Yeedee Thaenrat is living the American Dream.
In 2003, he and his siblings were separated from their parents while fleeing their native Liberia during one of the bloodiest wars the nation has ever seen. In 2019, he’s a senior at Towson University and the starting running back for the football team. But more importantly, the scholarship earned by playing football will provide him the opportunity to become the first in his family to graduate from college.
Through all of his accomplishments in life, sport and academia, the 21-year-old criminal justice major remains grounded by remembering his struggles early in life and school, specifically the time he spent as a student in English as a Second Language programming.
“I’ve always been in the back of the line,” Thaenrat said. “Especially coming over at a young age, I had to learn English. So I was in ESL until like sixth grade and got made fun of my first few years of school. It was a tough time just making friends. But my grandmother always said, ‘We didn’t come this far to be nothing. God brought us here to better ourselves.’ She reminded us every day and that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Thaenrat became the starting running back at Towson when redshirt senior Shane Simpson suffered a season-ending knee injury at Maine Sept. 14. Thaenrat received the game ball that day after running for four touchdowns in the 45-23 victory.
Thaenrat (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) runs with a bruising style and posted 124 rushing yards and eight touchdowns during the first five games of the season According to Tigers head coach Rob Ambrose, Thaenrat is well equipped for the physical trials of football after a lifetime of mental and emotional trials.
“His idea of pain isn’t physical,” Ambrose said. “He’s already lived through a lifetime of insane situations. This type, physical pain, that leaves. You heal, you grow.”
The Second Liberian Civil War raged from 1999-2003, resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties as well as the death and displacement of thousands of civilians. Thaenrat and his siblings, along with his grandmother, aunt and uncle, fled the conflict and were sponsored by Catholic Charities USA to resettle in the United States as refugees.
Thaenrat and his siblings arrived in San Antonio. Thaenrat discovered what football was in the Lone Star State, but he said it wasn’t until he and his family relocated to Philadelphia that he eventually fell in love with the game while playing during recess.
Thaenrat considers his aunt, Theresa Biyoyouwei, a surrogate mother. He credits her with developing his curious, intelligent and very “coachable” nature.
“I was always taught to obey those in charge,” Thaenrat said. “So coaching me was easy because I was curious, I fell in love with the game and I was interested in learning.”
Thaenrat became a standout student-athlete at Father Judge High School in Philadelphia. By his junior year, he had scholarship offers from the likes of Purdue, Rutgers and Boston College. But after breaking his ankle as a senior, the offers disappeared. Fortunately, Thaenrat’s life story up until that point provided a great deal of perspective.
“When they told me how severe my injury was, I felt like it was all over,” Thaenrat said. “I thought like, ‘Damn, am I ever going to play again?’ But I remembered coming from Liberia thinking, ‘Damn, how are we going to survive?’ So overcoming that adversity there, I knew I could overcome anything.”
Thaenrat began his college career at Tennessee Tech, also an FCS program, in 2016. After two seasons, he transferred to Towson, one of the few top FCS schools that hadn’t pulled his scholarship offer after his injury.
“It was so bad, everybody with a brain doubted he would ever play football again,” Ambrose said. “He didn’t care. He doesn’t care about odds. The odds would say he couldn’t do ‘blank,’ and that list is huge in his life, but anytime somebody has said that in his life, he just smiles and says, ‘OK.'”
Thaenrat’s journey to Towson was a long one. Along with earning a bachelor’s degree, he hopes to complete the process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2020.
“It’s just an accomplishment,” Thaenrat said, “that when you look back at how far I came — through all the struggle, all the tears, all the pain — and I’m here. When people see immigrants come to this country, this is the No. 1 goal: education and a better living.”
Thaenrat hopes his story can offer hope to young immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees looking for a brighter future in the United States.
“This is a very touchy topic,” Thaenrat said of immigration. “Immigration, especially being an immigrant in this country, you don’t know what can happen to you next. I feel like I’m an example of what we are. America is built of immigrants and this is what we fight to be. I feel like people don’t dig deep enough, they just go with what they hear and just judge. I feel like, don’t judge me because of what I look like or where I came from. Judge me off what I’ve done.”
Yeedee Thaenrat is living the American Dream.
Photo Credit: ENP Photography
Issue 258: October 2019