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A name shaped by hardship, history and heroism

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Mon. April 18, 2011 | Bryan Burns

A name shaped by hardship, history and heroism

WESLEY CHAPEL — Courage Okungbowa wins another point,  ripping a cross-court backhand to its pre-determined spot on the other side of the net, a few pieces of yellow tennis ball fuzz landing on the baseline.

The stoic look on the Wiregrass Ranch High sophomore’s face never changes. Gauging success or failure from his reaction is pointless.

When frustration creeps into Okungbowa’s game, the words of his father, Stanley, repeat inside his head, keeping the 16-year-old grounded.

“Your name is Courage. Don’t let me down. Every time you go on that court, say Courage. Don’t forget your name.”

• • •

Stanley Okungbowa grew up on a rural farm in Nigeria, where he would wake at 4 a.m. to pick fruit. School was a 10-mile walk, and there were no buses.

Stanley was introduced to tennis by a group of American Peace Corps workers who had come to Nigeria during President Kennedy’s administration after the country gained independence from the British empire. To Stanley, tennis was a sport for the privileged.

“They were importing the American way of living, to compete with the British way,” Stanley said. “…They were coming with different ideas. Very simple. Equality. Not master-servant. …When the Americans came, we find out we could be as good as they are. That opened up the world for everybody. There was immigration to the U.S., believe you me.”

Backed by the images of Peace Corps workers comfortably intermingling with poorer Nigerians, Stanley was accepted for a U.S. student visa. He spent two years at Chowan College (now Chowan University) in Murfreesboro, N.C., before transferring to Arkansas State to finish his bachelor’s degree in printing technology and management. He played tennis at Arkansas State for a year, but the time demands became too great. He worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time, delivering newspapers in the morning, working the night shift a McDonald’s or Wendy’s, driving a cab. Anything so he could continue going to school.

“Maintaining my grades was my No. 1 priority,” he said. “We value education.”

After graduating, Stanley secured a job in a printing plant in Jonesboro, Ark., staying three years before returning to Nigeria to teach.

After three more years he grew tired of the corruption in the Nigerian government and wanted to return to the United States. Stanley went to the Mexican embassy in London and obtained a visa, then entered the United States through Mexico.

“I had $3,000 so (the Mexican embassy) was willing to work with me,” he said. “Many Nigerians were already coming to the U.S. through Mexico at that time.”

• • •

Stanley landed in Boston, working two jobs. He bought a car and slept in it for nearly a year. Times were hard.

A devout Catholic, Stanley attended a church along with Sen. Ted Kennedy. Stanley told Kennedy about his visa problems, and Kennedy put him in contact with a lawyer who advised him to declare amnesty. Soon after, he had his green card.

“Nobody gives you freedom,” he said. “You take it. You earn it.”

While working as a printing plant manager, Stanley met a fellow African, Ibroahim, got him a job at the plant and allowed him to stay in his apartment rent free. Down the road, Ibroahim would repay Stanley for his kindness.

In one of his travels back to Nigeria, Stanley met future wife Mabel. Mabel got a U.S. visa through Sierra Leone, which  was going through a bloody civil war at the time and traveling to the country would be unsafe.
Ibroahim, however, had a connection. His brother, Sankoh, was a rebel leader in Sierra Leone who could provide a safe haven for the pair.

“Suddenly when we arrived, the military was waiting for us at the airport,” he said. “…(Sankoh) took care of us. He helped us with all the necessary papers to travel.”

Stanley and Mabel were escorted by the rebel forces to Guinea, where they hopped a plane for Amsterdam and eventually the United States. Less than a year after arriving in Alexandria, Va., Courage was born.

“If we didn’t have courage, we would never have left Nigeria,” Stanley said. “That’s what gave me that idea. It’s good to be courageous. We went through hell, but it was worth it.”

Mabel gave birth to three more children: sons Foresight and Destiny, and daughter Precious.

• • •

Four years ago, Stanley took his family to Nigeria, showing them where he grew up and how he used to live.

“I could see a distinct difference between people living in (the U.S.) and people living in Nigeria,” Courage said. “I used to take everything for granted. I’ve learned that everything’s worth something. You can’t waste anything.”

Like, say, talent.

Courage learned tennis watching his father play with friends in a park next to their home in Alexandria. Like his dad, Courage was a natural. He entered tournaments throughout the D.C. metro area. Before long, he was winning most of them, despite giving up size and strength to most of his opponents.

Like his dad, Courage connected with the individual aspect of tennis. He loved knowing he could control his destiny on the court, that his diligence in practice would pay off.

“Nothing comes easy with tennis,” Courage said. “You’ve got to work hard for everything.”

Courage worked his way up the ladder, becoming one of the top-ranked junior tennis players in D.C. In school, he made straight A’s.

This past summer, the Okungbowas moved to Wesley Chapel so Courage could train year round. On the trip down, their vehicle was struck by another car, spinning over the side of a bridge, flipping over and over until landing in a shallow, muddy river below. Stanley, the driver, hit his head on the dashboard and passed out. Courage had to think quickly.

“Your name is Courage. Don’t let me down”

With the car starting to sink, Courage was able to get his three siblings out of the car along with their belongings and head to safety. When Stanley came to, he climbed out the window onto a tree until he could be rescued. He still has trouble remembering certain dates or names, but is just happy everyone survived.

“Every day, I pray to God,” he said. “Give me long life to be able to guide my children.

Courage joined a Wiregrass Ranch tennis program that had just missed qualifying for the state tournament a year earlier. He immediately became the top singles player and won every match during the regular season. He earned a district title in his first try, defeating all three opponents without losing a game. In class, he is an honors student.

“My dad worked hard for everything,” Courage said. “That’s what I’m trying to incorporate to my tennis so that I become a better player.”

And when things seem difficult, his father’s words help guide him.

“Your name is Courage. Don’t let me down.”

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