HAVERHILL, Mass. -- Tim O'Connor strolled through the hallways of Haverhill High School back in 2010 and looked around at the swarm of students darting to and from their lockers. Among the crowd was a tall, muscular freshman, who turned out to be the best football player on the soccer team.
That was the first time O'Connor, then a first-year football coach and freshman history teacher, saw Michael Kwegyir-Attah.
“My first year was his freshman year, and I saw Michael walking the hallways. I thought to myself, 'Why is this big kid not playing football?' It turns out he was a soccer player,” O'Connor said. “I asked him to play, and he wanted no part of it.”
The first-time head coach, charged with turning around a floundering Haverhill program, kept trying. During Kwegyir-Attah's sophomore year, O'Connor saw him playing basketball at an open gym, and he walked up and asked again, “and again he said, 'No, I want no part in it. I'm a soccer player,'” O'Connor said.
Before Kwegyir-Attah's junior year, O'Connor pulled out all the stops.
“I had to have this kid on the football team. I recruited a few of the players to try to convince him to play, and finally he just showed up out of nowhere at a 7-on-7, and he had no idea what he was doing,” O'Connor said.
Getting Kwegyir-Attah on the team was tough, but teaching him the entire game of football proved to be even more difficult. The 6-foot-1 athlete, who was born in England and bounced around a bit before landing in Haverhill, had no experience with the plays, positions or physicality of the game.
“When I was playing soccer, I liked to play physical, but football is still a lot different,” Kwegyir-Attah said, now 20 pounds heavier, with arms sculpted from time in the weight room. “There's a different physicality to it. I got used to it, and I really do like it. I like the physicality of the game.”
O'Connor tried to figure out how to utilize his newest athlete. He would point to an opposing offensive player and say, “Do not leave him,” and Kwegyir-Attah would just follow the command and make plays. He showed an impressive nose for the ball and could get into the backfield from the outside linebacker position.
However, athleticism alone isn't always enough in high school football. During the first two games of the season, Kwegyir-Attah played special teams and spent a lot of time on the sidelines. It wasn't until Haverhill's week three game against Peabody that he got a chance to start at linebacker.
He made the most of it and tallied four tackles for loss.
“I was nervous honestly. Coach just told me to go in there and do what I had to do, and I played well. The speed of the game was a little bit different than practice. It was challenging, but I got used to it,” Kwegyir-Attah said.
The first-year football player started the rest of the season, and finished the year with 64 tackles, eight tackles for loss, six pass deflections, three sacks and an interception. At offseason 7-on-7 competitions, he stood out as an able pass defender and an athlete with downhill speed.
Entering his second football season, Kwegyir-Attah has new expectations. He isn't fighting for a spot on the field anymore -– he's trying to be a star and play football at the next level.
“I really do believe he's a 1-AA kid on his size and potential alone. If he has a good senior year, a lot of things will come to fruition for him,” O'Connor said. “He also works hard in the classroom. He's not a bad student at all, and that will work in his favor.”
Kwegyir-Attah still enjoys soccer and will be the captain of Haverhill's basketball team next year, but several coaches – including a few at the college level who have seen his tape – know that “his ticket is football,” O'Connor said. Kwegyir-Attah is on the same page.
“I'm definitely looking to play college football next year. That's my goal. I'm just going to work hard and try to be the best I can out there,” he said, while sitting the Haverhill's locker room. “I want to go to a place that gives me an opportunity. That's what matters to me the most – finding a place that gives me the opportunity.”
Part of the process will be putting on some extra weight. Right now Kwegyir-Attah weighs in at 215 and has been working all summer to add muscle to his projectable frame. He also spends hours going over game tape, to the point where O'Connor told him, “Enough with the tape, Michael. Go out and just be a kid.”
Kwegyir-Attah, who swears allegiance to Chelsea FC and is a die-hard Chicago sports fan, does take time to be a fun-loving teenager. He hangs out with “everyone from first stringers to the third-string freshman center,” according to O'Connor. He also keeps some of the guys in line and will drag a few stragglers to the gym if they're being lazy.
“He appreciates the little things in life. Some kids want to go for the Cape for the weekend or go on vacation. Michael is just happy going out to eat with friends,” O'Connor said.
One of those “little things” is playing football for Haverhill, where Kwegyir-Attah feels “part of a family.” He's also thankful for his head coach, and the fact that he convinced him to leave the soccer field and throw on a helmet.
“He's a good coach. He has taught us a lot about how to play the game overall. He also teaches a lot about family and about being there for each other first,” Kwegyir-Attah said. “There was a time when not a lot of people wanted to play football for Haverhill, but now we have more than 60 kids. He transformed this program.”
On a mid-August afternoon, O'Connor led Kwegyir-Attah out of the Haverhill locker room – where the word “Family” is painted just above the lockers – and turned around to grab a few things and lock the doors. He had one final comment on his senior linebacker.
“He is a diamond in the rough and a pleasure to coach. I am just extremely happy that I found him. He is a wonderful, reserved young man who works very hard,” O'Connor said, as he shut off the lights. “He also understands that things don't always go the way you want, but he moves on and goes to the next thing.
“No matter what happens, he's going to be a good man down the road.”