Growing up in Accra, Ghana, any time Ernest Bawa started to cry, his mother noticed that there was one thing that would always cheer him up: watching his brother juggling a ball.
"That was when they knew that I probably would grow up and love to play soccer,” Bawa said.
He went on to pursue the sport throughout his life, and it opened up new opportunities for him. Bawa became the first in his family to attend high school and play soccer at a Division I university.
Even through a halted season due to injury and the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNC sophomore and men’s soccer star has always found his way back to the game.
"I guess soccer was just a way to use my time," he said. "And then I ended up loving it."
Dedication to the game
Bawa grew up inAshaiman, located in Ghana’s capital, Accra. There, he said he saw many of his peers get into trouble for drug charges, dealing weapons or armed robbery. Some even have died.
When he was growing up, he said Ashaiman had a certain reputation and people had pre-conceived notions about the area.
“If you're from Accra, and anybody asks you, ‘Where are you from?’ And you say, ‘Ashaiman,’ they know you're a rascal, they know this guy is, like, full of trouble,” Bawa said.
Seeing the turmoil around him, he said he remained focused on his craft, honing in on his development as a soccer player and doing his best to stay out of trouble.
“I'd say it was an escape from what was going on in the neighborhood,” Bawa said.
Though he made efforts to balance his social life, he put an increasing amount of time into his future soccer career. This created some tension with his friends, but his interest in soccer continued to grow.
“And I heard names,” Bawa said. “Like, ‘Oh, you think you're better than us. You’re a sellout, you're fake. You're not a real friend.’”
But Bawa’s dedication to the game paid off, as he eventually received a scholarship to play for the Right to Dream in Ghana.
The academy is dedicated to helping students with “academics through education, football and most importantly in developing their character to the fullest,” according to its website. Bawa played soccer there during junior high school.
The academy is also where he met his best friend, Kelvin Baffour, who is younger than Bawa by two grades and is committed to play soccer at Notre Dame in 2022.
Baffour and Bawa developed a strong bond, with Baffour looking up to the older Bawa. Despite Bawa finding trouble balancing his social life with soccer, Baffour said that once he is in his element, his energy is infectious.
“He's that kind of guy where we go to high school dances, and he'll be in the middle of the mosh pit,” Baffour said. “He's that kind of guy."
'Only one in my family to accomplish this’
Upon completing junior high school, Bawa attended the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut for high school.
No one in Bawa's family had attended high school before him, which he said was not an uncommon occurrence in his village. Bawa’s mother grew up on a farm, his two older siblings dropped out of junior high school and his father passed away before he was old enough to remember.
As special as his academic achievement was, Bawa said he did not initially realize this feat at the time.
While in quarantine at the start of the pandemic during his senior year of high school, Bawa was also recovering from bilateral hip surgery that he had undergone.
That time, he said, allowed him to process the significance of his graduation from high school.
“I start thinking, like, ‘Wow, I am the only one in my family to accomplish this,’” Bawa said. “It might not seem like a lot to people, but that time helped me reflect."
Bawa’s abilities on the field stood out upon his arrival at Taft, but his leadership skills proved to be equally impressive to his head coach, Ozzie Parente. Parente, Taft’s soccer coach of nine seasons, acknowledged that Bawa's talent was on par with players that were older than him, but athletes of all ages admired his leadership and passion for the game.
“He had really high expectations of himself — it didn't matter if he was the youngest or the smallest or new to the team or anything," Parente said.
Bawa’s Right to Dream teammate Baffour, later joined him at Taft. The two reunited and continued their connection both on and off the field.
“So coming here and then getting to be on the same team with him, that was fun on its own, because we enjoyed each other's company a lot," Baffour said.
When it came time for Bawa to choose a college, his coach offered him advice for making the right decision. But Parente said the young footballer did his due diligence, and knew exactly what he wanted.
‘Work doesn't lie’
Bawa found North Carolina to be a viable option upon doing some research on different college soccer programs. At first attracted to the team's colors, he found that the team had a winning pedigree as well.
Toward the end of his time at Taft, Bawa established contact with UNC men's soccer head coach Carlos Somoano and then-assistant coach Cristian Neagu.
After months of conversations, Neagu offered him a spot on the team, telling him that he could take two weeks to decide.
“I don't need two weeks, man,” Bawa told him.
Bawa arrived at the school of his dreams in 2020, but not without continued challenges.
He was still recovering from his surgery and adjusting to playing competitive soccer again. Even before the procedure, he had stopped playing for about a year, making his first year as a Tar Heel also his return to real competition in about two years. Bawa said he sometimes missed routine touch passes in practice. His coach did not take it easy on him and he began to lose some confidence.
“The one thing that had gotten me into a scholarship to Right to Dream Academy, gotten me in a scholarship to Taft School, has gotten me this full ride to UNC, was not going right,” Bawa said. “You could bet that I was struggling.”
After the school year ended, he resorted to what got him through tough times in the past: soccer.
Bawa took the offseason to recuperate mentally and physically for 2021. Over the summer, he played in the United Soccer League for the Manhattan Soccer Club.
Bawa scored five goals in seven games, gaining momentum with his play for the season, and at the same time, training to get a leg up on his competitors for the coming year.
He knew he had to deliver a bounce-back season.
He knew he had to make a great second impression.
But those expectations Bawa placed on himself got him so “hyped" for the season, he said, that he had to remind himself to trust the work he put in.
“Calm down, you've done all the work you needed to do," he told himself. "Work doesn't lie."
It took him a few games and practices, but just as it did during his time in Ghana, Bawa’s preparation paid off.
In six appearances with the Tar Heels, he has racked up three goals and one assist. He sits second on the team for points, with a total of seven thus far, and is tied for first with seven shots on goal.
“The fact that I put in that much work in the summer gave me a really good start," he said. "And I like to say I'm lucky that I've been able to help the team that many times with a few goals that I've scored.”
'You don't have to follow the same cycle'
Bawa certainly has not forgotten about the ones who helped him get to this point: his family, Coach Parente and Baffour.
Sundays, he said, are for talking to his mom. He calls his brother and sister when he can.
He also remains in contact with Parente; the two often send Instagram stories back and forth and talk about the game of soccer. Seeing Bawa’s game now as a college athlete, Parente said he has also noticed his evolution as a person during that time.
"He's very much a kind of a part of my family and the Taft family," Parente said. "We follow his career very closely."
Baffour described Bawa as an inspiration, citing his ability to play collegiate soccer. With Baffour going to the next level soon, he taps into his longtime teammate for advice.
“After every game, he calls me,” Baffour said. “If I get to watch a game, we sit down and we analyze it on our own how we think things went. After all my games too, I call him to have conversations like that.”
While in Chapel Hill, his heart remains in his hometown. With his success in soccer thus far, he said he wants others from Ashaiman to also find success with their passions.
“It’s a lot to take in,” he said. “At the same time, I feel a huge responsibility to show people in my village that it's possible to make this happen. You don't have to follow the same cycle over and over again.”