GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s matchup against North Texas this season will hold special significance for one Gators player.
The game marks a life-changing crossroad for junior college cornerback transfer Joseph Putu, the mystery man in Florida’s 2016 recruiting class. He came dangerously close to joining the Mean Green — a realization that brought him to tears weeks before signing day.
Putu desperately was overdue for a break, and bound for a destination bigger than Denton, Texas. For 20 years, he experienced more than most could bear.
Abandonment and displacement.
Hunger and poverty.
War and death.
Putu’s triumph goes far beyond football.
If not for his mother being a beach lover, Putu may never have been born.
Kebbah Zumoh settled near the coast of Liberia, a West African country, in the 1980s to raise a family.
Liberia means “Land of the Free.” Freed American and Caribbean slaves founded the country, which became Africa’s first republic. But in 1989, the nation’s self-proclaimed independence fell to the wayside as political and economic corruption from Samuel Doe’s military coup led to the First Liberian Civil War.
The conflict claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians. Child soldiers were perpetrators and victims in the killings.
By 1995, Zumoh had two young boys and was pregnant with a third — Putu. With the war at its worst and another son on the way, she decided to flee from her homeland.
“She had to get out of there,” Putu said. “She wanted a better life for her children.”
Zumoh had relatives who were fishermen along the coastline near her home. Their 15-foot wooden canoe would serve as her getaway.
“This is a time when things were really tough,” said Zumoh’s uncle, Cornelius Tay. “Food was very scarce. There was shelling every day.
“They lived by the beach, so his mother rode a canoe — not even a boat, a fishing canoe — and traveled for two weeks through the Atlantic Ocean. That’s how they escaped from the war.”
Tay left Liberia in 1994 after experiencing the first years of the conflict. He remembers entire villages being wiped out — people fled, hid or were murdered during attacks.
More than two decades removed from the bloodshed, the horrific moments live with him.
“I was walking among dead bodies,” Tay said. “Having to run from place to place, or just lay down on the floor — sometimes for hours. The bullets would pierce the house and come in, so we’d have to be hiding underneath tables. It was horrible.”
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations brought a ceasefire agreement and new national elections to Liberia in 1997. However, peace did not last and the Second Liberian Civil War broke out two years later between a pair of rebel groups and the government.
The 14-year civil war ended in 2003 with a total death toll around 250,000 and more than 1.3 million displaced throughout refugee camps in other countries.
“When I saw neighborhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and people going to different cities as refugees, it brought my mind to Liberia,” said Tay, who moved to the United States in 2000. “It was exactly the same thing, but war caused it for us.
“It got to a point where there was so much fighting that nobody could go anywhere. You couldn’t leave your house. I was lucky to get out alive.”
Tay and Zumoh couldn’t escape to neighboring Sierra Leone because it also was engaged in a deadly civil war.
Zumoh gave birth to Putu in Ivory Coast on Christmas Day in 1995. She then joined her uncle and thousands of Liberians in Buduburam, a refugee camp in Ghana.
Putu never lived in Liberia, but still felt the effects of the country’s conflict.
“Joseph experienced it in a way,” Tay said. “The refugee camp wasn’t cozy. It was an extension of the war.”
Buduburam is Ghana’s largest camp and today still houses refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Putu spent six years in Buduburam with his mother, siblings and their father. Putu has few memories from the camp, but knows his family suffered.
“I had to get up every morning before the sunrise to go get water for the house,” Putu said. “It wasn’t really hard for me because I was a kid, but I’m sure it was a tough time for my parents.”
Though out of harm’s way in Buduburam, Putu’s family and others gave up or used all they had to get to Ghana. The economic conditions were no better in the camp, and each wave of refugees depleted the available resources.
“You struggled to get by,” Tay said. “Things were very difficult. You had to go about a mile for drinking water and food. Psychologically, I think Joseph has blurred it out of his mind.
“But due to the industriousness of his mother and father, they were able to keep those kids in line and provide for them. His mother traveled and traded, so she was able to lessen their burden a little bit.”
Something else helped Putu cope with his predicament.
“We did one thing for fun,” he said, “play soccer.”
Soccer is the most popular sport in Ghana, home to one of the best men’s national teams in Africa. The Black Stars ranked No. 7 in the world in 2010 and have the second-most titles in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament.
The first ball Putu handled was with his feet, and the only time he caught it was in front of a net.
“I was a really, really good goalie,” Putu said. “My whole family was raised on soccer. All my friends in the camp played it. I really had no choice, but soon I wanted to become a professional soccer player.”
His cousin did.
Isaac “Nana” Addai also grew up in Buduburam, where his play in the refugee camp caught the attention of Ghana club teams and kick-started his soccer career.
Addai returned to Liberia following the war and played for the country’s U-23 national team. He also played professionally in Ghana.
“I continue to like soccer because of him,” Putu said. “Liberia is my favorite team, but I like Ghana, too.”
Ghana and the United States faced each other in three consecutive World Cups. The Black Stars eliminated the Americans in 2006 and 2010, but fell 2-1 to the U.S. in the last tournament.
“Ghana was big headed that game,” Putu said of the 2014 match, which drew a bold prediction from a Ghana midfielder. “They thought they would just run through America. But I couldn’t cheer for the U.S. soccer team. They’re the best at every other sport. I had to go for Ghana.”
Now 23, Addai plays in America for the Rhode Island Reds of the National Premier Soccer League. Putu’s path to the United States was less promising — and much more painful.
When he was 7, Putu received a U.S. visa along with his siblings and father. His mother did not get one.
Their family was forced to split up. Putu hasn’t seen his mom since the day he left the refugee camp.
“I cried the whole plane ride over,” he said.
Putu and Zumoh spoke by phone through the years, but he eventually lost contact with her when she moved back to Liberia.
“Coming here without his mother was not easy for Joseph,” Tay said. “He saw how tough it was without her. That only added more difficulty to his childhood.”
Putu lived in three states (Maryland, Tennessee and New Jersey) before calling Rhode Island home when he was 13. He moved in with his aunt, Agatha Phillips, who is Addai’s mother. She brought stability to his life, as did Tay and others in Providence, R.I.
It was there he met a youth football coach named John Benton. Before long, Benton became his mentor and helped provide for him. When Benton first bought Putu breakfast, he was taken aback by his order.
“I brought him to McDonald’s and he got a sandwich with no eggs on it,” Benton said. “I was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ He told me, ‘I don’t do eggs anymore.’ I knew something was up with this kid.”
Putu said his family came to America with little money, and food was once again limited. They couldn’t afford a lot of groceries and had to eat eggs almost every day.
“That’s all I ate,” Putu said. “Now whenever I eat them, it hurts my stomach.”
Putu was introduced to America’s version of football in Maryland.
He arrived there from Ghana with soccer aspirations like his cousin, but also desired fitting in.
“Whenever I’d go to recess at the playground or my apartment complex, everybody was playing football,” Putu said. “I wanted to play with other kids, and that’s how I fell in love with it. I was also better than everybody.”
Putu had interest in playing both football and soccer when he moved to Rhode Island, but as destiny would have it, a misinterpreted question led him to one sport.
“He stopped by the boys club looking for somewhere to play soccer, but he asked where the football field was,” Benton said. “That’s when they sent him to me. After we met each other, we never had another soccer conversation.”
Putu played for Benton’s youth football team and followed him to Mount Pleasant High School, where Benton was an assistant coach. Putu flourished under his guidance.
“He won MVP at a combine as an incoming freshman, and did it every year after that,” Benton said. “He was the best receiver and defensive back in the state, and his football IQ was off the charts.
“This kid would call me at 5 o’clock every Friday morning. He couldn’t sleep because he was thinking about the game that night.”
Putu also was a track star in high school and an all-state basketball player. Benton said he hasn’t coached an athlete with Putu’s drive and work ethic.
“No matter how much I taught him, he wanted to do more,” Benton said. “When I see the Gatorade commercial about incredible and inevitable, I think of him.
“A lot of kids have skills and promise, but they don’t want to put the work in. Joseph didn’t just want to be good. He was motivated by something deeper.”
Despite excelling at Mount Pleasant, Putu didn’t land any Division-I offers. He had the option to attend some smaller colleges, but he believed his talent warranted more.
“The state of Rhode Island just isn’t recruited,” Benton said. “We have a stigma that D-I guys don’t exist here. He could have went D-II or D-III, but he wanted to go the junior college route and gambled on his future.”
Putu switched to defensive back at North Dakota State College of Science. He played safety his first year and cornerback in 2015. But his breakout sophomore season almost didn’t happen.
Putu lost his financial aid last summer because of a Visa issue and needed to pay $5,000 for his classes to remain in school and on the football team. His solution?
“I had to get three jobs,” Putu said. “I worked at Pizza Hut, I had a work study job and I worked at basketball games. My schedule was 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and I rode my bike everywhere.”
Benton made sure to keep him fed. He put his debit card on file at four restaurants in North Dakota so Putu could buy a meal if he was low on cash.
“I can’t go to sleep if I know that kid didn’t eat. He’s had enough hungry nights,” Benton said. “I’m just that kind of person. My family has always been in community service, so it’s instilled in me.
“I lost a lot of vacation days at work because of Joseph, but he was worth it. Every day I took off for him meant more to me than a vacation.”
Putu made the most of his 2015 campaign. He intercepted 10 passes with a pick-six and recorded 55 tackles. He also forced five fumbles and recovered eight.
But at the conclusion of last season, colleges still weren’t pursuing him. Putu had offers from Tennessee State and North Texas — the latter wanted him to blueshirt and pay tuition his first year on campus.
“I was told to have good grades, have good film and schools will come,” Putu said. “I did all that, and three weeks before signing day nobody was coming through.
“One day I was in the bathroom just tearing up. I thought I’d have to go to Tennessee State.”
That’s when his world turned upside down. Arkansas, Toledo and UAB offered Putu that next week and immediately he took official visits to all three.
Hours before he left for his last trip to Arkansas, Putu’s coach pulled him out of class because he had a visitor on campus.
It was Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.
“He walked in and went straight to business,” Putu said. “He pulled the roster right out, told me who was leaving and then showed me his defense. He didn’t beat around the bush, and I loved his swag. He was just the real deal.”
Putu committed to the Razorbacks that weekend, but Collins offered him as soon as he returned from his visit. Auburn, Ohio State and Texas A&M also pushed for Putu in the eleventh hour.
Putu never visited the Gators, but Collins won him over and he signed with Florida. Collins was equally sold on Putu.
“He’s 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, athletic, high character, loves football,” Collins told GatorVision. “When you get around the kid and you talk to him and you see the passion and you see how motivated he is to be successful academically, socially, on the football field, I think he’s really a movie in the making once his success comes through.”
Benton didn’t expect Putu to end up in the SEC, but he’s not surprised his path led him there.
“I always thought he was a bigger talent than Rhode Island understood him to be. I’m just glad somebody saw it,” Benton said. “He asked me for my advice on Arkansas and Florida. I told him, ‘Bret Bielema is a great coach, but you’re a defensive back and Florida is DBU.’ He was born to be on that stage.”
Putu takes the stage in September, playing in the best college conference of America’s most popular sport at one of the nation’s top universities.
It’s hard to fathom how Putu got to this point. He survived an African civil war and a deep-sea canoe ride in the womb, a Ghana refugee camp as a child and more than a dozen years of struggling in the United States.
don't feel sorry for yourself. Just grind❗️❗️❗️
— Kwaku 🇬🇭/🇱🇷 (@Joseph_Putu) July 14, 2016
“It’s still unbelievable to me,” Tay said. “To be honest with you, I didn’t expect him to reach this height of his career because of how things were for him growing up.
“But I think that really motivated him to become something. I’m impressed with how he took his life and changed it around.”
Putu’s determination and resilience is as rare as his story, but the embers of his past fuel the fire for his future. He hasn’t forgotten where he came from, nor is he on a mission for himself alone.
“In my culture, when the people who raised you get old, it’s your turn to take care of them,” Putu said. “That’s what I plan to do. I go hard for everyone who helped me out and invested in me. I’m not going to let them down.”
Though new challenges await him, Putu’s potential has finally been realized. His mother’s intuition predicted it back in Buduburam.
“From the day I was born, she constantly told me I would be the kid to go far and make their dreams come true,” Putu said. “She just knew I’d make the whole family proud.
“I’m just happy I can honor her now. This is the life she wanted for me.”
All photos other than Getty Images are courtesy of Joseph Putu.
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.