrovia, Liberia, but the family moved to Ghana to escape the civil war. He was only 5 or 6 at the time and says he has only vague memories of his life in Liberia.
The family didn’t have much in Ghana, but it was happy and comfortable because it didn’t know what it was missing. The family moved to New York about five or so years after arriving in Ghana, and it was a culture shock.
“It was eye-opening,” he said of his initial impressions of New York. “It literally was a different world. In Africa, we had to walk about a mile to go to the bathroom. In order to get water for the family to wash up, we had to go to the lake with buckets on our head to go fetch the water and bring it back. To take a hot bath, you had to go fetch the water, bring it back and then create a fire to heat it up just to take a hot bath. You hear me say that now and you can’t believe it. But we didn’t know what we were lacking because we didn’t know about anything.”
Teah encountered difficulties almost immediately upon moving to the U.S. The family first settled in New York but quickly moved to Philadelphia, where there was a sizable Liberian population.
Teah was teased unmercifully by his schoolmates because he was different. He sounded different and his clothes weren’t as nice.
“I was a very rough kid growing up … I was always acting up and I was in the juvenile system multiple times,” Teah said. “I got sent away for nine to 12 months and I ended up doing 18 months. I was a defiant kid. Nobody could tell me anything.”
He credits his family’s faith with helping him turn his life around. Back to his days in Africa, he said his parents and grandparents were devout and taught him their religion, and to believe in God.
When he left the juvenile system, he began to understand. He started going to church multiple times a week. He read the Bible. He said God began to play a major role in his life.
And that included meeting a friend where he worked at Home Depot, who boxed a little. The friend invited him to the gym and, after some prodding, he decided to take a chance.
He’d played many sports growing up, but had never tried boxing. He played tennis, basketball and football, had wrestled and ran track. He had no interest in boxing, though for some reason he developed an interest in Roy Jones Jr.
“I just loved Roy Jones, but I didn’t know hardly anything else about boxing,” he said. “I knew Roy Jones and Muhammad Ali, and of course everyone knew about Mike Tyson, but that was it.”
When he went to the gym for the first time, he was so bad he said a trainer laughed at him and told him he wouldn’t put on gloves for a year. First, he was going to teach Teah the basics. He had his first fight after six months, though, and found out that he could be good at this.
After the fire he briefly quit boxing, but returned to the sport as a way to honor his family. He’d often trained with his brother, Eliott, and decided to continue in his memory.
He’s now getting his first big shot and knows it’s his opportunity to take the next step.
“This is a tough sport, but I’ve been through a lot in my life,” he said. “I’ve already proven that I can survive and overcome the obstacles that are in my path. I believe that I’ll be able to do this and honor my family and give glory to God by the way I handle myself and perform.”
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