Takudzwe Chikomba didn’t even notice the passing of his first Thanksgiving in the United States. After his family moved from Zimbabwe to New England in his sixth-grade year, the traditions, pageantry and the football feast on the holiday were all foreign.
On Thursday, the imposing figure whose North Attleborough teammates affectionately call “Shawn” (his proper name is pronounced tuh-KUDS-wah) will play his final high school football game. Just as hundreds of other seniors around the state, players like Chikomba and Red Rocketeers senior quarterback Ryan Perron will shake off the morning butterflies and take the field with their teammates for the final time. Each one of those players has a story to tell, a unique journey of how they came together as a team – individuals banded together by a game. It’s part of the American story, how we’re all so different, and yet so much the same.
From an arm’s length, Chikomba and Perron appear normal, well-adjusted young men. They’re the big dogs on campus, stars of the gridiron, leaders of their team.
Yet, it wasn’t too long ago that both were more content to settle into the background.
These are their stories -- stories of how their background have made them who they are, stories of how football has offered each of them a home:
THE BLIND SIDE
Many of Ryan Perron’s childhood memories were the same. There was the constant shuffling between doctor’s office appointments, the boring time spent in waiting rooms. And, of course, there were maladies. There were the typical procedures, like having his tonsils and adenoids removed and then there were the ear tubes inserted to prevent him from chronic ear infections.
If that wasn’t bad enough for the youngster, there was Perron’s other condition. At the age of 5, Perron’s mother Denise noticed Ryan would tilt his head to the side while coloring and writing his name. His parents and doctors tried to figure out what was affecting Ryan before coming a diagnosis of amblyopia after a long battery of examinations. Commonly known as “lazy eye,” amblyopia is easily treatable when diagnosed and correct early. Although Perron was declared legally blind in his right eye, it improved to nearly 20/20 sight about four years later after his treatment program.
The treatment for strengthening the weak eye is placing an eye patch over the dominant eye. So for more than a year, Perron wore an eye patch 24 hours a day. The time with the patch then decreased during the next three years, and by the time Perron was 9, his eyesight had improved to the point where he no longer needed it.
“If someone would ask me what was wrong, I’d say, ‘Nothing,’” Perron said after football practice at North Attleborough High School on Tuesday, “because it was just something that I was born with, something that I needed to fix.
“The worst part was the patch. It was like putting on a shirt and tie when you’re a kid, you’re just so uncomfortable and you can’t wait to take them off.”
Perron’s parents became creative with his patch, in an effort to make Ryan feel comfortable with what made him stand out from the other kids. For a time, he wore a pirate costume eye patch. Later on, Perron wore a pair of corrective glasses with a blackened lens on the right side.
Around the same time, he began playing football. Perrons parents carved out rods through the padding in his helmet so it could fit over his glasses’ frames. They made every effort to make sure Ryan felt normal, even though he stood out from out his classmates.
“Even if a kid was making fun of me, or laughing at me, I’d just shove it off or not pay any attention to it,” Perron said. “I just kept doing my thing.”
Perron entered his senior season as a bit of an unknown at quarterback for the Red Rocketeers. Although he’d started with the junior varsity squad, he had no varsity experience.
The 5-foot-11, 175-pounder was forced to take on a bigger part of the offensive load after an early season injury to dynamic running back Alex Jette. The adversity piled up near midseason, when the Red Rocketeers fell into a three-game losing streak with Hockomock League losses to Foxborough, Franklin and Stoughton.
That’s when North head coach Don Johnson saw Perron become a leader.
“He was the glue that held us together during that stretch. I think the difference was his confidence. It kept growing with every week.
Through Thanksgiving, Perron was among the state Division 2 scoring leaders with his 11 total touchdowns, eight of which have come through the air. From the highs to the lows, Perron’s taken it all in stride. It’s a quality he traces back to his younger self.
With the aid of glasses and contacts, Perron has fine enough eyesight to pilot the Red Rocketeers offense, but people diagnosed with amblyopia can have difficulty with depth perception. Perron said he doesn’t feel his condition hurts his ability to read passing plays as they develop.
But it’s unquestioned how it has affected him.
“He’s always positive,” Johnson said of Perron’s leadership qualities. “A lot of what he has to say is helping another kid – it’s instilling confidence in them, giving them a pat on the butt, reminding them what they’re supposed to do on a particular play. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him have a negative thing to say about anything.”
Zimbabwe’s Highway A-1 runs between the capital of Harare and the city of Chirundu, heading toward the African country’s northern border with Zambia. Along the way is Chinhoyi, a city of about 50,000 residents. There, along the Highway, you can find Takudzwe Chikomba’s family’s restaurant. Like an American highway rest stop, they serve a complement of grab-and-go foods and snacks, like potato chips. They also serve sadza, a traditional dish of ground cornmeal that’s often served with a stew. It’s a dietary staple.
Of course, food has become an issue in Zimbabwe in recent years. An August report compiled by the United Nations and the Zimbabwean government estimated that 1.6 million people in its rural areas will need food assistance in the coming year. The dire situation is the result of a confluence of issues, including the controversial farm policy of President Robert Mugabe and historic droughts.
Before the food started running out in Zimbabwe, money began running out following a brutal civil war. Well, it’s not as though the money disappeared as much it became worthless. The country, which has no national currency today and has relied on other nation’s money, buckled under the pressure of hyperinflation and the destruction of its economy.
Like many others, Chikomba’s family sought to leave Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s rule. They are among the lucky ones who’ve fled among the chaos in the last two decades.
Chikomba came to the United States while he was in the sixth grade. He settled in Attleboro with his mother, Midia, and they lived with Takudzwa’s uncle who’d immigrated in the 1990s. Chikomba’s father remains in Zimbabwe, where he maintains the family business.
Upon arrival, Chikomba had never encountered American football. He’d played soccer and cricket growing up, but when he entered high school at North Attleborough, he heard his classmates making a fuss.
“I knew nothing about it,” Chikomba said. “I didn’t even know what the difference between a quarterback and a running back was, or offense and defense.”
Yet, he decided to try out.
Chikomba’s grown into his frame (he now stands at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds) since then, but he immediately stood out.
As Chikomba continued to adjust to American life, he saw more and more playing time on the Red Rocketeers’ defensive line.
“There were some plays last year, when as soon as you say it, you said, ‘Wow, that was something,’” Johnson said.
He was a raw heap of modeling clay, built in the mold of the NFL’s new breed of athletic defensive ends, such as Jason Pierre-Paul or the Patriots’ Chandler Jones. From early on, Johnson and his staff spent extra time with Chikomba, explaining the intricacies of the game.
“There was a lot more one-on-one there early on,” Johnson said. “When the first-team defense was out there, we had him standing there next to us, watching that defensive end and explaining what’s the thought process behind everything that’s going on.”
In time, as Chikomba has become more comfortable in his surroundings and in football, he’s come out of his shell. A warm presence, with a huge disarming smile, Chikomba’s became a popular fixture at the school. It’s evident on Friday nights at Community Field, where you can often find a Zimbabwean flag aloft in the student fan section.
“It was hard at first,” Chikomba said. “Back in Zimbabwe, I could be very friendly with my classmates. But when I came here, I didn’t know what kids here did. It was difficult.”
His personality shined through earlier this season in the Red Rocketeers’ season opener against Rhode Island power La Salle Academy. Chikomba burst through the Rams’ offensive line with a strong swim move and hauled the quarterback down for a sack. He shot right back to his feet to show off a little shimmy and shake in the backfield.
“His personality has really started to shine through,” Johnson said. “He’s one of the most popular players with his teammates. He’s got a great sense of humor, a great smile. He doesn’t say much. But really it’s because, we feel he’s a great story, but he doesn’t think like that. He’s so humble.”
So what lies in store for Chikomba and Perron beyond Thursday?
Once again, the Red Rocketeers were edged out in a tight Hockomock Kelley-Race division race, so it’s a one-game season for North against border rival Attleboro. It will be their final high school game.
Both would like to play football as long as they can, but both have ambitions beyond the game. Though Johnson contends Chikomba could have some snaps ahead.
“I don’t think he realizes his own potential and the future that might lie ahead of him.”
Yet, Chikomba remains focused on his studies. He hopes to become a commercial airline pilot as a career. He grew up in the shadow of a regional airport back in Zimbabwe and passed the time watching flights takeoff and land. He recently was part of a student group from North which toured T.F. Green.
Perron has applied to a host of four-year colleges and looks to enter undeclared. He said he’ll make all attempts at prolonging his football career.
“It’s been such a big part of my life,” he said.
But all that’s assured is one more day on the field.
“There’s a lot of preparation and pride that goes into this week,” said Perron whose parents are Attleboro natives. “You’re doing it for the school, for the alumni, the coaches, your teammates, everybody who’s gotten you to that day.”