They were sitting in the back of an ambulance, its red lights flashing as the vehicle headed east on Route 28 toward Shady Grove Hospital. Bani Gbadyu, a standout football player at Quince Orchard High School, had collapsed during a relatively easy drill at a preseason practice last month. Dave Mencarini, the Cougars' coach, thought his player might die.
It had been some time since Gbadyu, who already had accepted a football scholarship to Louisiana State University, had seemed so vulnerable. He had come so far from the skinny, malnourished kid who escaped civil war in his native Liberia and was told he was no good the first time he tried out for a football team. Now a sculpted 6 feet 1 and 210 pounds, Gbadyu had developed into a terror at running back and linebacker on the football field, spending much of his time working out to get in better shape.
At the hospital, Gbadyu received an unusual diagnosis: The problem was not, as his coach feared, a heart ailment that might curtail his football career. Gbadyu simply had overworked himself.
The extra weightlifting sessions at a private gym? The additional running with his father over the summer? Gbadyu's muscles had not recovered. He had worked out too hard.
He received intravenous fluids for three days, then was released with one condition: He had to stay away from football for one week.
"That was the toughest thing to do," Gbadyu said. "Knowing how much the team needs me and how much I need them, I just couldn't sit out waiting for football. Every day I told my coach I wanted to play so bad."
But as much as Gbadyu wanted to return to the field, the risk of doing so was too great. For a young man who works three nights a week at a pizza shop to help provide money for his family; who has seen his older brother, Emmanuel, get in trouble with the law; whose goal is to repay his father, Digoa, for sacrificing so much to provide a comfortable life in America, a college scholarship is no small consideration.
"I know a lot of recruits take stuff for granted," Gbadyu said. "They're big-headed. They don't realize how special it is to get a scholarship and have somebody pay for your school. They just think they're on top of the world. I'm so thankful I have this opportunity after all that I've gone through. At any time I could have died or something could have happened. I was so small and sick. My family was really poor. To be where I am today from a couple years ago, it's a tremendous thing."
Gbadyu was a youngster when his father, Digoa, received a visa allowing him and his two sons to flee the deadly revolution in Liberia, West Africa. More than 150,000 people died during the conflict and 750,000 fled the country. Food and clothing were scarce; gunshots were not.
Digoa Gbadyu was a student and standout soccer player in Liberia when he decided to remove his sons from that country's violence for opportunities in America. Bani Gbadyu said his strongest memories of his native country are of fear.
"It was a tough place," Bani Gbadyu said. "Never knowing what was going to happen or where you would get your food from. There were so many people fighting. There was always conflict and violence -- my whole life there I was surrounded by bad influence. My dad didn't want me growing up in that environment. He heard about the opportunities in America." The Gbadyu family took a boat across the Atlantic, arriving in New York City, where 10-year-old Bani was awed by the Statue of Liberty. "We didn't know what it represented until a couple years later," he said. "But I thought it was the nicest thing."
They settled in Gaithersburg, joining many of Bani's relatives, including his grandfather, Joseph Gbadyu, who worked as a preacher before moving to Indianapolis. Shortly thereafter, though, Digoa Gbadyu was seriously injured in a car accident and Bani was separated from his older brother, sent to live with his grandfather while his brother moved in with an aunt in Minnesota. (Bani said he has never known his mother.)
Eventually, Digoa recovered and the brothers moved back, and Bani wanted to try to play football. So at the start of sixth grade at Gaithersburg Middle School, a lanky Gbadyu -- roughly 5 feet 6 and 120 pounds -- eagerly tried out for the team, only to be told that he was too small and that there was no place for him to play. "This kid has been through a lot, seen a lot," Mencarini said.
When Gbadyu tried out for the Quince Orchard team in ninth grade, he recalls, coach Fred Kim, who is now at Seneca Valley, pulled him aside one day and told the player that he had some ability. And then some, as it turned out.
"He's strong and fast and a pretty tough kid," said Gaithersburg Coach Kreg Kephart. "When we played them last year, he was running [players] down all over the field. He's too big to run at and too fast to run away from. So I'm not sure what you're supposed to do."
By the end of last season, Mencarini was certain he had a potential standout. By the spring, there was no doubt, as college coaches poured into the Gaithersburg school. More than 40 offered football scholarships, but Gbadyu was impressed that LSU's coaches guaranteed him nothing but an opportunity to be successful if he worked hard.
Gbadyu understood the chance he had and did not want to waste it. He went to summer school to retake classes from his freshman year to improve his grades and make sure he would not have any problems with academic eligibility.
At the same time, Mencarini and his staff also hit the books, trying to find new ways to utilize Gbadyu. After playing at defensive end last season, Gbadyu is moving to middle linebacker so opponents will find it more difficult to run plays away from him. And following the graduation of quarterback Brian Barrett, running back Cameron George and wide receiver Scot Riddell, Gbadyu will be the linchpin in the Cougars' offense.
Gbadyu has set his sights on winning a state title, and Mencarini plans to use his star in the same way Suitland relied on its standout running back and linebacker, Navorro Bowman, to win last season's Maryland 4A championship.
"He does stuff in practice that sometimes we try not to make a big deal about, but as coaches we're amazed," Mencarini said, grasping the top of his head with both hands. "He'll make a cut or on defense he'll do something so explosive or so quick that we'll just look at each other."
Simply winning, however, does not satisfy Gbadyu. He's determined to give something back to all of those who have helped him along the way. Gbadyu wants to help land scholarships for his teammates by attracting scouts to the Cougars' games -- he said he knows of three coaches coming to the season-opener against Magruder tomorrow.
"I'm just trying to get so many colleges to come out because we've got some ballplayers down here," Gbadyu said. "I want them to get my teammates some opportunities too."
Gbadyu is organizing a clothing drive with Mencarini to benefit those in Louisiana who have lost so much because of Hurricane Katrina.
But most of all, Gbadyu hopes to make it to the NFL so he can give something back to his father, who he said gave up his own dreams so his children could live out their own.
"When things get hard on the football field, when I think about how tired I am . . . I just think about all the things my dad has done for us. All the love he has given me, I can't ever say thank you enough. We come from a poor background, so to be the first in the family to make it in a sport like football and put our name out there would be a dream come true."
Special correspondent Josh Leventhal contributed to this report