The roster provided by Ohio State lists Eli Apple as being from Voorhees, N.J., and that is accurate. His family lives in the city just southeast of Philadelphia, and he graduated from Eastern Regional High School in the town of nearly 30,000.
But a more accurate representation of Apple’s history would require a much more thorough biography. It would mention the fact he lived in Ghana when he was younger, and it might include that his mother, Annie, was born in the West African country and also lived in such places as Liberia, Nigeria, England and Scotland.
Since moving to the United States at the age of 10, Annie has built a life for her family, one that includes Eli becoming a first-generation American, a college athlete and a national champion.
“It’s so fun for me because I love America. I absolutely love this country,” Annie told BSB. “I love it because America gives you the two things you need to be successful and to achieve anything in life – the freedom to serve God and the freedom of education. What else do you need to do anything in life?
“I believe in the inherent goodness of this country.”
That is an essential part of the story of Eli Kweku-Mensah Apple, each part of his name signaling a unique part of his background.
Annie gave him the name Eli because he was so small at birth his mother didn’t want him to have a name the size of which he couldn’t live up to.
Kweku is a Ghanaian term for a boy born on Wednesday, while Mensah is the name traditionally given to a third born child.
And Apple is the name he famously took on during his senior year of high school, shedding his biological name Woodard to honor his stepfather, Tim, who has served as the father figure in his life since the age of 2.
Now a third-year sophomore cornerback in his second year as a starter, Apple represents more than just New Jersey, though it was admittedly nice for him to return to the Garden State for the Buckeyes’ Oct. 24 game at Rutgers.
His story is much deeper than that, as he’s the product of parents who sacrificed so he and his siblings could have a chance to succeed. He’s also the product of two countries, one where his mother’s roots lie and the other where he’s been afforded opportunity which to many is what our country stands for.
“It’s weird,” he told BSB. “Everything is going by so fast. I’m just taking everything in, but I feel like when I’m older and I look back on stuff – I know I’m blessed, but I feel like when I look back it’s going to be even sweeter because you don’t really realize it until you get to settle down and take it all in.”
Coming To America
Annie was born in Accra, the capital of Ghana and a city that hugs the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean. The capital of the British Gold Coast from 1877-1957, Accra is a city of more than 2 million, the largest in a nation of more than 24 million at the 2010 census.
However, the Apple family wouldn’t be in Accra for long. Annie was the last of seven children, with a large gap in age between herself and her brother Michael compared to the rest of the siblings, and there wasn’t much choice when it came to traveling the country in support of their mother’s work.
“Long story short, God called my mom to be a missionary,” Annie said of her mother, Beatrice Cassell. “I was her seventh child, and we all went on the road with her. She would preach and the seven of us would sing. We were like the African Partridge Family. Seriously, that was our life. We went from city to city, village to village, and that’s what we did for a long time.”
That led to a globe-trotting existence. Sometimes, Cassell would leave the kids behind when she went somewhere too dangerous. At other times, when God called, the entire family followed. At first, that meant moving from West Africa to Great Britain. Eventually, when Annie was 10, it meant moving to Newark, N.J.
“(My mother) was always asked, ‘What brought you to America?’ and to be honest with you, she was in prayer and God wanted us to go to America,” Annie said. “We were accustomed to doing what God said, so we went.”
Always a voracious reader who spent much of her time in libraries and an honor student in high school, Annie married young and had three children, Devion, Daniel and Eli. But that relationship soon fell apart, and with three children and a need to figure out a way to provide for them, Annie faced decisions.
Working and also attending school, Annie had to lean on her siblings. One lived in Temu, Ghana, a seaport just east of Accra, and the decision was made that Eli at the age of 2 should move to his mother’s homeland.
“I was going back to college and it was a lot, so he had to stay with my sister back in Ghana when he was really young,” she said. “The mom in me, to this day, you won’t believe it but sometimes I do cry because it was the hardest thing to ever do because I had these three little boys. I was on my own. You have to work, and I remember day care was so expensive. It was just a lot, so my mom was like, ‘Listen, you let your sister watch him for a few years,’ and for me it was just the most heartbreaking thing to do, but looking back now it was one of the best things for him.
“I totally see the difference,” she added. “You’re a mom and that’s your little baby, but I had to sacrifice to go to college. I had to build a life for them. It was a short time, but it felt like an eternity. But you do the best you can, and God is faithful, and Eli is an amazing kid. He’s his own person. I think that upbringing, having that balance, really helped him stay true to who he is. It worked out.”
Eli stayed in Ghana for less than two years, and at times he was joined by Devion. Meanwhile, Annie met Tim while the two worked at a hotel, and eventually, Annie returned to Ghana to bring Eli back to the United States.
He would move from time to time again before settling in Voorhees, though in some ways the time in Ghana stands out.
“I’m proud of that for sure,” he said. “I don’t really remember much. I feel like that made me somewhat into the person I am. Being in Ghana, being in a different country, a different continent, it was definitely weird, but you learn.”
More than 80 years ago, a baby was born in Elyria, Ohio, and given the name Victor by the Janowicz family. His parents, Felix and Veronica, were immigrants from Poland, and like many of the strong, hardworking sons of immigrants in the Rust Belt, he excelled on the field and the court.
Some of those men, like Stan Musial, a son of a Polish immigrant in Donora, Pa., became baseball stars. As time went on, many, like Vic Janowicz, went on to suit up in college football, and Janowicz shone so much on the gridiron at Ohio State that he won the Heisman Trophy in 1950.
While that story sounds antiquated, it is in many ways the same path that Apple has taken. While it seems unlikely Apple will end up winning college football’s top individual honor – he plays the wrong position for that, to start with – he did earn quite an honor when the Ohio State football team went to the White House in April to celebrate its national championship win.
“He ended up standing right next to the president. How ridiculous was that?” Annie said. “I said, ‘Let me tell you something, you need to stand next to Ezekiel Elliott. The camera always follows Zeke.’ And he ended up standing next to the president. I thought that was pretty huge.”
News of that event filtered back to members of the Apple family still in Africa, and it does underline that in many ways anything is still possible in America. The entire Apple family underscores that reality, something Eli is fully aware of.
“They came from nothing, and now look at us,” Eli said. “It’s crazy. A lot of people don’t know all the stuff that my mom has gone through, the stuff that my mom’s parents have gone through, but that’s hard work and perseverance. My mom is not the type of person to take no for an answer, and it’s taken her a long way.”
To this day, Annie’s mother, Beatrice, still travels the world delivering the gospel, spending the American winters in Ghana, prompting Annie to quip, “Ghana is like the new Florida.” Three of her four children – all except her youngest, daughter Jordan – have spent time in her native country, a fact she holds dear.
Annie herself is noted among Ohio State fans for her humor and candor on Twitter, where she posts under the handle @SurvivinAmerica, but that personality is an outgrowth of her experiences. She has the perspective of someone who has moved around the world and the perseverance of someone who has had little given in life, traits that have helped Eli get to where he is today.
“Tim and I were very honest with our kids,” Annie said. “For me, I’m an eternal optimist, but I’ve always believed life presented a lot of challenges and you have to make them work for you. Nothing is ever going to come easy. You can’t expect it. When I was 20 years old I had Eli on the way and I had so many challenges in front of me, and I think my kids have learned from that.
“I went to college, finished in four years with two degrees, worked my butt off. I worked full time as a concierge at a five-star hotel, I went to school full time. My kids grew up seeing the possibilities. I never want them to see life can beat you down to the point that you just give up. That’s the immigrant spirit.”