George Nyakwol didn’t have to look far to find his ultimate role models. He didn’t even have to look outside of his home.
His parents, Veronica and Shan Nyakwol, left their native southern Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War to immigrate to the United States. Their arduous journey took them through Egypt, Lebanon (where George was born) and Syria. The Nyawkols finally made it to Texas in 2000.
“I’m a Christian, and I don’t want anybody to change me,” said Veronica, who gave birth to her fifth child three days after arriving in America. “I’m going to live according to my faith. That’s why I came here. It wasn’t easy. If you are from another outside world, coming to the United States is like you are going to heaven.”
Seventeen years later, George (6-2, 175) signed a National Letter of Intent to play defensive back for Rice University after a successful career as a three-year letter winner at Aldine Eisenhower High School in the Houston area.
George had 12 career interceptions with three returned for touchdowns, along with three receiving touchdowns. He was also awarded a $1,000 scholarship from the Touchdown Club of Houston late last year.
“It truly is an inspirational story with George’s family,” Rice Head Coach David Bailiff said. “To listen to the travels and the different countries, how she [Veronica] protected her children during the civil war and walked 48 hours to get out of Sudan. It is remarkable. It needs to be a book and a movie.”
Those incredible sacrifices are not at all lost on George.
“I think about that all of the time,” he said. “I think about where I would be if I didn’t come here. They said it was really tough adjusting to the American life. We had a lot of help from people that were here, like refugee aid ministries. They helped my mother get her citizenship in 2006.”
George and all of his siblings are quickly learned they would not waste their opportunity for education in their new home country.
Redenta Nyakwol (30) has been in the Air Force for eight years. Anna Nyakwol (25) is a recent college graduate. Sylvia Nyakwol (21) is nearing graduation from Sam Houston State University. And Takjok Nyakwol (16) is following in his brothers footsteps as a football player at Ike.
“That all started when we were little,” George said. “She [Veronica] used to tell us all of the time when we came to the United States that academics are important. I kind of stuck that in the top of my head and just live my life based on that.”
With one semester of high school remaining, George has a 3.5 GPA, is ranked 12th in a class of 562 students. He is also an International Baccalaureate Student, so he should fit in quite nicely with Rice’s lofty standards in the classroom.
“I’m really excited with the academic part of it,” George said. “Not everyone can get into Rice. That really says a lot about the people that are there. I think it presents a big opportunity for me that I can’t pass up.”
As long as George is planning to enroll in college, Veronica is on board. She and Shan both work for Aldine ISD.
“I came here to make a life to share with my husband and my kids,” Veronica said. “We don’t have any money, but I told my kids, ‘You know, we came from far, far away to the land of opportunity. Now, you can’t say, ‘I’m not going to school.’ School is the priority.’ Me, I can work and get the rent. If I’m still alive, I can do whatever I can for you to get your education.”
George grew up playing soccer. He discovered football when he saw some kids playing in the street.
“When I saw them playing, I was like, ‘Hmm. Maybe I should give this a try and see what it’s like,'” George said. “Ever since then, before elementary and middle school, I was playing football with the neighborhood kids. It was fun, and I was so dominant. In middle school, I kept playing and I became a star. I came to Ike and made a name for myself.”
Eisenhower Head Coach Kerry Bamburg couldn’t be happier that George took up football.
“We say all of the time the ideal student-athlete – he epitomizes that,” Bamburg said. “That’s what he is. He’s academics first, and he’ll let you know it. And he’s just an exceptional athlete to go along with it. He’s a pleasure to coach. The ones like that are easy to coach — they make coaches look better.”
In addition to his prowess on the football field, George is also a two-time state qualifier in the triple jump. He’ll try to make a third straight trip to Austin later this spring.
“He’s six-foot one and incredibly fast,” Bailiff said. “He’s really instinctual for the game. He’s as hard a working guy as there is. I think that shows in his ability to go to state in the triple jump. He’s very detailed in his approach to life. He’s mature beyond his years.”
George earning a spot with an FBS program gave his family an even bigger sense of pride. He was also recruited by Tulane, Missouri and Colorado, among others.
“I said, ‘Son, you’re going to be there for five years. I’m not going to be there. You need to choose which school is best for you,'” Veronica said. “I told him, ‘You are holding three positions now. Your birth certificate is Lebanon, and people from Lebanon know you are here. The southern Sudanese, they know you are from them. And America, you are one of them.”
The Rice coaching staff knows George will be a tremendous asset who could make an immediate impact in the secondary for the Owls.
“When he was young and I was going to the school, the coaches would always point him out on the field or on the track,” said Rice Assistant Head Coach Darrell Patterson, who recruited George. “They were always telling me, ‘He’s going to be amazing.’
His junior year, he came down and watched practice and we watched him. He came to camp unprepared for anything because he had just been doing track. He had an amazing camp and ran some really great times. He has unbelievable body control, quickness, agility and just played the ball well. He’s just a great athlete and an incredible young man.”
And when George suits up for Rice next year, his biggest fan will be there, ready to ring her bell.
“When I go see him play football, I bring a big bell I got from my Grandfather,” Veronica said. “He gave it to my Father, who gave it to me. He said, ‘Do whatever you like with it.’ I wanted to ring my bell when my son gets a touchdown. When he makes a touchdown, everybody asks, ‘Can you ring the bell? Can you ring the bell?'”
Patterson can’t wait.
“With the things that they went through traveling and as a family, you can see why they want to keep him close,” he said. “They’re a close-knit family that love one another and are amazingly supportive. Mom doesn’t play. She’s totally incredible.”
George and his family can also still watch Takjok play for the Eisenhower Eagles on Friday nights. He got called up to join George on the varsity last season.
“It was wonderful,” George said. “He has some high expectations to live up to.”
Bamburg couldn’t agree more.
“George is going to do something remarkable,” he said. “I don’t know what, but whatever he decides to do he’s going to be the best at it. He’s just one of those guys.”