Unbeaten Springfield already was up 14-7 and, following a shanked Fairmont punt, had gotten the ball deep in Firebirds territory and seemed about to score again Friday night.
With the Wildcats in a third-and-goal situation on the 3-yard line, Fairmont’s senior linebacker Tole Kikubi and his fellow defenders set themselves for the coming surge as their teammates on the sideline chanted passionately:
As Springfield quarterback Te’Sean Smoot took the snap and tried to push forward, Tole burst through and wrapped him up a yard short of the goal line.
The Wildcats quickly reassembled at the line and Tole readied himself again. He was amped up, but not panicked.
After all, the 18-year-old had faced far tougher challenges in his young life.
Just over five years ago he was still living in the Gasorwe Refugee Camp in the Muyinga province of northern Burundi.
He said his family lived there for over 10 years after fleeing a war-torn region of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa.
“Life in the camp was tough,” Tole said after practice a few days ago. “We lived in a tent at first and then a mud hut.”
He said there was no electricity, no running water and food was often scare. Ethnic rivalries among the 10,000 refugees there sometimes would flare up.
“Out of nowhere, people could just kill you,” he said quietly.
He had heard of some people occasionally getting a lottery-like chance at a new life in Europe, Australia or North America, especially in the United States.
“I didn’t know anything about the U.S, except I’d heard of New York City and Chicago,” he said. “We all thought America was heaven.”
After going through an extensive vetting process, his family finally was chosen to take part in a United Nations resettlement program in 2015 that was done in conjunction with the U.S. State Department. The family was brought to Dayton by Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley, but things were still difficult for Tole and his five younger sisters and brothers.
Their parents spilt up and when their dad moved to Michigan, the kids and their mom lived in a shelter for some eight months. His two younger brothers were sometimes bullied in their school – a plight that often befalls immigrant kids here – and at times Tole was thrust into the role of parent.
He had started high school at Belmont, but when his family moved to a small place on the edge of Kettering, he came to Fairmont, where some students also know him as Justin Tole because refugee names sometimes get mixed up, reinvented or simply Americanized.
When he heard about the start of football workouts, he showed up for the conditioning sessions.
He loved “futbol” as soccer was known in Africa.
“For the first two weeks he thought he was at soccer practice,” Firebirds football coach Dave Miller said with a laugh.
Tole now shares that joke: "Yeah, at first I didn’t know what I was playing. Then they started throwing the ball around. And once I saw the field here (at Roush Stadium) I knew, ‘Oh I’m in the wrong sport!’
“But I stayed and just said. ‘Hey, lucky me!’ It was fun. And I liked being part of a team.”
He said he knew none of the rules, the different positions he could play or even how you put on his pads.
“I learned by watching NFL games on TV,” he said.
He was challenged by Ning Peel and her husband Pete who are Good Samaritans when it comes to the local refugee community and especially Tole and his family.
Pete is retired from the Air Force and works a civil service job at Wright Patterson AFB.
Ning was born in Thailand and moved to the United States as a 10-year-old with her mom and stepdad, a U.S. airman she said who was shot down in the Vietnam War and was cared for by her mom.
Ning and Pete married 36 years ago and now – with their two children grown and successful – they do all kinds of grassroots efforts to help refugees resettled in Dayton. They have been especially drawn to Tole, who is always affable and surprisingly unbowed by the tough circumstances he has faced – and still does – in life.
“I like to challenge him and I bet him he couldn’t make it in football,” Ning chuckled.
But she and Pete encouraged him, as did Miller.
It was a struggle for Tole last year as a JV player. The Firebirds tried him at everything from fullback to kicker.
“Coach Miller told me he’s one of the best athletes he’s ever coached, but he just doesn’t know the game,” Pete said. “He didn’t play it from a young age like most of these kids.”
“We moved him to outside linebacker and everything just clicked this year,” Miller said.
A starter on defense, Tole is also a special teams' stalwart. On the opening kickoff Friday night. he stopped Springfield’s shifty return man, Dovon Williams, dead in his tracks for almost no gain.
Although he admits he still has a lot to learn, Tole said he likes competition, the camaraderie of the team and “hearing the cheers of the crowd.”
Although attendance was limited at Friday night’s game due to COVID-19 restrictions, there were just enough visiting Fairmont fans to get all three of those components Tole loves on that fourth down play at the goal line.
Springfield was on the 1 and again Tole and his Firebird mates dug in. Again Smoot took the snap and tried to plunge into the end zone. But he was met by a wall of defenders and Tole came from behind and pulled him backwards.
The Springfield scoring attempt fell six inches short.
The Fairmont defenders began celebrating and Tole bolted up from the pile and gave an exaggerated back-and-forth hand wave that said:
“Oh no! Not this time. No good!”
‘Everyone has a big heart’
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been besieged by decades of bloody conflict and upheaval. The genocide purges between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic tribes that produced a terrible civil war in neighboring Rwanda overtook parts of DRC and people fled the nation by the tens of thousands.
The Gasorwe Camp in Burundi held a wide mix of people and at times the food provided by the UN’s World Food Program was in short supply.
Education for Congolese children there was – according to an extensive study by the Norwegian Refugee Council – spotty at best. There was a limited number of qualified teachers and just a small percentage of students were able to pass the standardized Congolese school exams.
The report also found anxiety, depression and alcoholism were major problems for adults who felt unmoored from their past and unsure of their future.
“I was a kid so I really didn’t know anything more,” Tole said. “That was my home.”
And what were his dreams then?
He grew quiet and thought about the question.
“It was tough to dream over there,” he finally said. “You don’t think about things like being a doctor or anything. Maybe a teacher that’s about all you could imagine after you get through with school there.”
Finally, five years ago, he said his family “got lucky.”
Chosen by the U.N. for resettlement, they were brought to Dayton where there is a budding Congolese community .
But Tole’s fantasy of America as heaven was quickly altered.
“They dropped us at the house we would live at and I thought, ‘Oh, It’s just a regular house,’” he said.
The idea of life paved in gold gave way to reality.
“I realized America is just a normal country, but there are a couple of differences,” he said. “You can eat every day and you can work and get ahead.”
And some people were willing to help.
Ning, with Pete in tow, has been helping immigrants every way she can. The couple’s church – Beavercreek Christian Church on Shakerstown Road – became involved and soon Ning was hosting Friday night get-togethers there for kids.
“Some of the refugee kids would call me and say, ‘Miss Ning, what does it mean when people say they are having a sleepover?’” she said.
"They said the heard other kids in school talking about ‘See you at the bowling alley tonight. See you at the Regal. See you at the sleepover.’
"I said that’s when other kids invite you to their house to spend the night. I asked if they ever got invited and they said, ‘No, we just heard other kids talk about it.’
"It broke my heart. I imagined them walking home on Friday nights with nothing to do. So we worked it out with the church and started having parties on Friday nights. We’d cook food and we’d buy pizzas and play badminton and tennis and basketball.
“When people heard we were footing most of the bill, others joined in and soon we were able to buy diapers for families in need and get more food to their houses.”
While there is still far more need than there are donors, they have been able to reach more kids.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Friday night participation had grown from about five families to some 160 kids.
“That’s what I love about Dayton,” Ning said. “Everyone has a big heart.”
‘He’s just a great kid'
Dave Miller sees Tole the same way Pete and Ning Peel do.
"He’s just a great kid, "the coach said. “I know life’s been a struggle for him, but you’d never know it when you’re around him. He’s got that great smile. It’s infectious. He just has a super positive personality.”
Ning agreed: "No matter how bad things have been, he’s got that smile. It’s like somebody painted a big smile on his face.''
“He just really touches your heart,” Pete said. "I told the coach that one of the reasons he’s so magnetic with all the guys – one of the reasons he’s so popular and happy and grinning when he’s practicing or playing – is because out here is the only real joy he regularly gets.
“A lot of times at home he’s had to be the dad, the parent, the big brother, the shining example for his sisters and brothers.”
And he’s done a good job.
“His sisters are teenagers and they’re all awesome young ladies and his two younger brothers have real potential,” Pete said. “All of them are just wonderful kids.”
Sada is the next oldest and Ning said "she cooks, she cleans and she’s beautiful. She wants to be a model.
“Darlene is the athlete. She’s a good soccer player. She’s real dedicated and was getting up at 6 a.m. to run.”
Playing for the Fairmont JV, she’s already scored three goals this season, Tole said.
“Neema is the brains,” Ning said. “And the two youngest boys – David and Mechak – are good kids. David is an athlete himself. I got both boys into karate and the sensei said they are awesome.”
Tole’s future is key to the whole family Pete said:
“He can set the example. I told his coach he’s got a chance to break the cycle and his five younger sisters and brothers can watch him do it.”
Tole speaks English, some French, Swahili and three other tribal languages.
Not proficient in math when he came here, he’s now mastered algebra, Ning said.
He’s about to begin the process of becoming a U.S. citizen and hopes to study engineering in college. And, if the chance presents itself, he wants to play college football.
Miller said he thinks the latter will happen: “I think he’s going to make it. I don’t know where, but I think someone will give him a chance and I think they are going to get pretty lucky.”
He said Tole’s continuing ascension – from clueless guy thinking he was at a soccer practice to the Firebirds starting outside linebacker -- is nothing short of wondrous. He provided a couple of the bright moments in Friday’s 27-21 loss.
“Having a kid like him makes coaching special.” Miller admitted.
Miller’s assistant coaches feel the same and you saw an example of that Friday night.
After that second goal line stop, the jubilant Firebird defenders came galloping off the field with Tole right in the middle of the celebration.
An assistant coach ran onto the field to greet him with a leaping high five.
When Tole got near the bench – with the small but vocal crowd showering cheers and love on him and his fellow defenders – he pulled off is helmet and beamed up at then with that infectious smile.
On this Friday night of football in America, he had found heaven, after all.
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