FLATWOODS - In the span of a couple days, Yannick Yewawa's life changed forever.
The first adjustment came when he arrived in the United States nine years ago from his home in the Republic of the Congo. His father uprooted the family because of continued violence in the central African nation and he sought to ensure their safety.
The second change came a couple days later, shortly after Yewawa's family departed Washington, D.C., and arrived at their new home in Braxton County. Young Yannick, still uneasy with the move, was unpacking his belongings and happened to turn on the television and came across a football game.
"I looked at that,'' he recalled Wednesday in mock amazement, "and said, 'What is this? It's kind of weird.' ''
Turns out that Yewawa would soon grow quite comfortable with his new life and his new pastime.
Yewawa, now a 17-year-old senior at Braxton County High School, has become a potential college recruit as a wide receiver-defensive back in that "kind of weird'' sport.
He's helped the Eagles to a 4-3 record and the No. 14 spot in the Class AA playoff ratings. Braxton knocked off No. 2 Ravenswood 51-13 last week to climb four spots in the rankings.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Yewawa has 12 receptions for 199 yards and one touchdown and has also returned two kickoffs and one punt for scores. On defense, he's made 25 tackles, broken up eight passes and intercepted another.
Besides busying himself with helping his team land a postseason berth, Yewawa would like to secure an opportunity to play football in college. It's certainly a very different life than the one he was leading back in 2002.
Back then, he was 8 years old and his family was in almost constant danger. His father, "a very influential person,'' according to Yannick, had many political enemies.
"The government wasn't very well liked by too many people,'' Yannick said, "and everybody came to my dad for advice. He had a Ph.D. He was a smart guy.
"It got to be very dangerous for me and my family. Civil rights, all kinds of stuff going on in the country - feuds and fights and wars. It's still going on right now. It got to the point where it was very hard for me and my family to basically live in peace. There were a few incidents at my house. A guy came with a gun and tried to rob us. My parents tried to hide it all from us, but it was a very tough environment. So my dad decided to move to give us a better opportunity as a family.''
His father came to the United States in 2001 to arrange the move, then returned for his family and brought them over the following year. As fate would have it, there was an opening to teach foreign languages in Braxton County, and that's where the Yewawa family landed.
Yannick didn't warm up to his new surroundings right away, and he had yet to tackle that strange sport he'd seen on TV.
"At first, I was an angry kid,'' he said. "The last thing I wanted to do was leave my country and my friends. I was so frustrated at first. When I was little, I was getting in fights all the time because I was frustrated.
"I didn't speak any English. I tried to communicate with other kids. But I'd hear them speak and I'd get mad, thinking they were talking about me. It was rough at first because I was so angry. But I thank God every day for these people. They stuck with me.''
As time went on, the young Yewawa picked up on the English language, and rather quickly. A friend of his father's helped his transition by registering him for a local midget football team.
"I had no idea what to do,'' Yannick said. "I just went and did what they told me to do. It's kind of crazy. I'd always played soccer, and I've always been athletic. But soccer was the only thing I played.''
Turns out he had a knack for the new sport, especially the running and catching. He came up through the ranks and grew into a solid player.
"We used him in the backfield as a freshman,'' said Braxton County coach Matt Rollyson. "We utilized him with the evolution of the tunnel screen and bubble screen and spot pass, which is essentially a run or quick toss for us. We utilized him on the perimeter, tried to get him on the edge and into the open field and have him make plays.
"Yannick's very, very good in space. He's not a 4.3, 4.4 kid in the 40[-yard dash], but he's a legit 4.6. That's not fantastic in college, but in high school, it's fast. He's very elusive one-on-one and has very good footwork.''
Yewawa doesn't possess eye-popping stats playing on a balanced team, but still feels like he can contribute to a college program.
"That's definitely one of my goals,'' he said. "It's been my dream since I started getting good at this game. I'd really love the opportunity to take it to the next level. Of course, sports isn't always guaranteed, and my parents always taught me to have a Plan B. I'd like to run my own business when I get older. But I'd love to go to college and play football. WVU is one of my favorite schools. I'd love to go to a place like that. I'm very confident in my ability and I think I'd make a great asset.''
Yewawa doesn't shy away from the fact he's a minority - a black athlete in a rural West Virginia community. But he said he's able to deal with it.
"Obviously racism is still in the world, everywhere you go,'' he said. "It doesn't matter if it's racism against white people in Africa or racism here against black people. I really didn't know racism until I got here. I was real angry anyway, and it was hard for me to handle that, but there are a lot of friendly people here, good people who helped me through it. Some friends I met in the third grade are my best friends now.
"Racism is one of the hardest things. I work at it every day. It's not everywhere, but sometimes it shows its ugly head. Basically, there are only a few black people here, so anything I do is going to be magnified. I've really got to watch myself, keep my cool. I'm a very ambitious guy, but I'm no troublemaker. I'm a friendly guy. As I got older, it got a lot easier because people stuck with me.''
Rollyson said Yewawa has proven to be a model student-athlete, with solid grades and a solid standing in the community.
"In a rural community, [discrimination] happens regardless of your race or cultural or ethnic background,'' Rollyson said. "Even if you get another kid who just moves in from another county. There are some different issues, and that's just kids. But as far as his relationship with his peers and among the teachers and the community, it's very good. He and the kids get along excellent, and he has a very positive relationship with the coaches. We're definitely glad to have him. He's a great kid and we enjoy the opportunity to work with him and give him the opportunity to grow and mature.''
Yewawa has no idea what would have happened to him if he and his family had stayed in Africa. But more than likely, it wouldn't be good.
"It's rough living over there,'' he said. "It's really brutal. The opportunities are slim to none. I really don't know where I'd be if I wasn't here. There's a lot of stuff over there to distract you - a lot of violence, a lot of bad stuff. I thank God every day. I don't know where I'd be if I wasn't here.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.