CLARKSVILLE, Ohio — Prince Micheal had only one place to go and one man to trust.
The dream of leaving Africa and pursuing an athletics career was in sight thanks to a scout from America looking for the next big thing on the basketball court. The problem? Prince couldn’t bounce a basketball. He also didn’t have the money to secure a passport, Visa and file the other paperwork required to leave Nigeria for the United States of America.
Lucky for Auburn, the man who would become Prince Sammons would push forward, follow his dream, traverse a rocky landscape of personal tragedy, find a new family in America and excel at a sport he had no interest playing.
“I didn’t give up at that moment,” Sammons said. “Some people would give up and say, this is not mine and I’m going to go play soccer.”
The 15-year-old Prince Micheal cherished the idea of playing basketball, even if it wasn’t the perfect fit. He struggled on the court, but the American scout said he could offer him a spot on a high school basketball team in Maryland if he could simply dunk the basketball.
Micheal dunked the basketball and weeks later the offer was made. The problem? Micheal’s family did not have the money to file the paperwork necessary for him to move to the United States.
“I started skipping school going somewhere working at night, come home very late, my mom asking me where you been?” Sammons said. “I was hanging out with a friend. She didn’t know.”
Long story short, Sammons managed to secure the money needed with the help of his mother and selling fruit. He battled with the embassy, filed paperwork after paperwork, and was challenged by government officials on whether his parents truly wanted him to leave the country.
Sammons simply labels the moment he secured his Visa as a “miracle” after days of battling red tape. One of his brothers called him. He was excited to share the news and travel back to tell his family he could chase his dream in America.
There was bad news on the other line: his mother needed him immediately. She was sick because of a foodborne illness.
He hit the road that night, arrived in the early morning hours and slept outside on the doorstep until someone opened the door at 5 a.m.
“I sit down with my mom,” Sammons said, tears welling up in his eyes “She’s just sleeping, not knowing she was already dead. I was sitting down there, trying to get her to wake up. I kinda fall asleep on her, wake up, she’s still sleeping.
“My brother pulled me up and said, ‘Can I talk to you? He told me that she’s gone. It was hard for me to bear, you know? She was the reason I went through all this stress getting the Visa, but she’s not going to be there to enjoy everything.”
There was more bad news: the scholarship offer was no longer valid. The school in Maryland had moved on, but he could move to Wisconsin with the scout and live with him before settling in at a school in America, where he could play basketball and chase his dream.
“I told my brother, there’s no reason for me to go to America,” Sammons said. “I was about to rip my Visa into two and throw it away.”
His brother stopped him from making the mistake of throwing away his dream. “We are looking upon you to be a success,” he said. “We know you were always a mama’s boy and she’s always going to be looking after you no matter where you go.”
The Long Journey
The way Sammons tells it, he stumbled into miracle after miracle on his flight to the states.
Others would view it as a simple string of human beings with caring hearts helping a lost, money-less teenager traveling with nothing but a pair of clothes and a bag on his back.
One person offered him a meal, another provided him access from Rome, Italy into America as he struggled to file paperwork. “Everyone started to get aggravated because they were a bunch of old people,” Sammons said of the line in Rome. “I was so scared thinking I was going to be sent back to Africa.”
Another woman, who sold jewelry and traveled to Rome often, sat next to Sammons on a flight and noticed his raggedy bag. When they landed, she served as his unofficial guide in the airport before disappearing for a moment. She returned with a new rollaway bag, two pairs of jeans and two T-shirts. It was a gift for a young man starting a new life. She handed him her business card to call her in case he ever got lost in an airport.
Once Sammons reached the states in September 2011 as Prince Micheal, he dreamed of starting his basketball career, going to school and making friends. Instead, the scout in Wisconsin made him sleep on a couch for several months. He never played basketball, but was taught the fundamentals of the game in the gym at night by the coach. Prince worked the cashier table on the AAU circle at games, watching others play the game he believed would be his ticket to a better life.
Then, in December, he received a heart-breaking phone call from his home in Nigeria.
“I lost my dad,” Sammons said. “I just felt like, you know what? I don’t think God wants me in this country. My brother tells me not to come back. They were going to handle everything down there and they know my dream is to play sport.”
Meanwhile, the scout was attempting to find a school for Prince to attend. He found one in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Brandon Sammons was a freshman basketball coach at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy at the time. Word was spreading in southwest Ohio of a 6-foot-8 kid out of Nigeria possibly transferring into the school system. Then came the heart-wrenching story: the kid was alone with no family and had lost both parents in a span of only a few months.
But where would Prince live? That’s when the Sammons family stepped in or, more specifically, Brandon Sammons’ wife said what everybody was thinking: “Why don’t we do it?”
Within the span of six days, Brandon Sammons made contact with the AAU coach and expressed interest in hosting Prince. They re-structured their two-bedroom farmhouse to make it into a four-bedroom home with three toddlers and a human giant on his way via megabus.
“There are people much more capable financially and a housing situation where it would have been a more comfortable situation for him but there was no one else (who) seemed interested to get involved,” Brandon Sammons said.
At 1:55 p.m. on Jan. 8, 2012 at the corner of Fifth and Plum Street, a 6-foot-8 kid wearing a Marquette winter hat stepped off a bus in Cincinnati. “He wasn’t as big as I thought he was going to be,” said Betsy Sammons, Brandon’s wife. They walked a block to a local Wendy’s, bought him three chicken sandwiches and hit the road for his new home.
“They show me my bedroom,” Prince Sammons said. “That’s the first time in my life I ever slept on a bed. When the bed was so big, the room was so big, then I went to look at the kid’s room and it wasn’t same size as mine. I was kinda like, oh, what’s going on here? I lay down. I kinda felt guilty taking it from them and laying down there all day while they go upstairs in a room that is so tight.”
For the first time since he arrived in America four months earlier, Prince felt at home. He was free to raid the fridge for food, sleep in a bed and his new hosts weren’t like the AAU coach, who spoke French with his wife whenever he was in the room.
“In Wisconsin, I didn’t see a connection with me and him,” Prince Sammons said. “It was like basketball, basketball. Nothing like, how are you doing today? What’s going on? Tell me your life story. The only time I got to talk about me was when the wife was asking me if I eat a lot.”
The Water Boy
By the time Prince Sammons gained entry into Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, he was already behind. He should have been in the ninth grade in January, but an exam revealed it would be wise to allow him to spend a semester in the eighth grade adjusting to America’s education system.
He also sought tutoring. “She told us many times early on he’s not dumb, he’s a very intelligent kid,” Brandon Sammons said. “He needs to be exposed to a lot of these things academically. Through no fault of his own, he’s just never been around it.”
He enrolled in the ninth grade that next fall, earned a 2.97 GPA and his grades continued to rise. He recently recorded a 4.17 GPA in the first and second quarters of the semester and is up to a 4.3 GPA as he nears graduation.
In 2012, Prince finally got a shot at playing basketball and served as the water boy for the football team.
“The biggest water boy in the history of high school football,” Brandon Sammons said.
College coaches visited the football program often looking for prospects, but their attention that fall almost always turned to a giant human being on the bench serving sports drinks to the players. They told the school they would offer the water boy a scholarship if he simply started playing football. His size and frame were just too amazing to ignore.
“There was no way I was not going to talk to him about playing football,” Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy coach Eric Taylor said. “But he was persistent he was a soccer player.”
By the time January 2013 arrived, Prince Sammons had a natural residency permit and the Sammons family immediately sought adoption. Meanwhile, the former soccer player from Nigeria was being recruited to play a game he didn’t understand: football. His new father showed him film and tried to teach him some of the finer points of the sport.
“That game is stupid,” Prince Sammons said. “That’s dumb.”
Taylor told Prince Sammons to consider football as an “insurance policy for college.” If basketball does not work out, Taylor could almost guarantee Sammons would receive a scholarship for football based solely on his measurables and potential.
Finally, that summer, he “reluctantly” decided to play football as an offensive tackle and defensive end. Sure enough, Taylor’s promise came through, and four games into the 2013 season the University of Cincinnati offered the sophomore a scholarship. He had three more offers by the end of the season.
“The prospects of it became pretty clear pretty quickly,” Brandon Sammons said. “Once he realized he got to hit people and be physically violent and not get into trouble or have a whistle blown for posting up on some little 6-foot scrawny kid’s nose being in his armpit (on the basketball court), that intrigued him a little bit.”
Soon, the big schools started calling. Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State were on the phone.
The immigrant was suddenly a four-star prospect, according to recruiting services. Life was quickly changing for the teenager and it was overwhelming.
“I was thinking about Ohio State and keeping it secret from everyone and waiting until the last day and saying I’m going to go to Ohio State,” Prince Sammons said. “I was so stressed about my decision.”
Interestingly, Michigan State was a non-starter for Prince Sammons because of the dorm rooms, he said. They were too small, and he did not want to share a bathroom with four people because he is extremely tidy. “I like keeping my stuff clean. I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’” Prince Sammons said.
Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand made his pitch to the Sammons family, but Prince had no interest leaving for the Big Ten school. As fate would have it, Hand later landed a gig at Auburn under coach Gus Malzahn. A visit earlier to the campuses of Alabama, Auburn and Georgia had already placed the Tigers on the Sammons’ minds during the recruiting process.
It wasn’t until January that Auburn became a big player in Prince Sammons’ recruitment, thanks to the relationship he developed previously with Hand. Malzahn and Hand visited the family for two hours in Ohio, and they were finally sold on signing with the Tigers after an official visit.
“He’ll bring a great perspective to our room in facing adversity because he’s been through a lot in his life,” Hand said.
“With the experiences he had, he’s had to grow up a little quicker than most,” Malzahn said.
An Undying Love
Prince Sammons knows his mother is watching over him. He is a self-described mama’s boy and lives every day in America in her honor.
From sleeping on a doorstep to playing for a school in the Southeastern Conference, it’s hard to find a 19-year-old with a life story quite like Prince Sammons.
The good news for the family is that his story is nowhere near finished. They hope an NFL career is in the future, but that will come with time. Until then, it’s all about adjusting to college life and continuing to learn the left tackle position.
It’s difficult to believe that just five short years ago his life was a complete mess. Today, anything seems possible.
“Now he’s only worrying about school, he’s worrying about girls and when he came here he was worried about what he was going to eat,” Betsy Sammons said. “One of his best friends from Nigeria was at our house. They were eating dinner and he looked at Youssef and said, ‘My mom lets me eat until I get full.’ It still kinda breaks my heart. He doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. I don’t want to say [college football] is going to be a piece of cake, but for what he has been through, we knew from Day 1 that God destined him for great things and we just get to play a small part in his story. We’re excited to see what he does.”
The house will soon lose a gentle giant, but the Sammons’ home will be full of love again soon. Their biological children — Sophia, Micah and Adyline — are still attending or getting ready for grade school. Prince Sammons’ room will also be waiting for him when he returns from school for the holidays.
Hopefully the next time Prince Sammons returns to Ohio, the family will be bigger. Two familiar faces are expected to occupy the house soon: Prince Sammons’ little brothers, Emmanuel and Izuchukwu.
The Sammons family is in the process of adopting the two youngsters in the Lagos region of Nigeria. Betsy and Brandon Sammons have secured funds and will travel to Nigeria soon to visit the brothers. They have already filed the necessary paperwork and now all they need is the judge’s signature. “We could get a call tomorrow or it could be six months from now,” Betsy Sammons said.
“It fills my heart with joy because those two little ones mean a lot to me,” Prince Sammons said. “I don’t want them to get corrupted by the nature of my country. I want them to have the same education I have. The one I really love, not that I (don’t) love all my brothers, but the one I really show compassion to is Emmanuel because he’s like me. When my mom was alive, he was a mama’s boy. … I want him to be here so I can take care of him.
“On the other hand, it’s like I don’t expect all the miracles and stuff.”
Betsy and Brandon Sammons will never replace Prince Micheal’s parents, but they might as well be blood parents at this point of his life. He’s quick to drop to a knee to play with the children and is like any other American teenager with the future on the horizon, but he’s also an enormous human being with a story like no one else at Auburn.
“I love them to death,” Prince Sammons said, sitting on a couch next to his second mother and father. “Those kids downstairs, I’d take a bullet anywhere in my body for them. I would do the same for [mom and dad] because they would take the same bullet for me, too. When I didn’t even know they were going to file this adoption stuff, they stood up and said we’ll get it done. You’re my son to me. They don’t care about my skin color. This is just some sun tan. They love me no matter what. They opened their house for a stranger, a kid. It shows, no matter what, they will always be in my heart.”
Betsy and Brandon Sammons will send their son on the next journey of his life May 29, the date he moves into his dorm at Auburn. He hopes to be assigned a room with Prince Tega Wanogho, a fellow Nigerian, this fall. The two bonded and shared their similar stories of chasing basketball dreams as teenagers during Prince Sammons’ recruiting visit to Auburn.
“Quite frankly, I don’t believe this has happened because a new chapter keeps opening every morning,” Prince Sammons said, reflecting on the last few years of his life. “I never see myself being part of this family like that. You don’t know what God is going to do in the next 24 hours because he does a miracle before you even open your eyes or blink.”