Sio Moore had help on the way to UConn

The Civil War raged, tearing apart neighbors and friends. She had no way of knowing whether she would live or die. What she knew for sure: she had to get out.

To save herself. To save her children.

Assunta Nimley-Phillips packed up one suitcase, bundled her five-month old boy, Sio, and her adopted daughter and said good-bye to Liberia, to her job as a deputy auditor general for the government.

Good-bye to a good life.

She moved first to New York, then Pennsylvania and finally Connecticut. Her son grew quickly, but he had no real direction and got into constant trouble. Nimley-Phillips needed to save her son again.

So she let him go.

Now here is Sio Moore, going into his final season as a starting outside linebacker at UConn, poised to become one of the best defensive players in the Big East this season. Already he is on preseason watch lists for the Butkus and Lombardi Awards, as the Huskies prepare to open the season Thursday night against UMass.

"My mother, she is my cornerstone," Sio Moore said in a recent phone interview. "Between her, my grandmother and my sister, those people made me the person I am. If it wasn't for those three women, so important in my life, I wouldn't be having this conversation on the phone."

When Nimley-Phillips arrived in this country in 1990, she found it extremely difficult to find a job as an auditor. She just picked up whatever odd jobs she could, holding down four at one time, just to make sure she could provide for her family. With her out of the house, Moore had his grandmother to raise him.

But even the guiding hands of strong women were not enough to keep Moore focused. He needed a father figure. But he had none. He was angry. Distant. Unfocused. Even when he started playing football as a freshman in high school, he did not care. He slacked on his academics, hung out with the wrong kids, allowed peer pressure to steer him.

After a close friend was shot to death, Moore knew he needed to set himself straight. He asked his mother if he could move to Apex, N.C., to live with his older sister, Tiplah Broadnax.

"I didn’t want him to be a statistic," Nimley-Phillips said in a phone interview. "He would say to me, 'Mommy, every time I go to school my friends expect me to follow them and I don’t want to do that.' He wanted to make that change. It was hard to let him go, but knowing that it was with his own sister -- if you love your child, you have to make some sacrifices."

When Moore arrived in North Carolina, Broadnax found a young man who was rough around the edges, who did not know how to express himself in the right way. They constantly argued.

But Broadnax -- 19 years older than Moore -- was determined to show him the way. His first year there, he had to focus on his academics. No football. But Broadnax worked with the coaches to dangle the carrot in front of him. Improve your grades, get a spot on the team.

She drove him to school every day and picked him up. She knew what his classwork assignments were, and what was coming home for homework.

"He couldn’t get out of my way so he figured eventually, he would work with the plan," Broadnax said. "He did have issues. If it got too hard, he would say he wanted to go back. When he got back to Connecticut, he realized it wasn’t where he wanted to be. At the end of the day, it was up to him. If he decided to stay in Connecticut, his life would have taken a different turn. He made that decision to become something of himself, and I’m so proud of him."

Sitting out, Moore says, “was one of the most painful things I ever had to go through. But my sister, she didn't want me to crawl back into the same hole that I did when I was in Connecticut.”

Moore ended up with a 3.2 grade-point average his first year living in North Carolina, and was able to play football his junior and senior years. He also ran track, and made the all-conference academic team. He slowly changed his attitude, and got some male guidance from his brother-in-law.

Recruiters began to take notice and Moore decided he wanted to go to UConn, which just so happens to be where Broadnax went to college. It also allowed him to be closer to his mother, who goes to all of the UConn home games.

“I feel very blessed because he could have fallen in the wrong track,” Nimley-Phillips said. “I am lucky to have him as a son.”

Moore is plenty lucky, too.