The incredible journey of Auburn's Prince Tega Wanogho

Vasha Hunt/USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: This story originally ran in August of 2019.

It wasn't until he was thousands of feet in the air, looking out the window as the highlands and rivers of Nigeria disappeared from view, that Prince Tega Wanogho started to question his decision to leave home.

It all happened so quickly. One minute, he was practicing his jump shot in a barren gym, and the next he was pooling money to rent a van and drive seven hours to a camp where basketball coaches from the United States might be watching. He thought he was playing poorly until the camp's organizer, Eyo Effiong, pulled him aside and asked for his contact information.

His film caught the attention of Todd Taylor, a high school coach in Montgomery, Alabama, who saw beyond the rough edges. In no time, Wanogho and Taylor were chatting on Facebook and making plans for him to move in with the Taylors and spend his junior year at Edgewood Academy. When Wanogho was officially offered a scholarship, "I went crazy," he recalled. "I still didn't believe it was happening."

He went to the embassy a bundle of nerves, imagining all the ways they could turn down his visa application. When he was told he was in the clear, he screamed at the top of his lungs. His mother was sad he would be leaving, but she understood the opportunity -- "not just for myself but for the family, too," he said.

The 6-foot-5 Wanogho, the seventh of nine children from the Nigerian city of Warri, had always viewed basketball as his way out. To where, he didn't know. He couldn't locate Alabama on a map if his life depended on it. When he found out he was flying into Montgomery Airport, he immediately thought of one of Edgewood's administrators, Susan Montgomery. In what would later become a running joke, he'd ask Todd, "Does Susan own the airport?"

More than five years have passed since then, and everything has changed. He's a continent away, starring in a sport he'd only seen in the movies. Now a standout offensive lineman for Auburn, Wanogho has the potential to be an early-round NFL draft pick in 2020 and is No. 31 in Todd McShay's rankings.

"It was exciting," Wanogho said of leaving home. "I was ready for a new adventure. But, then again, as soon as I got in the plane I got low. I started thinking about my sisters, my mom. I'm leaving everybody."

Doubt washed over him. What if where I'm going they don't like me? What if I don't do what I'm supposed to?

He didn't know it at the time, but the Taylors were nervous as well. They'd never done anything like this. When Todd told his wife, Christy, his plans to house and feed a teenage boy they'd never met, she thought it was a joke.

When Wanogho arrived in August 2014, neither side let on how out of place they felt. His flight got in late, so they all went to Wendy's for hamburgers and fries, then straight home to bed. The next morning, it was off to Waffle House. Overwhelmed by the size of the menu, Wanogho copied Todd's selection: the All-Star Special. It's the only thing he has ordered since.

He'd only brought the clothes on his back, so Christy took him shopping. Wanogho's mother raised him to be respectful and he could tell the Taylors were trying, but it was still an awkward situation.

"I tried to put on a smile even though I didn't feel like it," he said. "Even though I missed my family back home, feeling sad, I put on a smile and just showed my appreciation because they don't really owe me nothing and they're here buying me clothes, feeding me."

Time would eventually smooth out the rough edges of their relationship as he'd come to love and trust the Taylors. They went on a cruise together this summer. These days, he wraps his enormous arms around their 21-year-old son, Zack, and they joke that they're twins even though they look nothing alike. But deep down, they mean it.

But time can't heal everything. When Wanogho reflects on his journey, a certain wistfulness bleeds through. The Taylors notice it, too. They realize what he's given up to get here and what he's lost along the way. It's why they supported him putting the NFL on hold and returning for his senior season. Christy's eyes well up thinking about it. Given everything he's been through, he deserves to be a kid a while longer, she says.

Wanogho didn't really need to be at school in August, seeing as classes hadn't started and basketball practice was still several weeks away. But he was curious. He knew Zach, who was also 16 years old, left home earlier that morning for football practice, and he wanted to see what the fuss was about.

Fine, Todd told him, we'll take a look. He figured either way, it would be a good idea to get Wanogho acclimated with Edgewood Academy, a small private school in rural Alabama.

Wanogho and another basketball player milled around the sidelines. Bored and looking for something to do, they picked up a football and tossed it back and forth. Sizing up the boys from afar, head coach Bobby Carr asked whether they wanted to give it a try. Wanogho figured, "Why not?"

The school didn't have any Size 16 cleats, so he tightened the laces on his Air Jordans and strapped on a helmet. He'd seen "The Blind Side," "Remember the Titans" and "The Longest Yard," but that was the beginning and end of his football knowledge.

Carr made it simple. He put the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder at defensive end and told him, "Go get the quarterback. Go get the ball."

All Wanogho had was a basic swim move and a bull rush, but it was more than enough. Right away, he dominated. And seeing how excited his teammates got made him excited to keep going. When he ran a 40-yard dash -- in those same Jordans -- he clocked in at a blistering 4.6 seconds.

Wanogho's mother wasn't thrilled with this new development. All she knew of football were the stories of head trauma she found online. It took some convincing, Wanogho said, explaining how like basketball, football could lead to a better education. Besides, he told her, "It's high school, and I'm bigger and taller than everyone."

Before the first game of the season, the team gathered in assistant coach Michael Norris' classroom to get Wanogho up to speed. Norris and Zach, a quarterback, taught him about turnovers and that a "scoop-and-score" is when the defense recovers a fumble and returns it for a touchdown. Wanogho nodded and half-heartedly said, "OK, I kind of get it."

"And sure enough," Zach said, "we get on the bus, go to the game, and I think it was their first possession and the running back gets hit, fumbles and there Tega is. He picks it up, takes off running and scores.

"Me and Coach Norris, we were literally standing beside each other and we looked at each other and just started laughing. We were just explaining that six hours ago."

During the 45-minute drive to and from practice every day, Wanogho and Zach would go over the finer points of the game. But they'd talk about life, too. One day, they'd listen to Nigerian music. The next it was country. Zach even helped teach him to drive, including one near-disaster when Wanogho nearly hit a parked car in the neighborhood because his big flip-flops got stuck between the pedals and he panicked.

Wanogho's rapid rise all came together in about two weeks. Clips circulated, and almost as soon as the season ended, feeler calls turned into scholarship offers. First was Kentucky. Then Florida. Then the floodgates opened and just about every big-time school offered. Oregon wanted him to visit, and soon.

Obsessed with untapped potential, coaches salivated over someone excelling in a sport where his experience was measured in weeks rather than years. What's more, because Wanogho had done so well in school in Nigeria, he was able to reclassify from a junior to a senior, further accelerating his recruiting clock.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn remembers the initial staff meeting when his defensive line coach, Rodney Garner, turned on the tape.

"A big guy that can run and be fluid," Malzahn said. "You look at his body and say, 'If he gets in a weight room and on a food program, boy, he's going to be a big man.'"

Wanogho, for his part, was absolutely clueless. When he visited Auburn, his only request was that Aubie the mascot be in attendance. "That's a first," Malzahn said, laughing.

Wanogho couldn't name a single college football player. Nor did he know of any of the coaches blowing up his phone. Someone asked him at one point whether Nick Saban had offered him yet. His response: "Who is Nick Saban?"

Everyone went crazy over that, he recalled. But he wasn't joking. Coaches would visit and ask whether he had any questions. "No," he'd say, "because I don't even know what this is." It got to the point where he didn't like getting pulled out of class to talk to recruiters.

In fact, he still had his heart set on playing basketball. When football season was over, he started at center and pestered Todd to let him run the point, too.

"You want to see a picture?" Wanogho asked, reaching for his cell phone.

He flipped through the photos in an attempt to explain the basketball game he believed had ended his career. It was in January 2015, his first season playing for Edgewood, when he landed awkwardly and felt his leg give out, breaking both his tibia and fibula. If he were back in Nigeria, he thinks it may have resulted in an amputation.

He found the picture after a minute. He's wearing a yellow top and shorts, holding the ball high as if he's coming down with a rebound. Then, in the lower left-hand corner, there's his leg, bent at a near-90-degree angle.

Lying on the floor, he believed his dream of college was done. Todd hovered over him in shock. Christy got on the floor and prayed with him. Everyone cried. Surgery was a necessity, and there were no guarantees.

It was around that time when Wanogho got a sense of who truly cared for him. Auburn, which had already visited him once in the hospital, followed up by sending Malzahn, Garner and Will Muschamp for an in-home visit during which they said their offer stood no matter his recovery. A week later, he committed to the Tigers.

More than that, Wanogho finally felt the connection to the Taylors he'd been missing. Seeing Christy, whom he calls Mama C, crying on the floor with him the day of the injury, he could tell "the love was real."

"You could see the whole family was supportive and protective and making sure I'm OK and comfortable," he said. "It's been great ever since then. I say, 'This is my American family and my Nigerian family is back home.'"

But the truth is without his American family, he might be back home today.

Even at his lowest, when he was lonely and surrounded by strangers or when he broke his leg and thought a return to sports was impossible, Wanogho never questioned why he should continue.

The dream, Wanogho said, was never about him. It was about family and giving them a better future. With a little extra money, maybe his mom's wine business would take off. Maybe she wouldn't even need to work again.

He fought through that first season at Auburn, rehabbing around the clock. And when Malzahn approached him about switching to offensive line, he didn't flinch. "Coach," he said, "whatever you want me to play, I'll play."

The transition wasn't easy. He'd bulk up to more than 300 pounds, the extra weight straining his knees and back. His nimble feet from years of basketball and soccer made him a natural in a lot of ways, but learning the finer points of the position was a struggle.

Just when he was feeling settled, after playing 10 games as a redshirt freshman, he got a knock at the door. It was the Taylors. Wanogho's mother, Princess Onome Wanogho, had died unexpectedly. To this day, he's not sure what happened.

"It was the worst day for all of us," Christy said, tears welling up in her eyes. "It crushed him."

Half the coaching staff, as well as the team chaplain, showed up at Wanogho's dorm. Even Malzahn's wife came. But Wanogho took one look at them and announced, "I'm done."

"I shouldn't be here anymore," he recalled thinking. "The main reason I'm doing all this is for my family, for my mom, to give her a better life she deserved. And now I'm not going to be able to do it."

Malzahn & Co. told him they would support him no matter what. The Taylors then drove him to Montgomery, where he holed up in the 2-foot space between his bed and the wall for the better part of two days.

He was numb, defeated. Only a year earlier he'd gone home and danced with his mother. Now she was gone, and there wasn't even time to get back for the funeral.

"He was ready to give up," Todd said. "Then we had the conversation of, there's more people involved in this. You still have the rest of your family to think about, your sisters."

It took a while, but eventually Wanogho picked himself back up and returned to school. He started four games that season and became a fixture on the offensive line. Last season, he was named to the All-SEC First Team by Pro Football Focus.

To this day, he's struck by the the throngs of Auburn fans who support him and the team. How they wake up early in the morning to tailgate. How they line the streets before games. The first few times he went through Tiger Walk and heard people shouting, "Prince!" he thought, "Do I know this person?"

He could have turned pro this past year, but he decided to return to school instead. He just wasn't ready for it to be all about business, he said.

But there's more: In the next few weeks, his two younger sisters will go to the embassy to apply for travel visas. If all goes well, they'll be able to visit their brother and attend a game.

No one in his family has ever seen him play before. They're vaguely aware, through Facetime and photos, of what he does, but it's clear they don't understand, he said.

He wishes his mother was around to make the trip, but he knows she's with him in spirit. "She was proud," he said.

He'll only ever have one mom, but now he has Mama C and Papa T to look after him. When Zach wears Wanogho's Auburn No. 76 jersey with "Lil Bro" on the back, it makes everyone smile.

One day Wanogho hopes to return to Warri and sponsor camps like the one that sent him overseas. Who knows -- maybe he'll even pick out a few football stars in the making.

He knows that home will never look or feel the same. The road back is almost unrecognizable. But he's come this far, and there's no stopping now.