TAMPA — USF sophomore receiver Ajou Ajou has heard the horrifying stories of his mother, Monica, living in a South Sudanese refugee camp, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, crammed into tents, baking under the sun while being watched by armed guards.
The camp was near the capital city of Juba in the whirlwind of a civil war. It was the 1990s.
In the camp, Monica met a general who became her husband and who, through political connections, found a way to take his wife and a couple of their kids through Kenya to Brooks, Alberta, Canada. It is where Ajou (pronounced uh-Joe) was born in 2002, where his mom has worked ever since in a slaughterhouse, and where she lives to tell the stories with a wide smile and big heart.
“I love my mom so much,” says Ajou, which, loosely translated, means “powerful” in the Dinka language. “Motivation? Every single day I talk to my mom, and every day I think about what she has escaped from, a war-torn country, and every day I think if she can take care of her family the way she has and given me all these opportunities, then I absolutely must make the most of this opportunity.
“Some day, one day, I want to take care of her and my family. Motivation? I am filled with motivation.”
That’s why, after his father left the family when Ajou was in elementary school, he played football and basketball for his high school in Canada with an inexhaustible fire. He was a star with size, speed and a tremendous vertical leap, who helped his school win the equivalent of several state titles.
It’s also why, for his senior year, he found a friend with connections to high schools in America. “I felt like I wasn’t getting the exposure I should get,” he said. The 6-foot-3, 218-pounder received interest from schools such as Bradenton’s IMG Academy, but most said he may not be able to play right away. All except Clearwater Academy, where he moved in 2019.
In no time, universities started offering Ajou football scholarships, a couple after seeing a video of him leaping, passing a basketball between his legs and slamming down a dunk.
“That’s all they saw was that basketball clip,” he said. “And then I got a couple of football offers.”
Ajou ended up with more than 30 offers before enrolling at Clemson in 2020. There, he was recruited by former Tigers assistant Jeff Scott. After catching six passes for 73 yards in 2021, Ajou decided to enter the transfer portal and join Scott, now the head coach at USF.
Now, Ajou, who is quicker and stronger after losing 20 pounds during the past year, says he’s ready to bust out with the Bulls’ offense led by new junior quarterback Gerry Bohanon, a transfer from Baylor.
Scott says he sees great possibilities in the making, starting with Saturday’s opener against BYU.
“Ajou has become one of our most consistent players for us through the fall,” Scott said. “I fully expect that to translate to Saturday.”
Ajou can’t wait. As always, he wants to do more. Much more.
Like his mom, who is not formerly educated but, in his words “very, very smart” (she can speak six languages), Ajou, a communications major, loves to learn.
At the same time, he says he feels a tremendous need to contribute more to his team, a trait he says he inherited from his mom.
“(She is) the sweetest person in the world, a person who wants to help everybody, who will feed people and let them live in her house until they find a job,” Ajou says. “She’s really almost too kind sometimes. Sometimes people take advantage of that kindness.”
Ajou paused for a moment to think.
This summer was the first time in almost three years that he saw his mom in person, he said. She has yet to attend one of his college games, but that’s okay, he said, because she doesn’t understand football that well.
“All I know is that she wants what is best for me,” Ajou said. “And that is more than enough. Motivation? Yeah, I will always have plenty.”
• • •