Don’t get too close — the bar is heavy, after all. It always is, if you look close enough. Forty-five, 35, 45 again. Up, down, up, down, rhythmic as breathing, but never as easy. He’s used to it, though; he has been for seven years now.
Maybe that’s when his story begins, the day Junior Gnonkonde arrived in America — but probably not. Ask. Watch him squirm, then smile, his eyes squinting in laughter. What story, you say?
Just watch the bar, how he maneuvers the strain on his arms, his chest — it weighs on all of him. For the North Carolina redshirt junior defensive end, it’s heavy. But not unbearable. A family, a town, now his whole team; all that weight is a lot to carry.
“I’m not there yet,” Junior says, and a grin escapes. “I just need to keep learning, and then one day, I will be better.”
Look again — he’s still going, lifting. It’s all he knows at this point. Up, down, up, finally. The end of the session. He sits up and inhales. It’s good to see him breathe from time to time.
Maybe we’re not so early, after all.
Don’t drop the bar yet
It’s August 2008, and a plane lands in San Francisco. A boy gets out, stretches. It’s a long flight from Abidjan, a big city back in the Ivory Coast. He still hasn’t made the trip back.
They came to play basketball. Junior’s still 14 and rail thin, but his love of sport is sturdy.
He’ll need to start lifting soon, but Junior already knows about strength. A karate background, growing up the second-youngest of eight kids — the first step of lifting is being mentally set.
His team wins, but there is no celebration — he has a bigger goal in mind. Junior and three teammates want to stay in America.
They head to Georgia. One of the boys knows a coach in Lakeland. Lanier County, population: 3,400, plus four more.
Six months pass, and the boys’ legal guardian leaves. They don’t. Junior and the others need a place to stay, someone to take care of them.
God bless John White, athletic director at Lanier County High School.
“Basically there was nowhere for them to go, so I took two,” White says. “Legally adopted Junior.”
White enrolls Junior at Lanier County, language barrier and all. Junior speaks no English. Spanish it is, because the teacher speaks French, and so does her newest student.
Don’t drop the bar yet — it gets heavier.
With his teacher’s help and Rosetta Stone, Junior’s English is passable by Christmas. Back to the start, the reason he came: basketball. He joins the team, plays, but then, something new.
“I saw some big guys working in the gym, so I asked my coach, ‘They’re pretty big ... how can I be like that?’” Junior says. “And he said, ‘No, you don’t need to be — they play football.’ I said, ‘Really? Let me try.’ So I tried.”
And the first practice?
“I got hit pretty hard — I quit the next day.”
It isn’t that easy, Junior. You’ve got to keep pushing, or the weight, it’ll crush you.
“The coach called me and said, ‘Don’t worry, I will teach you. I’ll make you bigger, faster, so you’ll be able to compete with them,’” Junior says. “This is how things started.”
Taking shape after all
Lakeland isn’t exactly a football hot spot. Put some more weight on the bar.
“Once he got to 10th, 11th grade, being so much physically stronger than everybody ... all our other coaches were spending their time teaching these other bad players how to field the position,” White says. “And they basically told him, ‘Go get the football.’”
But Junior was special — the small-town chosen one. He committed to Georgia Tech as a junior, Lakeland’s first Division I football player.
“He’s an icon,” White says.
Then came 119 tackles and nine sacks as a senior. Time to put down the weight, right?
Or not. Low test scores, they said, when they took his scholarship.
Exhale. Bring the bar down. Feel it press, weight building. Then lift, again, lift it all off.
Suitors came, but in Chapel Hill, Junior found a second chance. He came to play bandit, but through two seasons, has nothing to show.
“Physically he’s got all the tools,” White says. “He just sent me a text saying he benched 465. There ain’t a lot of people, even in the NFL, that can bench 465.”
He’s grown. The rail-thin boy is now the team’s strongest.
“Junior’s really done well,” defensive coordinator Gene Chizik says. “He’s really taken some steps forward from where he was in the spring.”
Keep lifting, Junior. His teammates’ cries of ‘Jun-Jun,’ fill the weight room. More reps.
The story? It’s taking shape, after all.
A boy becomes a man, for his long-lost family.
“I am by myself here,” Junior says. “Being here without family ... it’s a little bit hard, but I’m a man, so it’s up to me to keep going.”
For all of Lakeland and the man who took him in.
“I’ve pretty much been his daddy for the last seven years,” White says. “It’s the relationship God gave us. He’s my son.”
For his teammates, awaiting a great breakthrough.
“I refuse to let them down, and they refuse to let me down,” Junior says.
For himself, what could be.
“Why do I play?” Junior pauses. “One, I play because God gave me the ability to be an athlete, and I don’t want to waste that talent, that gift. But I play because football will give me a better life ... That’s why I play, to get a better education.”
That’s why he’s here, isn’t it?
“I couldn’t understand why a momma would leave her 14-year-old son, let him go halfway across the world,” White says. “He said they didn’t have the same opportunities that he could forge over here.”
Stop. Set down the bar. Stand up, and walk away from the bench.
That’s enough weight for now.