LAWRENCE, Mass. -- Fortune Kalala didn’t understand why he couldn’t do a back flip. Almost every other kid he knew had the sequence down: They’d run, cartwheel and then flip, finishing firmly on their feet every time.
It was the neighborhood kids’ regular pastime, and it was a game that often left the 7-year-old Kalala with sore wrists instead of perfect landings.
“It was so cool,” Kalala said.
But one day -- on a day like every other one -- Kalala nailed it. He jumped, he smiled. It was a celebration dance full of disbelief as much as elation. Kalala was so happy, in fact, that he never tried it again.
Why not finish on top, right?
“It was the best day,” Kalala remembered.
In a Mozambique refugee camp, they can be far worse.
* * * *
Eleven years after Kalala searched for the smallest reasons to smile, the Central Catholic senior has one of the biggest grins you’ll find on the Lawrence high school campus.
Friend and teammate Devon Lattrell said he doesn’t go a day without Kalala making him laugh. As part of his computer’s revolving background, Central Catholic football coach Chuck Adamopoulos this past week chose a photo of his starting strong safety, his helmet hanging off the back of his head, his face beaming.
“He has an infectious smile,” Adamopoulos said.
In a funny way, Kalala says, he has every reason to. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he spent the first seven years of his life staying within the walls of his family’s property, most times unaware of the Second Congo War ravaging the country. When his family was forced to leave, it spent a year in Zambia, sitting in schools where he and his sister didn’t speak the native language.
When they left there, his mother and baby brother flew to the United States with a plan of having Kalala, his father and sister follow close behind. Instead, they spent the next six months in a refugee camp, sleeping on a single mattress under a tent.
When they wanted a drink, Kalala’s father, Ange, would trek two miles for brown water and bring it back to be boiled to reduce the risk of cholera. When they wanted to eat, they stood in line for rice and beans, rations they were expected to make last for two weeks at a time.
When they finally left the camp, it would be another four years until the family reunited. In the meantime, Kalala's mother worked to create a home for them in the United States and his father found every job he could, from taking photos to smoking fish to teaching, to save enough for the visas and plane tickets.
In the time between, Kalala learned the patience and adaptability that today has helped him become an honors student and a star in a sport he starting playing only three years ago. He’s an after-school volunteer and an aspiring orthopedic surgeon, a loving son and brother, a teammate and a leader.
“He’s one of the most inspiring people,” Lattrell said.
So, too, is his story.
“It could be a movie,” Adamopoulos said.
'The toughest day'
Kalala doesn’t remember too much of warfare from his time in the Congo. His family would walk him to and from the private school his parents paid for him and his sister to attend, and he rode the bike his grandfather bought him within the brick walls that encased the family’s property.
He remembered nights when something seemed wrong. Everybody would shut off their lights, and his parents would tell him he had to go to bed, even though it was only 7 o’clock.
“It was the safest place you can be,” Kalala said. “And you just avoid the street.”
When Fortune was in second grade, his father began feeling pressure from a nearby tribe, Fortune said, and his family was no longer safe in its home country. So, in two groups -- his mother, Aimee, and baby brother, Andy, first; Fortune, his sister, Benita, and their father, second -- they moved to Zambia. They stayed for a year, struggling to learn English without proper teaching and fearing the same trouble that forced them from the Congo would find them again.
“We would come home from school, and say, ‘I don’t know what the teacher said all day,’” Fortune said. “There were no translators. I would write in cursive, and my teacher wouldn’t be able to read it.”
Eventually, Aimee felt it was time to find a more permanent home, Fortune said, one where her children could attend good schools and make something of their lives.
“For me, school is the most important thing,“ Aimee said. “Even back home, with the political turmoil and the fighting, because of my decision to come here, to be safe, it was to get [my children] an education.”
After working as a doctor in Zambia, she saved enough for her and Andy to move to Maryland in 2001, but the necessary paperwork and funds to bring everyone else would take time. Knowing an uncle in Mozambique, Ange took his oldest son and daughter on a days-long bus ride hoping to find a home.
For reasons Fortune never knew, they couldn’t stay there and instead turned to a refugee camp about an hour outside the country’s capital city. They were given a tent and cooked over a fire. Fortune remembered thinking it was like camping he saw on television.
“The first couple days, I thought it was the coolest thing,” Fortune said. “Then, it hit me. This is reality.”
Everyday living in the camp was as difficult as it was mindless, Fortune said. He and his sister didn’t attend the overcrowded schoolhouse offered to children -- their father didn’t want to risk their making the mile-long trek alone -- and Fortune spent many days fending off what he called the “gangster” children who littered the camp, tough crews Fortune said were one step below militant.
He also learned a few key rules: Never wear shoes when walking by yourself because you would surely be robbed. When you do backflips, avoid landing on your head. And when the gangs approach, talk them off -- or, better yet, run.
“They have no fear,” Fortune remembered of the gang members. “You can’t put fear into somebody who’s not afraid of death.”
In those six months, Fortune didn’t speak to his mother once. His father earned money by using an old camera to take photos within the camp, developing them and selling the photos back to other refugees, who would send them to family still living in some of the countries they had ventured from.
But perhaps the most difficult part was the food. With just enough to sustain, Ange often would barter within the camp to get extra portions for his children. When those ran out, they’d ration what they had to survive until the next line formed for rice and beans.
Fortune remembers one night in particular when his father returned from hauling water two miles to cook dinner. Ange prepared what was left of their food, including a dish for himself. But when Benita said she was still hungry, he gave her what he had, saying he was fine.
“But I knew that wasn’t true because he didn’t eat the night before,” Fortune said. “And that just struck me right there: He gave up his own food to feed us.
“That was the toughest day.”
'The happiest time'
Life eventually improved, albeit slowly, for Fortune and his family. They moved from the camp to a converted one-room storage space that had enough room for one bed, one small stove-top, one door and one window. His father worked preparing smoked fish and selling it just north of the city.
After a few months, Fortune’s family experienced the first of what they term “miracles” that helped save them: Ange, who earned a sociology degree in the Congo, landed a job teaching French at a school in north Mozambique. After a three-day bus trip, they were given a place to live on the first floor of the building that also housed the school. Fortune and his sister had their own room. They had enough food so that they didn’t need to ration. The city was safe.
“It was perfect for us,” Fortune said.
Things also were progressing, albeit slowly, for Aimee. She jumped from job to job, sometimes for less than minimum wage, while seeking out lawyers to help push the paperwork through for her family. She would go months without talking to her older children, and, when she did, the conversations would last just five to 10 minutes, not nearly enough time to catch up on school and their new lives.
Aimee spent nights wondering whether they were still alive.
“At times, I’d lose it and break down,“ said Aimee, who was forced to give up her medical career in the move. She works as a mental health counselor. “But my faith in God, I was just praying and believing in a miracle.”
In mid-2004, another one came. Paperwork for their political asylum had been prepared in the United States, putting the onus on Ange to save up enough money. That took another two years, Fortune said, and, in late May, the family traveled to South Africa, where Ange and the children started a monthlong process of interviews, paperwork and getting up-to-date vaccinations -- the same ones they already had but had lost the records for in the refugee camp.
“We were lucky,” Fortune said, noting that some had to spend three to six months waiting for their time to be cleared. “If they said yes, our family would be reunited. If they said no, our family would be separated and we would go back to Mozambique and probably have to make our life there. It was the most intense moment of my life.”
Then, after Ange, Fortune and Benita had sat in front of a board while it looked over the family’s paperwork, a man looked up after an excruciating 20 minutes and gave them the news.
“Congratulations, you have been accepted to go to the United States,” they were told.
“My heart dropped,” Fortune said.
Within a week, they boarded a plane bound for Atlanta, then Boston, where before dawn on July 21, 2006, they landed at Logan International Airport. Leaving their luggage rotating in the baggage area, they raced outside to find Kalala’s aunt and uncle, who lived in Lynn. His mother, who had moved to Massachusetts in January 2004, was on her way, they said, with his brother, Andy, whom he hadn't seen since Andy was a toddler.
“At 5 o’clock, that’s when I saw my mom again,” Kalala said, the time and date etched into his mind. “I couldn’t recognize her.”
They embraced. Aimee said she didn’t cry, too stunned to be realizing her long-awaited dream. Fortune then turned to his brother, remembering a phone conversation months before with his mother when Andy asked whether his brother, then only an occasional voice on the telephone, truly existed.
“‘Are you really my brother?’” he asked at the airport. Yes, Fortune told him.
“It was the happiest time of my life,” Fortune said.
Fortune fell into football almost by accident. A soccer player in the Congo, but never in love with the game, he didn’t try out for Central Catholic's soccer team because he didn’t have a ride to the practices off campus.
So he turned to football, having played two-hand touch at the Boys & Girls Club the previous summers. Then he put on pads for the first time.
“The first day, I got hit in the guts,” Fortune remembered with a laugh. “I wanted to get [the kid who hit me] so bad. I would come to the next practice, the next practice, the next practice, more angry and more into football and hitting. I loved it ever since then.”
Of course, he knew little to nothing about the game. If you asked him what the difference was between zone coverage and man-to-man, he’d tell you he just knew to follow the guy closest to him. He learned tackling from scratch -- then would fly around the field hitting anything holding a football.
“Like a chicken with its head cut off,” said Lattrell, for whom Fortune served as a backup his freshman year.
But coaches saw his work ethic and a willingness to learn. Fortune spent free time in class etching coverage patterns along the edges of his notebook, and he devoured statistics and formations on ESPN.com.
“What he’s gone through, it’s not in his nature to think he can fail at something,” said Adamopoulos, the Central Catholic coach.
By sophomore year, Fortune said, his game IQ had increased “like crazy." The next year, he started on varsity, bursting onto the scene against Dracut with an interception. His teammates elected him a co-captain as a senior, and today, he calls out coverages and defensive changes from the safety position. Lattrell said he now goes to Fortune for advice about the game.
“I just love coaching him,” Adamopoulos said.
It took longer for Fortune’s father to come around. He feared his son would get hurt, knowing only stories of the devastating injuries football can dole out. When Aimee would pick up Fortune from practice his freshman year, he would hide any ice packs he toted home so his father wouldn’t see them.
“He saw my pads at home once, and I remembered hearing him whisper to my mom, ‘Did you buy this? Because I’m about to throw it away,’” Fortune said, laughing at the memory. “I never brought my pads back home again.”
But Aimee spoke to her son’s coaches and passed along their rave reviews to his father. Then, after Fortune's interception against Dracut made the newspapers, Ange -- who usually works nights -- started to realize how far his son had come. A few weeks later in a game against Lowell, he watched Fortune play for the first time in what Adamopoulos remembered as the best game Fortune played that year.
It was the first time Fortune’s parents watched a game together.
“I was very emotional,” Aimee said. “At first, I didn’t know any rules of the game. I didn’t know what was winning, what was losing. Then I remembered I saw him following one player of the other team, and then he held his leg.
"‘Look! Look at Fortune holding the leg of the other one,’ I said. I was screaming. People were looking at me funny. And my daughter said, ‘That’s the game. That’s the tackle.’ I could hear over the microphone, ‘Fortune Kalala, Fortune Kalala.’ Then I knew he was doing a good job.”
She has become Fortune’s biggest critic. After a tough performance against Lawrence last year, Fortune came home and asked his mother whether she would make him something to eat. She later sat down at the table and broke the bad news to him.
“She said, ‘You didn’t have a good game out there,’” Fortune said. “I was like, ‘You noticed?’ Then she said to me, ‘When you come in [for a tackle], you really have to grab the guy and keep your face up so you don’t injure your neck.’
“[I said,] ‘How do you know this? You sound like my coaches.’”
Shooting for the stars
Sitting inside a computer lab at Central Catholic this week, Fortune shook his head at the thought of kids who float through school, opting to do drugs rather than homework and throwing away their opportunities.
“You don’t know how much people would pay to be in your shoes,” he said, referencing memories from his time in the refugee camp.
It’s those thoughts that drive him now. Asked what stands out among the things he has learned from his experiences, he points to the importance of education.
He remembers being small in the Congo with his mother still going to school when a hurricane blew through the area, ripping a piece of the roof from the house. The rain that came into the house ruined stacks of notes Aimee had made in preparation for her boards, destroying hours of work. It was the first time he ever saw his mother cry.
“I remember school being important to us and my family,” Fortune said, “because of those notes that she cried for.”
It’s why he has spent at least three nights a week at the Lawrence Boys & Girls Club since the first month he came to the United States. There, tutors helped him with his homework, English and projects, and he counts a number of people there as having a significant impact on his life.
Today, he volunteers, serving meals to children and helping them with their work. He’s also starting to look toward college, and is scheduled to visit Wesleyan University in Connecticut next month with Maureen Kelley, the club’s volunteer director. She mentioned one time that he might want to look into playing football there, only to have him stop her.
“He said, ‘Maureen, it’s not about the sports, it’s about the academics,’” Kelley said. “Very mature.”
Kelley, who receives the quarterly report cards for each of the 60 kids at the club who attend Central Catholic, said Fortune would be a “legitimate candidate” to attend Notre Dame. He has received honors every quarter of high school, starting as a freshman when he earned a 3.6 GPA, Kelley said.
Fortune said that, at the moment, his top choice is the College of the Holy Cross, where he wants to enter into the school’s pre-med program. Last year, Kelley brought him to Brigham and Women’s Hospital to shadow a physician’s assistant there. Instead, the doctor who had performed Kelley’s shoulder replacement invited Fortune to watch him in surgery.
“He came out saying he wants to be an orthopedic surgeon,” Kelley said. “And he will.”
Still today, Fortune said, he thinks about sitting in the refugee camp, seeing people with so much potential but doing nothing but trying to survive -- “going with the flow,” Fortune said, “of being safe.”
“My family didn’t think the same way,” he said. “We were shooting for the stars. But that doesn’t come with no cost. You need patience. Without patience, it’s very easy to give up. Four years is a very long time. We look back, and it’s like, ‘How did we survive through all that?’”
With hope and perseverance.
And the occasional well-placed smile.
Matt Stout is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com's high school section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org