Adorned in Jamaican colors on his T-shirt and baseball hat, a Jamaican flag draped around his shoulders like a superhero’s cape, Bai Salam Kanu cast a smile while sitting with his teammates on the Quincy High varsity boys’ soccer team last week at practice.
Kanu wears these colors to honor a friend and teammate, Lamar Thompson, who accidentally drowned June 30 after jumping off a pier in Quincy.
The death of his best friend wasn’t the first struggle for Kanu and it will not be his last. The 18-year-old senior midfielder found himself homeless only two weeks after Thompson’s passing. No stranger to strife, Kanu has kept his composure throughout these pressing times.
Born into the Civil War in Sierra Leone, in East Africa, Kanu grew up aware that at any moment, his family’s livelihood could be in danger. Living amid immense poverty, Kanu kept himself busy playing soccer, the most popular sport in the country, with other children. Developing a passion for the game may be the most positive memory Kanu has of his life there.
“I remember when the rebels came and attacked. Everyone just ran and left the place,” said Kanu.
After fleeing the violence of Sierra Leone, his family moved to Compton in South Central Los Angeles, in 2009. He was 15. He continued to spend a great deal of time playing, and following, the game of soccer.
His cousin, Kei Kamara, is a 28-year-old all-star forward with Major League Soccer’s Sporting Club of Kansas City. When KC, formerly known as the Wizards, made road trips west to play either the LA Galaxy or San Jose Earthquakes, Kanu and his family would attend the games.
“We’d watch and he’d come home and give us soccer cleats and a lot of other gear,” recalled Kanu.
But after two years in California, and attending Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, he was told he had to leave because he would not meet the school’s age limit as a senior. A year ago August, he moved to Quincy to live with his aunt and uncle.
On his first day of classes, he stayed after school to watch a varsity soccer game, introducing himself to the team and head coach Mark Spendlove.
After finding common ground with his new peers, Kanu was welcomed onto the Presidents. Being new to a school and to an established team can be difficult, but Kanu found a fast friend in another immigrant.
Lamar Thompson had arrived in Quincy from Jamaica, not long before Kanu, and was another fresh face for the Presidents. Their international experiences sparked the soon-to-be inseparable friendship.
“When he first saw me he thought I was from Jamaica and started speaking Jamaican to me,” Kanu laughs. “I said ‘I can’t understand you.’ ”
Kanu and Thompson began to spend time off the field, playing video games like FIFA at Kanu’s uncle’s apartment.
“They sort of became joined at the hip and they both arrived in Quincy pretty much around the same time, so it was basically an instant connection,” said Spendlove.
When Kanu learned of Thompson’s drowning, he began to think of ways to honor him during the soccer season.
“Lamar was at my house the day before he died,” Kanu remembered. “When I heard the news, I was crying and crying, thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to miss him.’ I was looking at pictures of him on Facebook and I saw his number. I thought, ‘I’m going to wear 13.’”
With the approval of Spendlove, Kanu is proudly wearing N0. 13 this season.
Two weeks after the tragedy, still in mourning, Kanu discovered a note at home asking him to move out because his uncle had been laid off. There was no room for Kanu.
Distraught, Kanu stayed with a friend for about a week before realizing that he was likely overstaying his welcome. He then reached out to James Abundis, president of America FC, whom he heard had coached and helped many of his high school teammates when they were younger and played for America FC. His son, James, is a junior stopper back for the Presidents this season.
With three children of his own, two in high school, Abundis weighed the options and met with Spendlove. The two, along with Kanu and a social worker, visited Father Bill’s Place, a shelter in Quincy.
Kanu had no desire to live there.
“To see a kid who’s gone through what he’s gone through look around like that and say ‘I don’t want to live here’ was pretty crazy,” said Spendlove.
“And I thought, ‘I don’t want him to stay here either.’ ”
Abundis, who works in the infographics department at the Globe, and his wife, Sally, immediately opened their doors to Kanu, transforming a room once used for storage into a bedroom.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Kanu. “Their family is really nice, especially the mom, Ms. Sally. She’s like a mom to me.”
Kanu works part time at a Stop and Shop in Quincy, but Abundis has urged Kanu to save his money for the future, rather than pay rent. Since Kanu is in this country on a green card, and not yet a US citizen, he is not eligible for any government assistance or federal loans for college.
Family members of his Quincy High teammates have given Kanu gift cards to buy clothes. Besides his part-time job, he has no other resources for college.
Abundis has told Kanu to make grades his top priority, trying to create more opportunities for an athlete with the odds up against him.
“I try to tell him he should focus on school and soccer, not just one thing,” said Abundis. “But he is very determined, and he has the technical skill’’ to play college soccer.
The 5-foot-11, 140-pound Kanu has his sights set on a future in soccer. Described as a powerful key player by his coach, he is skilled at distributing the ball and taking on plays for a Quincy High squad that opened its season with a 4-1 win over North Quincy before dropping Patriot League games to Hanover (3-0) Monday and and Scituate (2-1) on Wednesday.
“I’m trying to accomplish something,” said Kanu. “I want to take my team to a different level, more than we did last year.”
The Presidents lost to King Philip, 3-2, in the preiminary round of the Division 1 South tourney last season, finishing 9-6-5 overall.
“We have a lot to fight for,” said the younger Abundis. “Lamar should be with us on that field, but we’re going to play like he is.”.
Against Scituate, the Presidents fought to maintain possession for most of the first half after allowing an early goal. In the second half, Marli Caslli threw the ball into the goal box, allowing striker James O’Shea to finish off the scoring chance. Scituate netted the go-ahead goal with 12 minutes left.
Highly motivated, talkative, and almost always wearing a smile from ear to ear, Kanu impresses those around him.
“He’s great,” said Spendlove. “He’s always got a big smile on his face. There really haven’t been any outward signs of things getting to him.”
Despite the tribulations, Kanu counts his blessings.
“It’s stressful,” said Kanu. “I want to thank the Abundis family, principal Santoro, and my coach for being there when I needed somebody, my teammates for encouraging me and their families for the gifts they’ve given me.”