Inside the long journey of the Colts' Kwity Paye

Editor's note: Indianapolis Colts defensive end Kwity Paye's remarkable story will be highlighted Tuesday night when he attends the State of the Union address as a guest of U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner of Rhode Island.

Paye, who grew up in Providence, was born in a refugee camp in Guinea and went on to star at Michigan before the Colts made him the 21st pick overall in 2021. He finished fourth on the team in sacks with four as a rookie and third this season with six.

"In so many ways, Kwity Paye's journey from a refugee camp in Guinea, to Section 8 housing in Rhode Island and now to the upper echelons of the NFL is emblematic of the American dream," Magaziner said.

The following story chronicling Paye's journey was published before the 2021 draft.

KWITY PAYE HAS never met the man. Never had the chance to look him in the eye, or hear his story in his own words, or even so much as thank him. For his life. For the chance to be in the United States, where Kwity became an immigrant, then a citizen; a football player, then a really good football player; a star on the defensive line at the University of Michigan, then an NFL draft hopeful earmarked for first-round glory.

But he knows what he owes this man, Cyrus, his mother's cousin. Agnes and Cyrus had grown up together in the same village in Liberia; they'd abandoned the country together when the country abandoned them -- when civil war twisted their homeland into someplace ugly and misshapen. Cyrus had done odd jobs around the refugee camp in Sierra Leone where they'd lived -- existed, survived -- for seven years, then left his earnings with Agnes for safekeeping. But he'd been far on the other side of the camp when soldiers attacked their makeshift home. Agnes didn't have time to find him, so she'd fled, using his savings to buy her way onto an army truck that ushered her to Guinea. It was another strange country, another land that wasn't her home, but she was the lucky one.

Soldiers had captured her cousin and taken a machete to his head, leaving a gash across his forehead and a pool of blood spilling out, then strapped a tire to his body to burn him alive. They would have completed their grisly task, if not for one soldier who'd recognized him and considered him a friend. He was a nice man, Cyrus; he'd become something of a favorite son around the camp, and that reputation was his salvation. He shouted the soldier's name. Help me! The soldier ran to him, pleading with the other soldiers. I know this kid; he's like my son. The soldier spared Cyrus' life, then rushed him to the Red Cross. Kwity remembers that now, always. How the simple act of being kind, of being a friend, saved Cyrus' life. How the simple act of Kwity being kind, of being a friend, might yet change his.

"Make sure you always be respectful; make sure you always put your best foot forward," Kwity says, reciting the mantra Agnes passed down to him. "You never know how that person may help."

Kwity wasn't alive the day his mother escaped that refugee camp in Sierra Leone with his dad and older brother -- he was born more than a year later, in another refugee camp, this time in Guinea. But what if Agnes hadn't had that money? What if she hadn't been able to flee? Maybe a soldier's bullet finds her. Perhaps she never makes it to Guinea, then never makes it to the United States, then never offers Kwity this new life and these new possibilities.

Kwity was too young -- a baby, when Agnes brought him and Kwity's older brother, Komotay, to America -- to remember the war he was born into. But the cruelties his mother has seen and the atrocities she has survived are his burdens too. They're his inheritance.

THE FIRST TIME Kwity understood that he was different, and that his family was different, he was 8 years old. Before he'd become a Big Ten standout, before he'd headline as the premier defensive end in the 2021 NFL draft, he was a kid in Rhode Island trying to sign up for Junior Pee Wee football.

They told him he'd need to provide his birth certificate for identification. He didn't have one of those, his mother said, so Agnes gave him his green card instead.

"I thought everyone had to have that type of card to verify their age," Kwity says. "So once I went there to the field, everyone was asking, 'What's that? Why do you have that? Where's your birth certificate?' And I was like, 'This is it.'"

Their green cards were funny-looking things, Kwity's older brother, Komotay Koffie, thought. A touch sinister, with their faces gazing straight into the camera, and an indecipherable code of numbers running along one side.

"Like a mugshot," Komotay says. "Like we were prisoners."

Kwity was 9 months old when Agnes left Guinea behind. She wanted her family to run toward something, not just run away ... from rebels in Liberia who wanted them dead, or countrymen in Sierra Leone who wound up wanting them dead too. So they ran toward Rhode Island, where Agnes' grandmother could sponsor their arrival to the States. Kwity's life began in a refugee camp in western Africa, but Providence was the only city he knew; their two-story apartment in the southern part of town was the only place he considered home.

There had, of course, been whiffs of Kwity's otherness. His mother went to church and didn't dress like the other mothers going to church, she in her traditional headscarf, them in sundresses and heels. She spoke peculiarly, too, and Kwity parroted his mother's accented English, weaving her idiosyncrasies into his own speech as a young boy learning the language.

He learned, too, the way words can cut. Children around the neighborhood, whose mothers dressed a certain way and who spoke accent-free, turned cruel, hurled invectives his way.

"They would make fun of us," Kwity says. "Say, 'You're an African booty scratcher.' I was, like, 'What do they even mean?'"

Kwity found it all a bit bewildering. Kids who looked like him still made fun of him for smelling like fufu, a West African staple -- but fufu was just dough, he'd think to himself. It didn't even have a smell. And he couldn't hear his mother's accent. She sounded just like everybody else speaking English to his ears.

But here was Kwity's green card, this physical proof of his being other, a blazing scarlet O.

Kwity having Komotay, and Komotay having Kwity, helped. So, in the end, would football. Agnes wasn't sold on the game when she signed her sons up for football at the Boys & Girls Club. She heard the thud of bodies colliding with ground, of bodies colliding with each other, and recoiled at the violence of it all. But there was Kwity, at his first youth game at running back, a runaway train.

He took off running, lofted the ball high over his head. The coach sprinted too, keeping Kwity's pace on the sideline, hollering at Kwity to keep the ball close to his chest. No matter. Even with Kwity holding the football aloft -- ball security be damned -- he was uncatchable.

From that point forward, Kwity approached the game with a monklike gravity. He woke up early on game days and begged his mom for a pass from church on football Sundays, wary that services would make him late for his game. It made a certain amount of sense, this fervor, because Kwity was her serious boy. He was the son who always colored inside the lines, while Komotay offered up Jackson Pollock chaos. Kwity was the peacekeeper, who was so serene as a baby in Guinea that Agnes remembers the people living alongside her in the refugee camp being surprised to learn there was a baby in the camp at all. He was the caretaker, who'd tiptoe around questions about his mother's past, gingerly, almost apologetically, because he knew asking her to talk about her trauma in Liberia meant making her relive it.

But here was this green card, a green card that told a story he needed to know.

"How come theirs is different from ours?" he asked her.

Why were they here?

What had she been through? What haunted her still?

AGNES CAN STILL hear the man screaming.

She didn't know his name, or how old he was. Just that he had been on the run with her, and the scores of other Liberians who had escaped their country, then fled from one village in Sierra Leone to the next.

It was barely a year since they had fled Liberia, and they'd spent days under the sun with little water, so when they spotted the river, they flocked to the relief it promised. They'd wanted to rest for a while, maybe rinse off the dirt and exhaustion. But the Sierra Leonean soldiers were waiting at the river for their crossing, and they'd grabbed the man. He was older than Agnes. Maybe 20? No older than 22, she figured. They'd accused him of being a Liberian rebel, and he tried to assure them he wasn't, that he was just a Liberian, period, trying to survive. He'd been traveling with these Liberians for days and --

"Shut up," they told him.

He started to beg for his life and --

"Tell us the truth," they yelled. "How far away are the rest of the rebels?"

They'd wanted him to confess something he couldn't. The man was crying for his life and everyone stood by watching, paralyzed. Agnes knew he was telling the truth. But how could she speak up or cry out when those cries would be met with bullets?

The soldiers shot the man. Agnes and her people scattered at the blast.

"Sometimes I wish I would have said, 'No! He's telling the truth! He's been among us!'" Agnes says. "They weren't going to listen to us because they thought we were all the same. Nobody could say anything."

This man, whom Agnes didn't know and couldn't save, was one of the more than 700,000 refugees left country-less by Liberia's two civil wars. An estimated 250,000 people in all were killed between 1989 and 2003.

A military leader named Samuel Doe had seized power in the country in 1980, and was brutal and merciless -- to everyone, save his own people, the Krahn. That entrenched abuse would breed entrenched, festering fury. In 1990, Doe was captured and executed, and Charles Taylor, the leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a rebel force, began his own campaign of terror, this time with a focus on the Krahn ethnic group. On Krahns like Agnes; Krahns like her father, whom they killed, whose home they burned to the ground. Humanity went missing.

"Neighbor turned against neighbor," Agnes says. "Family turned against family. We had to leave our peaceful home. Our lovely home."

Agnes had grown up on the edge of the country, next to the Cavalla River, which separated Liberia from the Ivory Coast to the east. She'd spend all day in that river as a child. It was her favorite place in the world, and her father would have to beg her to get out of the water and return home.

Agnes' father had sent her to live with an aunt not long before the rebels attacked their village. He had wanted her to get an education; he sent her away not knowing that would be the last time they'd see each other. Agnes would turn on the radio and every day she'd listen to reports that grew increasingly dire.

Today, they burned down this village.

They killed thousands.

They're coming.

They're coming closer.

They're here.

"They'd look at you, 'Oh, you're Krahn?'" Agnes says. "And boom boom boom boom." Gunshots; more lives stolen.

So they scattered as the radio reports grew bleaker, her parents to the Ivory Coast and Agnes to Sierra Leone with her aunt, her two cousins and her cousin's two children, each party assuming the other party dead. Why cling to hope? Hope belonged in the before times, in a world where their village hadn't burned to ashes.

Her parents had in fact survived the attack, making it safely across the Cavalla -- the same river where Agnes had played for hours on end -- and into the Ivory Coast. But her father returned shortly after. He was an old man. A farmer. He wanted to go back to the only land he knew. When he returned, rebels lying in wait attacked him.

"My father," Agnes says. "My father, my father got killed. They killed my father."

They killed her father but Agnes lived, walking for days along the Sierra Leone border. They killed her father but Agnes survived, and managed to continue to survive -- her rootless decade. She'd run through bushes. She'd walk for days until angry blisters burst on the soles of her feet. She'd run for her life while holding a baby -- a baby one of her cousins left behind in the chaos of a rebel attack because that's what people had to do sometimes; abandon their young and old. She'd stay a week in one Sierra Leonean village, until word came that Liberian rebels were encroaching. She'd stay longer in an airfield, donated by the Sierra Leonean government, at the behest of the United Nations, to house her and her displaced people. She'd endure more than seven years in Sierra Leone; two more in Guinea. She'd have her two sons, with a man who'd also escaped Liberia, which meant everything, because he knew what it meant to have nothing. He'd lost his family to the war too. Life began and life ended, and Agnes bore witness to both.

"Sometimes I try not to remember my past because it's not a good life, growing up," she says. "I didn't deserve it. I didn't choose that life."

"WE STARTED THIS journey in a different country," Kwity began. He paused, unable to go on. "Sorry."

Four years ago he stood at a podium in his high school auditorium and apologized as his voice gave up on him. He took a few moments, then tried again. On the day he was signing his letter of intent to play football for Michigan, he wanted to thank his mother for the life she did choose.

"She came to this country not knowing what she was getting into," he said.

For here is what she was getting into: When Agnes arrived in the United States, sponsored by her father's mother already living stateside, she traded one set of hardships for another. In Liberia, in Sierra Leone and Guinea, she had to fight not to die. In Rhode Island, she had to fight to live.

She enrolled in school, fixated on learning English. She had two young sons bound for school themselves one day soon. Who would help them with their homework if she couldn't read the words? Who would sign the permission slips they'd need if she couldn't make heads or tails of the forms? But Komotay and Kwity's father hadn't been able to come to America with them, and her family in Rhode Island didn't want to assume caretaking for the boys. Less than one year after arriving, she moved into a group home with her sons where she could go to school by day, leave the kids in daycare, and reunite with them by night. They lived in one room together -- Agnes on one bed; Kwity and Komotay on a bunk bed beside her. They had to share the bathroom with other families; they had to share a kitchen, too, but they were together, and alive, and safe.

Even when Agnes moved the family out of the group home and into an apartment of their own in the city of Providence, the reality of Agnes' financial duress in a new and foreign country chafed against the safety she could provide her children. Kwity and Komotay would go to bed to the pop of gunshots across the street; they'd wake up to the flash of yellow tape.

Kwity remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted something better than what this neighborhood could give him. He was in sixth grade and had been arguing with Komotay and his cousins about who among them was the best football player. There was a field next door, so they ran outside to do some one-on-ones. As they made their way to the field, a dark car with tinted windows pulled up, and Kwity heard his name called. It was a high schooler he knew, a boy he used to play football with, and he told Kwity he had to get back inside. He couldn't be on the street; they were about to start shooting, the high schooler told him. Kwity ran home, then peeked between the blinds. He heard the screech of tires and the thunder of bullets. Later that night he saw skid marks on the street.

"That's how it was in the neighborhood," he says. "You either went this way or you went that way."

Two years later, Kwity begged out of the neighborhood altogether.

In eighth grade, Kwity took Rhode Island's entrance exams for high school and placed in two: Classical, an excellent academic school just down the street, and Bishop Hendricken, a Catholic academy with an equally pristine academic reputation and a better football team -- that was both well outside the city of Providence, in Warwick, and even further outside the bounds of Agnes' financial wherewithal. But Kwity came home one day, his youth coach and his Bishop Hendricken application forms in tow, and asked his mother for what amounted to a miracle.

They couldn't afford it, she assured him. Classical was right down the street, she reminded him, and free, to boot. So Kwity lobbed his Hail Mary. Quiet, reserved, no-drama Kwity made a big promise, one that, eight years later, has become family lore, told and retold among those who know him and love him best.

"If you send me there, Mom, you won't have to pay for college," Kwity told Agnes. He was guaranteeing his mother he'd earn a college scholarship to play football if she found a way to send him to Bishop Hendricken.

She took on multiple jobs at a time to do just that. She'd clock in for her 7 a.m. shift at one nursing home, clock out at the end at 3 p.m., then beeline for her second shift at a different nursing home that started at 3:15 (thanks to an accommodating manager, who allowed her to be 15 minutes late), and finish up at 11 that night. Sometimes she'd cook, then bring her wares to the nursing homes to sell to her coworkers, just for the small infusion of funds that offered. She missed scores of his games, working instead, so Kwity could play those games at that school.

Komotay remembers seeing his mother come in and collapse into bed, too tired to eat. Kwity remembers not seeing her at all.

"She works three jobs," he said four years ago, to that full auditorium. "I never see her face."

Kwity watched those sacrifices, swallowed the ways his mother paid -- in money and in her time and in her health -- for him to continue on at Bishop Hendricken, and figured he didn't have much in the way of excuses to not fulfill his end of his bargain.

His was a common refrain in Kwity's corner of Providence. Agnes' church was a predominantly Liberian congregation in one of the most vibrant Liberian pockets in the country: Rhode Island was home to one of the largest per-capita populations of Liberians in the United States -- an estimated 15,000 alone in the country's smallest state. Anthony Witherstone was one of Kwity's closest friends and teammates at Bishop Hendricken, and he too, belonged to their church, Providence Church of Christ. He, too, went to school every day burdened with the knowledge that his father had fled from Liberia and survived atrocities he still couldn't share with his son. They all carried this violence, the parents who had lived through it and the children who had inherited it, and the children felt beholden to survive because their parents had.

All of which meant Kwity took the city bus, and transferred to another city bus, at 6:30 in the morning to get to school each day. Then he did the reverse to get home, waiting at the bus stop in the dark on frigid New England nights, returning at 7 in the evening, putting in 12-hour and 13-hour days. ("And Providence is the capital of Rhode Island," says Mike Green, one of Kwity's coaches from Bishop Hendricken. "There's a lot of characters on that bus ride sometimes. It wasn't a school bus with a bunch of teenagers.")

He got on the bus in south Providence and left one world. He got off the bus in Warwick in a different one, a whiter one. He was a foreigner again, with no tour guide -- Komotay hadn't attended Bishop Hendricken; had, in fact, left Rhode Island altogether to live with family in Tennessee and play high school football there to better his odds at playing college football. But Kwity had come here with a job in mind, so he went about the business of playing football, and trying to be good enough to continue playing football in college. It was his sophomore year, he says, when one play shifted the tectonic plates of his foundation. In a blowout win for Bishop Hendricken, with their opponents backed up on their own 15, the halfback cradled the ball, gashed through the middle of the field, and sprinted to a 30-yard head start on Kwity. Kwity chased him downfield, all the way to the 1, then knocked the ball free.

He earned an offer from Boston College, and garnered interest from Notre Dame. Bishop Hendricken coach Keith Croft chaperoned his visit to South Bend, Indiana, and the 48 hours they spent together offered Croft a rare glimpse into Kwity's history. Croft knew there were stories of Kwity coming to school hungry, needing a snack before practice, perhaps short on money. But the full breadth of Kwity's story, and of Agnes' story, was still unprobed territory to the coach. He asked Kwity about his mother, and his father, and how they met, and how Agnes had gotten to Providence in the first place.

And then two years later, Kwity stood at that podium at Bishop Hendricken and laid it all bare. He was a four-star recruit. He was the state of Rhode Island's highest-ranked prospect in more than a decade. He was a new signee for the University of Michigan, one of the country's most storied football programs. And all he felt was relief.

He thought of his mother's double shifts in nursing homes, and the patients she had to lift, the ones who were heavier than her, and left her with achy knees. He had promised her those double shifts would be worth it, and here he was, making good on that vow. Here he was, shrugging the weight of that vow off his shoulders.

"I do this all for her," he said at the auditorium. "So one day she'll never have to lift a finger again."

WHEN AGNES WAS expecting her second son, she dreamt of her father often.

"I think my father tried to give me a message," she says. "I don't want to forget him. I want to keep him in my heart. Keep him ..." She stops, because death can do that, even 30 years later, even an ocean away, even when you're not a child anymore and have children yourself -- steal your breath away.

"I want to keep him closer to me," she says. "I was going to name my son after my father."

Kwi, in her native language, she explains, denotes civilization. Education. Agnes' father, Kwity, wanted that for his daughter; Agnes wanted that for her son.

Kwity was born with the promise of education, a promise he made good on. When national powerhouses came calling for him, he committed to nearby Boston College at first, then followed coach Don Brown from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, to Ann Arbor, Michigan. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in African-American studies last December.

His was a strange, but successful, tenure as a Wolverine. Kwity broke out as a sophomore in 2018; emerged as a full-time starter as a junior when he collected 6.5 sacks in 2019; and starred in an injury- and coronavirus-abbreviated campaign as a senior in 2020. He earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in each of those seasons. In the end, he doesn't have eye-popping production to his name (11.5 career sacks) so much as a tantalizing ceiling, the allure of the kind of pro day results that make scouts giddy (4.52 40? for a 261-pound lineman?), and the endorsement of the draft's pontificating class. Both Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have projected him to be the first defensive lineman off the board in the first round come Thursday.

In a few days' time, he'll have one of the country's biggest possible megaphones -- an NFL platform -- and he has a very specific endgame in mind. He can be a Colin Kaepernick, he thinks, but for the issue of immigration.

Here's what he knows, and what he wants everyone else to know: He's an immigrant. He has lived in this country since he was 9 months old, and has been a citizen since he was a teenager. And, still, the line between who he is and who he could have been feels delicate, impermanent. He looked like the other kids in south Providence, and they still cried he smelled like fufu. One of his cousins was deported a few years back, and, yes, he had made bad decisions that prompted that expulsion, but he was still his cousin. Kwity could see himself in him. Kwity could be him.

So he wants to be like Colin Kaepernick instead, to force the enigma and stigma of immigration into sunlight, to be the human face of a conversation that is often stripped bare of humanity. The roadmap is still fuzzy in his head, but he knows he wants to make it easier for people who want to come to America and want to be citizens here to maneuver the labyrinthine path that lets them do so.

He doesn't exactly know how to help yet, just that he needs to. Because there's a thought that rattles around in his head, buzzing, persistent.

"You never know if there's another Kwity out there," he says.

If there is, if there's another Kwity, he wants to find him. Liberia, today, remains one of the world's poorest countries, so he has asked his mom what he should do with all this newfound capital -- economic, social -- and she told him to build. Schools in Liberia. Hospitals in Liberia. Agnes' maternal grandmother was bitten -- by a snake or a spider, they didn't know, but something venomous for certain -- and her family, without a car, tried to transport her by wheelbarrow to another town because their own didn't have a hospital. The venom did its job en route, though, and she died. Maybe, he thinks, he can help someone else's great-grandmother.

He'd like to do that. He has yet to step foot in his mother's homeland, but it's his home too. That's his home he honors with art on his own body: tattoos of Liberia's coordinates and the country's flag, of his mother's tribe and a lion, the national animal.

"That's who I am," he says. "I'm Liberian. Even though I wasn't raised there, I feel rooted there. When people ask me where I'm from, I always say Liberia."

He doesn't speak Krahn like his mother. Back when he was a kid, his mother was trying to learn English just like her young sons, so she spoke only English in the house. Now, when he answers her phone calls, he asks her to greet him in Krahn. He doesn't want the language to die in his family, so Agnes teaches him new nuggets, pearls of Krahn, when they speak on the phone. He keeps a notebook of what she has taught him, writing the words down phonetically because his mother doesn't know how to spell them either.

Nadu, hello.

Au nadu, hello response.

Tiene, where are you?

Inegbo, I'm home.

Agnes returned home after decades away, long enough that her mother didn't recognize her. And Agnes and Komotay will go there together next month. Komotay is a graduate student playing out his last year of eligibility in football at the University of Northern Colorado, but the realities of Kwity's new life as an NFL professional have butted up against his dream of seeing his country. His time in Liberia is still coming.

He'll meet Agnes' mother, whom he's never seen, and hasn't really ever spoken to because she doesn't speak English.

He'll meet his father, Leroy, who never had the opportunity to come to the States, whom he has spoken to but only sparingly.

He'll meet his mother's cousin, Cyrus, the man whose money helped Agnes escape to Guinea, which then made life in the United States -- this whole life -- possible for her, and for her boys.

"Being able to become someone of status and then go back to my community, and go back to my village and uplift them?" Like his mother dreamt? Like her father foretold? "That's something I look forward to."

That too is his birthright.

So he'll return. That day will come yet.

Tiene, they might ask.

Inegbo, he'll tell them.