When just 11 years old, Paul Gombwer watched Christians and Muslims fighting in his Nigerian neighborhood. There was smoke everywhere. Gombwer saw many of his peers carrying machetes while burning and looting churches.
While trying to escape to a safe place, the Gombwer family was stopped by a group of 30 kids carrying weapons. Gombwer, the youngest of six children, knew many of these teenagers. They had played soccer in the streets together. It was someone he did not know, though, who spoke up in the Housa language saying, “Let them go.”
To this day, Gombwer believes that unknown person was an angel. And to this day, everything that has happened in his life is because of that moment.
Gombwer is now 23 years old and will play his final home game as a Charleston Southern University basketball player tomorrow night.
Nigeria is a 21-hour plane ride from Charleston International Airport. But Gombwer’s journey from Kaduna, Nigeria, to exit 205 off I-26 is just a small part of this story.
Gombwer’s father was a textile worker; his mom, a businesswoman who earned enough money to buy four cars. That’s impressive, considering his mother, Alice, could not read or write. What she did want most for her youngest child, though, was an education. The best way for that to happen was to send 16-year-old Gombwer to the United States to play basketball.
A Florida couple, Brad and Toni Ann Sirkin, became his foster family. He lived with the Sirkins while excelling in the classroom and on the basketball court.
After accepting a scholarship to Colgate University, the school changed coaches. Gombwer decided it might be smart to visit a couple of other schools and before he knew it, he was on a flight to see Charleston Southern. He knew nothing about the school or its coach.
For some reason, he got a good feeling about the campus, but was still conflicted when he left to go back to Florida. During a layover in Atlanta, he got a call from Bucs coach Barclay Radebaugh. He told the coach he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. The coach then asked Gombwer if it would be all right if they prayed. At that moment, the 6-foot, 6-inch power forward felt relief and a confidence that he’d found his college home.
There are thousands of college seniors who will play their final games over the next few days. In most arenas, their parents will walk to center court to share the moment. His foster mom and dad plan to be in Charleston to support Gombwer. His mom, Alice, though will not. She died of a stroke two years ago and Gombwer is still emotional when he thinks of her passing.
Alice never saw her son play a single moment in high school or college. They talked by phone three times a week. She always was interested in his school work.
He feels like he’s done his part to get his education. He’s made the dean’s list the last six semesters and will soon be named to the Big South’s All-Academic team for the third consecutive year. His mom would get a big thrill from that.
There’s more, though. Gombwer has established a foundation in his mother’s name that promotes peace and care for orphans.
His plan includes returning to that burned-down neighborhood and using his mom’s old house to care for kids without any parents.
She never saw him make a basket, but what goals he’s scoring in her honor.
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org.