Some Redskins players probably don’t even know Jester Weah’s name, seeing him as little more than a faceless practice squad wide receiver clinging to a roster spot. Almost none of them will have heard of his father’s older brother, George Weah, FIFA world player of the year in 1995 and nearly two years into his first term as Liberia’s president.
“Really? His uncle’s the president of Liberia?” asked Colt McCoy, the player who throws Jester Weah passes at practice.
“I don’t think these guys know anything about that,” Jester Weah said, gazing around the locker room.
Practice squad players tend to keep to themselves, drawing little attention, knowing their jobs are often week-to-week, lacking the stability of teammates who have contracts. The only Redskins player he has told about his family is rookie wide receiver Kelvin Harmon, who was born in Liberia and moved to the United States when he was 4.
Otherwise Jester, 24, says nothing about his uncle. There never seemed a natural way to start that conversation. And what would he say?
George Weah was one of the first African-born soccer players to become a superstar in Europe, rising from poverty in one of Monrovia’s poorest neighborhoods to France’s top league in less than five years, and he is the only African to be named world player of the year. He starred for Monaco and later Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan, helping the latter two teams win league championships. He retired in 2003 with 194 professional goals and another 13 for Liberia’s national team.
After soccer, he returned to a Liberia torn apart by two decades of civil war and became involved in politics, eventually being elected president in December 2017. He ran on a promise to end postwar corruption that had plagued previous administrations, and he moved his inauguration from the grounds of the country’s Capitol Building to a 40,000-seat soccer stadium that was packed for the ceremony. He vowed to be a president for the people, although he has had trouble igniting a depressed economy and successfully attacking corruption.
How could Jester explain all that? Plus, he hasn’t seen his uncle since he was 9, and he has never been to Liberia.
“I can’t just pick up my phone and call him or anything like that,” Jester said.
Most of what he knows comes from the stories his parents — James and Esther Weah, who separated when he was young — told him growing up in Madison, Wis. And while George’s professional career ended while Jester was just a child, Jester’s bigger connection to Liberia was through the parents who grew up there and whose lives were torn apart when war came to their homes.
It’s a story that Esther said she has never fully told her two sons, Jester and Jason (a linebacker at Friends University, an NAIA school in Kansas), because some of her memories are too horrible to repeat.
“It was so terrifying and bad, I don’t even want to think about what me and my family went through,” she said.
James and Esther Weah met when James was in college near Liberia’s largest city, Monrovia. James played soccer at the school, eventually making Liberia’s junior national team, though he was not at the same level as his older brother, who was playing for the country’s top national team and in Cameroon, far from the violence that was about to erupt.
Late in 1989, an American-raised man named Charles Taylor marched a rebel army into Liberia, brutally killing people until his forces controlled much of the country within a year. The resulting civil war went on until 1997, leaving about a quarter of a million people dead.
“It was so bad,” Esther said. “They were killing everybody.”
In 1992, the rebels stormed her family’s home in Monrovia, she said, and those of many other families she knew, taking everything and killing at random. Her uncle was murdered. They had to leave the city with other refugees and walked to Harbel, a town 35 miles southeast where Firestone’s rubber plantation was located. But when they got to the plantation’s gate, rebel soldiers — many her own age or younger — were pulling girls from the line and shooting them. Some young girls were taken to be wives.
Rebels yanked Esther and several of her relatives out of the line at the request of their leader, who was leaving for a couple of hours. He told them that when he returned he was going to kill two of them. After he drove off, Esther and her sister bribed one of the guards to set them free.
They walked for days, Esther said, eventually reaching the Ivory Coast and the port city of Abidjan, where she was able to contact her father, who was a doctor in New York, and come to the United States as a refugee.
“I’m not better than those who died,” Esther said. “Some people had no way to get out.”
James Weah escaped two years later, to Kakata, a city 45 miles northeast of Monrovia. When there, he said, he came across one of Taylor’s soldiers, a friend from when he played for the junior national team who by then was an immigration official. The friend contacted a Lebanese businessman who regularly drove goods into the country and agreed to take James and two other athletes back to Ivory Coast.
The three athletes were locked in the dark trunk of the businessman’s car as he drove them three hours to the Ivory Coast border, terrified that at any moment rebels were going to stop the car and search it.
“It was risky and scary,” James said.
When he got to Ivory Coast, he found a spot with a soccer team in Cameroon, where he played for more than a season. He eventually chose a scholarship at Essex County College over a soccer career, and in 1994 he moved to the United States, reuniting with Esther. A year later, they had Jester.
“Some of us were blessed by God to slink away [from Liberia],” James said.
They lived in Minnesota for a time before settling in Wisconsin, and even though James and Esther separated, Jester stayed close to both parents. As a child he played soccer just like his father and uncle and cousin Tim, who has made eight appearances for the U.S. men’s national team. But he grew taller than many of the other players and gravitated to basketball and track, starring in both sports.
He started playing football his sophomore year of high school, mostly because he thought it would be fun. But when he grew to be 6-foot-3, college teams started to notice. Wisconsin offered a chance to walk on as a wide receiver, and then Colorado State, Pittsburgh and three other schools offered scholarships. He chose Pitt and caught 77 passes for 1,568 yards and 14 touchdowns over his final two seasons.
After going unpicked in the 2018 NFL draft, he signed with the Houston Texans and spent the year on the practice squad before being cut before the start of this season. After a couple of workouts that went nowhere, the Redskins signed him in October.
In his short time with Washington, Jester seems to have impressed, surviving the weekly cuts that often come for players on NFL practice squads. McCoy said he likes Jester’s size and potential, and just last week interim coach Bill Callahan referred to “a couple of young receivers on the practice squad who could possibly come up if needed.” The Redskins have only two practice squad receivers. He might get a chance to play in a game before the season ends.
Jester says little about his future as he sits on a stool in front of the locker room’s worst locker, more grateful than anything else to be there.
“Every day is crazy,” he said. “It’s surreal.”
Jester follows what he can in the news about Liberia and hopes to someday visit the country and perhaps talk to his uncle. There was a chance they were going to meet last year in Houston when Jester was invited to speak at a program for the Liberian Association. George, on a visit to the United States, was supposed to attend, but a good friend had died, and he went to the funeral instead. After Jester’s speech, one of George’s aides approached him.
“Your uncle is very proud of you,” the man said.
And that is how Jester Weah, fighting to survive in the NFL, found out his uncle, the famous soccer star and Liberian president, knew he was a professional athlete, too.