Pitt freshman overcomes great odds

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Patrick Amara sat on a park bench, staring up at the dimly lit sky. Darkness never fully saturates the night in a city like Philadelphia, a faint comfort for a homeless 16-year-old surviving his first night on the street.

He spent hours on the bench, trying to count down to 6 a.m. Earlier that night, a man Amara likened to an uncle kicked him out of his home, unwilling to take in a child to whom he had no legal obligations. Paranoia paralyzed Amara's mind as he wandered the park, duffel bags in tow. He wasn't going to be able to keep the angst at bay and wait long enough for a friend to wake up so he could knock on his door.

"I stayed out from midnight until like 4 [a.m.]," Amara said.

That would be the last time Amara spent the night on the street, but he bounced around from house to house for another year before a man Amara spurned three times finally took him in. Now, there are still sleepless nights for Amara, but, as a freshman safety at Pittsburgh on full scholarship, they're now much more reflective than restless.

It wasn't until a few years ago that Amara learned his mother's name. He filed it away as a mere fact about the woman who bore him rather than a crumb on a trail leading to her. He has just a single picture of her and has spoken to her brother only a handful of times. Amara has never tried to contact her.

"It's like 'OK, that's her name.' Like, I really didn't care," Amara said. "I didn't know anything about her growing up. My dad never spoke about her. Knowing you don't have a mother, the woman who brought you into the world, that's dead wrong."

Amara's father, Patrick Kwegor Amara, is adamant that he doesn't want to speak about his son's mother. He offers occasional small glimpses into his past relationship with her but never elaborates.

Patrick and his father share a name that's known throughout their native Sierra Leone, where Kwegor Amara said he was "part of the 1 percent of society." Kwegor Amara was a major in the Sierra Leone military and helped stage a coup in 1992 during a volatile period in Sierra Leone as the country was engulfed in a brutal decade-long civil war.

As Sierra Leone entered a period of transition from military rule to democracy in late 1995, Kwegor Amara left to pursue a college degree in the United States. He brought his infant son and Patrick's mother with him.

Poverty defined the family's first few months in the Philadelphia suburbs, and Patrick's parents' fracturing relationship reached a breaking point when their newborn son had to be admitted to intensive care. A complication during delivery left Patrick with a respiratory condition that caused him to stop breathing as he slept. Doctors were forced to remove his tonsils, and he was in the hospital most of his first two months in America.

"My mother wasn't there one day," Patrick said.

When Patrick was discharged from the hospital, his respiratory equipment came with him. His mother had fully deserted him and his father, who was a full-time student at West Chester University during the day, had a full-time job in the evening and played full-time nurse at night.

"I literally had to keep my eyes open so he wouldn't roll over and hit the machine off," Kwegor Amara said.

Patrick's respiratory condition eventually subsided, but he and his father were still living destitute in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby.

Kwegor Amara graduated with a bachelor's degree in 2000 but remained at a minimum-wage job. A single parent with a 5-year-old to provide for, he abandoned his master's degree pursuit. Each paycheck left him more in debt.

The idea of three meals a day was a fantasy throughout his adolescence, Patrick said, and just a single meal was a luxury. He routinely went days without eating. The times he ate, he and his father shared cream of corn or a can of sardines.

"When you're hungry, they taste good as hell," Patrick said. "Then you see your friends ordering out and you have to eat sardines, it's like, 'Why do I have to eat this; what the hell?'"

The low point came when the water and electricity were turned off. Patrick still needed light to do his homework; he was one of the high school's brightest students. So Kwegor Amara lined their apartment with extension cords, stealing electricity from the hallway sockets. The neighbors called the police, who took pity on the Amaras and asked the electric company to restore power.

When Patrick entered his sophomore year, his father needed money for private school. His grades were among the best at public Upper Darby High. Kwegor Amara was desperate, so he went to the casino. "You know how that goes," Patrick said. "He was crying and said 'I lost everything.'"

When they couldn't pay rent and hoped to stay with relatives, they were shut out. When they were relegated to living out of their car, they slept in the parking lot of the building where Kwegor Amara worked. Every morning, Kwegor Amara would drive out of the lot just before the 9 a.m. shift to avoid company reprimand and personal humiliation.

"I told him the best thing for us is for you to go back home," Patrick recalled

Friends from Sierra Leone routinely called to offer Kwegor Amara jobs if he returned, but he never wanted to leave his son. With each passing night without food and each final collection notice in the mail, the guilt was weighing on Patrick. His father needed to move back to Sierra Leone, for Patrick's sake, if nothing else.

Kwegor Amara called Patrick crazy and initially dismissed his plea, until he heard Patrick call himself an "obstacle" holding his father "hostage."

"He sat me down and that gave me the courage," Kwegor Amara said.

He returned to Africa, leaving 16-year-old Patrick with a friend.

"Everything was good for him," Patrick said, "but it got worse for me. The two people obligated to you are your mother and father."

He had neither.

"I didn't want to call and hear the voice of 'Daddy I want this' and I'm not there. I would refuse to open my email," Kwegor Amara said. "That's how guilty I felt [in Africa]." He feared Patrick was struggling in America without him. In truth, Patrick was.

The guardian Patrick was set up with felt little responsibility to provide for him. So Patrick left. It was the same at the second house he lived in with another friend of his father's. He then went to the house of his "uncle," who ran him off.

At school, Patrick didn't have anyone to pay for his tuition at Philadelphia private school West Catholic. College programs were taking notice of Patrick on the football field, but he often couldn't afford to attend high-profile camps where he could get himself more exposure. He resisted the temptation to earn fast money through dealing drugs and worked two jobs instead, one at Chuck E. Cheese's, which provided a constant reminder of the parental love Patrick lacked.

"In my heart, I couldn't take it anymore. It's not the money but the assurance someone is there for you," Patrick said. "I went through things teenagers should never go through. A teenager should never ask 'Where am I going to sleep tonight?'"

For one night, it was on the park bench after working in West Philadelphia earlier that evening. When the morning came, he went the house of Torey Green, a friend since third grade.

When Patrick showed up at Green's that morning, he began draining the emotions he'd bottled for the past 16 years.

"I look at him as an older brother. If I felt scared I'd look at him to be my protection," Green said. "But he broke down to me about how he missed his dad, and just how he said it. He thought he'd be fine."

Green's parents took Patrick in for a year before Patrick left to live with his aunt and two cousins. That was short-lived, too, though, as gang violence in their neighborhood forced them out. Bouncing between houses again, Amara found stability he so desperately sought in the one place he might have least expected.

Private schools dominate the high school football landscape in Philadelphia, which means high school coaches are keen to the city's top youth talent. As an eighth-grader, Patrick's name was circulating, and Tony Beaty caught wind of it in time to recruit him to Prep Charter, where he was head coach.

It's a story Beaty, a natural orator, loves to tell.

Every year, Beaty targets 25 players he wants to bring in as freshmen, and Patrick was No. 1 on his board after an assistant coach watched Patrick earlier that fall. Beaty met with Patrick and his father, who was still living in America, and the meeting broke with an understanding Patrick would join Beaty's roster for the 2010 season, his freshman year.

"And when I called Pat and said he's been accepted, his voice was like he got accepted to the school for the blind," Beaty said. "I found out a week later that he wasn't coming. "That was the first time he left me."

Over the next two years, Beaty tried three times to help Patrick get into Prep Charter and every time Patrick changed his mind.

"No one's ever left me three times in my life to come back," Beaty said.

Beaty doubles as a trainer, even working with the NBA's Marcus and Markieff Morris. One afternoon, Patrick's cousin, whom Beaty trains, was on his way when he called. He had a guest in the car.

"He said 'I got Patrick' and I said 'Patrick who?' I can't even use the words that I used," Beaty said. "I said 'That such and such can't come to my house. That dirty blah blah blah, he can take his blah blah, he can't come to my house.'"

As he had the three previous times, though, Beaty relented. He began training Patrick, but after each session, Patrick would have to leave early to go to work. Beaty couldn't understand why a 17-year-old student was working so much and why he was losing weight. He was ignorant to Patrick's situation, just like everyone in Patrick's life.

Patrick, entering his senior year of high school, finally opened up to Beaty about the nomadic life he was leading. When Beaty mentioned it to his wife, she immediately opened her home.

"The outside world thinks we brought Pat in here for a Michael Oher story," Beaty said. "My wife had no idea who Patrick Amara was."

Patrick fielded double-digit football scholarships before settling on Pittsburgh days before moving in with Beaty. But over the course of the next few months, his future was in doubt again.

Due to his father's military background, the United States immigration department cast a watchful eye on Kwegor Amara and Patrick. The immigration department turned to Patrick to answer for his father after he returned to Sierra Leone. Since Patrick is not a U.S. resident, he faced deportation.

Patrick, with the help of the Beatys and a lawyer, provided documentation of his schooling in the United States beginning with first grade, placating the immigration department.

"I can say I'm less stressed and more thankful," Patrick said. "Not a lot of people really helped me during this time, and they were amongst the few."

Patrick's first practice at Pittsburgh is Monday. He said he doesn't expect to be redshirted and should play this fall as a 6-foot-2, 190-pound defensive back. With cornerback Titus Howard suspended for the season, Patrick could land a starting position as a freshman.

His father talks in circles as he reflects on his son's odyssey. He begins and ends each thought beaming with pride when talking about Patrick's accomplishments, calling his son's story one befitting of the silver screen.

"That boy has the potential of surviving anything," Kwegor Amara said, "because of what he's been through."

Patrick is back living on his own, but it is welcomed this time. He enters Pittsburgh with a clean slate, provided the same comforts as the other 84 scholarship players.

"I've been relying on and begging a lot of people and not getting responses," he said, "but now I have my own future to decide."