Twenty miles northeast of Valdosta, Georgia, and 30 miles from the Florida state line, sits Lakeland, a remote, rural Georgia community with a population of approximately 3,000 residents. Most outsiders have never heard of Lakeland. They don’t know about the murals painted on the walls downtown or the nearby national wildlife refuge—they wouldn’t be able to point to Lakeland on a map.
“We don’t even have a stoplight,” says John White, former athletic director at Lanier County High School. “Lakeland is in deep, rural south Georgia.”
White would know. He graduated from Lanier County High School in 1981 and began coaching sports at his alma mater in 1986. He moved on to coach baseball, basketball, and football at several other schools, and later, he returned to Lanier to coach, teach, and serve as athletic director. White’s firsthand experience coaching at other high schools in south Georgia has given him perspective on how much Lanier has to overcome to be competitive in athletics.
“We have fewer kids than other schools,” says White. “And many of them come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s a little different than being at a bigger school where you have a lot of resources and five or six Division I signees every year. We’re a small community. The dream of playing in college is more difficult for kids to achieve from here.”
In 2011, the dream, which so many kids at Lanier have shared through the years, became a reality when Junior Gnonkonde, perhaps the unlikeliest of Lakeland residents, graduated and made the transition from high school football at Lanier to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“He was the first to make it from here,” says White. “He’s become a role model to all the kids in our community.”
Today, whether Carolina fans know Lakeland or not, Lakeland residents are well aware of Tar Heel football.
“We’re a small Class A town with 10,000 people living in the whole county,” continues White. “Junior is a household name. People down here who have never watched North Carolina football turn on the television to watch North Carolina play every week.”
Gnonkonde’s journey to Chapel Hill, roughly 600 miles northeast of Lakeland, required an adjustment period—so did transitioning from a school of fewer than 500 students to one of more than 18,000 undergraduates. But as different as Lakeland is from Chapel Hill and as Lanier is from UNC, the journey doesn’t compare to the one that brought him to the United States in the first place.
Born and raised in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a city of several million people, Gnonkonde stepped foot in the U.S. in the summer of 2008, when he played in an international basketball tournament in San Francisco. He had never traveled outside of Ivory Coast before arriving in the Bay Area—and, he admits, San Francisco didn’t make a good impression on him.
“It was cold,” Gnonkonde remembers. “I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I can make it here. I like it hot.”
Settling in Lakeland wasn’t predetermined for Gnonkonde. He didn’t know anyone in the community and he had no plans to remain in the U.S. after finishing the tournament. But, as unrest in Ivory Coast continued to grow, he and his teammates, one of whom had already planned to attend Lanier because of a coaching connection between the international team and Lakeland, decided to stay to see what opportunities were available to them. Instead of one player enrolling at Lanier, however, all four, including Gnonkonde, visited Lakeland and enrolled.
After their guardian in Lakeland ran into financial and other difficulties, White and another Lanier coach offered to serve as guardians for the group, preventing them from being sent to a foster home. White became responsible for Gnonkonde. White remembers that initial period of Gnonkonde’s time in Lakeland. Although Gnonkonde spoke several languages fluently, including French, Guere, and two other African languages, he spoke no English.
“They learned fast,” recalls White, who says that Gnonkonde had never seen a football let alone played the sport before watching the Lanier team practice. “One of them spoke English, but Junior didn’t, so he didn’t say much during the first six months. If he did speak, it was in French. But we don’t have French in our classrooms, so we put the group in with our Spanish class, and the teacher, who also spoke French, was able to communicate with them. Along with the help of Rosetta Stone, Junior was communicating pretty well by Christmas of his ninth grade year.”
Gnonkonde, the seventh of eight siblings, hasn’t been home in more than six years. Parents and siblings of the other high school teammates from Ivory Coast have been able to travel to see their son or brother in the States, but Gnonkonde has only talked to his family by phone and through email. He speaks with them regularly, however; one brother, who’s also attending a university, gives him updates on what’s happening in Ivory Coast.
“We talk about the condition of our country,” says Gnonkonde. “We have political issues. He tells me how everything is going. I never know if my family is safe, so that’s why I talk to him—to see if he thinks it’s okay.”
Gnonkonde admits that due to the distance between him and his family, it’s hard for him not to worry.
“It’s difficult being so far away,” he says. “I’m able to sometimes take my mind off it. School and football help.”
Despite the challenges of being apart from his family and learning a new language and culture, as well as a new sport, Gnonkonde is one to laugh easily. In fact, he says, he spends a good portion of his time laughing.
“You say something and I’ll transform it and make it funny and everyone laughs,” he says.
His teammates joke with him about his accent but they’re impressed by the progress he’s made since arriving at UNC. They often tell him that they wish they talked like him because they’re sure it gets him lots of girls.
“‘Nah, I don’t use it like that,’ I tell them.”
When he talks about his family, a big smile overtakes his face. In conversations with his mother, he says, she worries that he’s forgotten Guere.
“As soon as she hears my voice, she asks, ‘Have you forgotten Guere?’”
He reassures her that no, he hasn’t—he just doesn’t have anyone to speak it with.
The Gnonkonde family is full of large people, but at 6-5, 250 pounds, he may be the biggest among them by now. The family is also full of athletes, he says. His father, a retired policeman, was an avid soccer player, and his oldest brother, who Gnonkonde considers a role model, taught him to play basketball, the sport that brought him to the U.S. When he talks to his oldest brother today, they weave in and out of French and Guere. Gnonkonde tells him about school and assures him that he’s doing well. Despite the nearly two-decade difference in age between them, they remain competitive. Gnonkonde’s goal, he says, is to be better than his brother, and maybe to one day beat him in basketball.
Gnonkonde steers clear of social media as a way to keep in touch. “It’s too much time,” he says. “I’d rather use my time to watch television or relax. I’d rather keep in touch with people by using the phone.”
Besides, social media would only serve as a distraction from the reason he’s in the U.S. and at UNC—to take advantage of the opportunities he has.
“No one forced me to stay here,” he says. “I feel that if I decided to stay, I need to work hard to be something. I don’t want to just stay here and do nothing. We have a lot of opportunities here and I’m going to try to find myself a way to keep up with everything and be successful.”
“I need to work hard to be something. … We have a lot of opportunities here.”
At UNC, the sophomore defensive end has found a home. A double-major in African studies and Peace, War, and Defense, Gnonkonde enjoys the diversity he’s found on campus. In addition to friends on the football team, he spends time with students he’s met from other countries in Africa. They talk about the situations in their countries—Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, among them—and how their families and friends are doing back home. Gnonkonde hopes to take what he learns at UNC to Ivory Coast.
“One day I wish to go back and make improvements in any domain I can,” says Gnonkonde. “Security is an issue in my country. I want to bring skills back that will help my country, my community, everyone.”
He knows that in order to have the biggest impact, he must remain focused while he’s here. He’s especially grateful for the advice he’s received from defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning.
“They talk to me every day and try to make me a better man,” says Gnonkonde. “They give me good advice about life. Coach Gilmore always says, ‘Don’t think it’s all about football. Think about after football. What are you going to do? What are you majoring in? What type of job do you want to do?’”
Gnonkonde makes no secret about wanting to play at the next level. Although he’s a good basketball player who could have played at the college level at a lower-tier school, football represents an opportunity to make the biggest and most immediate impact on his family. White, his guardian, has witnessed Gnonkonde’s focus as he pursues his goal.
“He has a motivation others don’t have,” says White. “He wants an opportunity to one day graduate and then play in the NFL. It’s the only opportunity he has to take something back to his family….It’s different than the kids here. While many kids want to help their families, the difference between what his family endures and what theirs do is big. If Junior got a great job out of college or was drafted, his mentality would be to immediately give back to his family. That’s his goal. You don’t have too many kids where that’s their first goal. For most kids, it’s about themselves and the exposure they can get. He’s a big rarity as far as his goals and who he’s trying to accomplish them for.”
White acknowledges that despite Gnonkonde’s raw talent, the road to the NFL is more difficult for the Ivory Coast native.
“He didn’t even know what a football was in the ninth grade,” says White. “He’s years behind other kids. He was a basketball player that learned how to become a football player. But as much as he loves basketball—it’s his favorite sport—he was so dedicated to his goals that he didn’t want to play his senior year. He wanted to focus on being a football player.”
Gnonkonde’s Carolina coaches are optimistic about his chances of accomplishing his goal of playing at the next level.
“‘Wow’—that’s all I can say,” says Gilmore, when asked about Gnonkonde’s potential. “When I first got him, everything had to be explained. You had to find a different way to coach him than most guys because he didn’t understand the game the same way. It was trying at times because I had to communicate things differently to him but it probably made me a better coach and teacher. But his athleticism and his upside are unbelievable. If he continues to improve, I can see him playing on Sundays. He has that kind of skill level.”
Koenning has witnessed Gnonkonde’s progression from his freshman to sophomore year.
“He’s tremendously raw,” says Koenning. “But his size and ability are special. It’s taken him awhile, but he understands blocking schemes now this year. The football he played in south Georgia is good because of its location, but Lanier is a smaller south Georgia school, so it didn’t have the resources and the number of coaches that some of the schools there have. We’ve seen him come a long way since he got here.”
For Gnonkonde, football has become easier as his English has improved and as he’s been exposed more to the game.
“My first year here was a little bit harder because of English and the language barrier,” he says. “I had a lot of problems. Now, I’m good. Now, I know. I’ve gotten better at reading where the play is going to go. That’s come along….There’s a big, big difference between college and high school football. In high school, you just play. You don’t have to do your job or know your job. They just throw you in and say, ‘Do this, and do this.’ You just dominate. In college, you have to know your job and do your job.”
As he finishes his sophomore season and prepares for his third year on the field, Gnonkonde has adjusted to the pace of the game and his opponents’ size and athleticism.
“For me, there’s nothing complicated about playing defense at this level,” he says. “It has just taken time to get used to the speed of the game. But I was ready to work out hard when I came here. I came here at 213 pounds, and I quickly got stronger and faster. Now I’m at 255-260….On the field, I’m stronger now. I can fight back when those 300-320-pound linemen put their hands on me because I’m stronger and faster.”
Appreciation of Gnonkonde among Tar Heel coaches and players goes well beyond any play he may make on the football field.
“Junior was brought up to be a very respectful young man,” says Koenning. “He has as good a heart as any young man you’re ever going to run across. I can’t say enough about the character of the young man. He’s worked hard. Everyone loves him to death. He’s probably the most beloved player on our team.”
“He’s probably the most beloved player on our team.”
Gilmore believes that Gnonkonde’s experiences have helped shape the kind of person, player, and teammate he is.
“He’s so respectful, so malleable, and so good-natured,” says Gilmore. “He has a great personality. He’s one of my favorite people to work with. I have a tough time understanding him sometimes but he’s a great person and I love coaching him. He’s a good guy to be around every day.”
Gnonkonde continues to miss his family and friends back in Ivory Coast, and he misses the food he used to eat—spicy dishes with chicken and rice. But every day he’s becoming more and more accustomed to life in Chapel Hill and the U.S. Every chance he gets he goes to visit White and his wife and family and the large support system he’s developed in the Lakeland community.
Koenning marvels at the way White has supported the Tar Heel defensive athlete.
“He got blessed to have Coach White and his family down there to help take care of him,” says Koenning. “They’re loving parents just like anybody else’s.”
Gnonkonde admits that his journey to the States, the opportunity he’s found here, and the people he’s had a chance to meet, from Lakeland to Chapel Hill, have been difficult for him to make sense of.
“I had some hope that there would be opportunity here—that I could play at this level—but I didn’t know,” says Gnonkonde. “I was just a simple kid from Africa. I didn’t know about any of this—going to school and playing sports. I couldn’t speak any English and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?' I didn’t even know.”
But every day he learns something new. Every day he has a better understanding of why he’s here and what he can accomplish. And so do his fans from Lanier to Chapel Hill.
This article is from the December 2014 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.