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For star tailback, a life beyond war

Time has dulled the pain and blurred the memories, but if he closes his eyes tightly, Jehuu Caulcrick can still hear the guns cracking outside his bedroom window.

He can still hear the bombs, becoming louder as they draw closer. He can still see the bodies strewn across his neighborhood.

He can still smell death.

Caulcrick is 19 now, a high school senior, a man. How he reached this point in one piece is miraculous. He's still haunted by his experiences growing up amid civil war and slaughter in Liberia, West Africa. At least he can crack a genuine smile now.

That alone might be his greatest victory in life.

Caulcrick is a 6-foot, 235-pound, muscle-bound running back for Clymer Central High School who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, but to describe him so one-dimensionally would be a great injustice.

He's among the best football players in the state, the best small-school player in Western New York in a generation, if not ever. He earned a football scholarship to Michigan State, the Big Ten, the big time.

Clymer fullback Jehuu Caulcrick celebrates with teammates after winning the Section VI Class D title at Ralph Wilson Stadium. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo

Clymer fullback Jehuu Caulcrick celebrates with teammates after winning the Section VI Class D title at Ralph Wilson Stadium. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photoHow did this African teenager find his way to an American farm town? The tale is as long and twisted as the roads through the rolling hills of Chautauqua County, leading past the one restaurant, one bank, one service station and one blinking light that tell outsiders they've reached Clymer's business district.

Half the town's 1,000 residents are Clymer Central students. About 200 are Amish.

There is only one Jehuu.

Clymer citizens know he came from Africa but not much else. His family traveled about 5,000 miles from hell to reach heavenly small-town upstate New York. Each story is more unforgettable than the last.
They are a lucky family, lucky to be together, luckier to be alive.

"You don't expect to go through what I went through," he said. "You expect to have ice cream and ride bikes. You don't expect war and people dying."

He was born Jerome Blamo on Aug. 6, 1983, but the name was from his former life. He left both behind in Liberia's blood-soaked streets. "Jehuu," pronounced Jay-whoo, means "fussy baby" in Bassa, the tribal language in his native country.

His mother gave him the nickname because he kicked relentlessly in her womb. Perhaps it was an omen.

His father was assassinated 10 years ago this month after guerrillas stormed his hide-out hotel in neighboring Sierra Leone, where they also killed an additional 500 people.

A rebel shot Caulcrick's adopted brother to death through a door. His grandfather was shot in the leg while leading Caulcrick and his sister, Mardea, to safety.

Caulcrick narrowly escaped several times, bullets whizzing past his head and cracking against buildings behind him.

He can still see the faces of hundreds he saw die. They were gunned down and stabbed, beaten to death by soldiers and anti-government forces trying to take over Liberia.

There was a pregnant woman left for dead after her abdomen was cut open in a dispute between soldiers over the gender of her baby. He was walking with a neighbor when she was caught in cross fire.
He found her body three days later, rigor mortis setting in under the hot African sun, the smell burning into his memory.

This was no place for anyone, especially a 9-year-old boy. Somehow he and his sister came through virtually unscathed and landed in Clymer.

"I think God was with them," said their mother, Bonita Karr. "He must have them around for a purpose.
For this little kid who didn't know anything about football, for him to come and be able to do this, there has to be a reason for them to be around."

Building a life

Caulcrick spent his early years in Buchanan, 85 miles from the Liberian capital of Monrovia, named for James Monroe, the fifth U.S. president.

The first group of slaves freed in the United States went back to West Africa and founded Liberia, near the equator along the Atlantic Ocean, in 1847.

Liberia considered itself a sister country to the United States and set up its government essentially the same. The Liberian flag looks like the U.S. flag, only it has 11 red-and-white stripes and one star in the blue field.

The first Liberian president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was a former West Virginia slave. The country, with about 2.6 million people spread over an area the size of Texas, was built with loans from the U.S. government.

"Nobody thinks any part of Africa is connected to America," Karr said. "When people think of Africa, they think of poor, starving people. But because of America, we were pretty much well off."

The government was previously overthrown, in 1980, when a group that included associates of Caulcrick's father took power. Caulcrick's father, Jerome Blamo, was a security chief for Gen. Thomas Qwonpha, who was the nation's secretary of state.

Civil unrest began in the 1980s, which sent Blamo into hiding because he was closely associated with the government.

Blamo reluctantly separated from his wife when Jehuu was about 2 because he couldn't take care of his family while on the run. The two loved each other and wanted to stay together, but Blamo was distraught over his inability to support his family.

He wanted his wife to build a better life for the kids, so he filed for divorce. He kept ties to the kids, but always at a distance. The rebels were watching.

If he drew his family too close, they would enter his unsafe world, where killers were waiting.

"When he had to go into hiding, he couldn't work," Karr said. "He wasn't able to bring home the money he was used to bringing home, and it made him feel like less of a man. It was stressful on him, which I understood. But he couldn't take it.

It was stressing him out. He was angry. He was feeling he wasn't up to par. He had to keep going into hiding. Anybody connected to him, (the guerrillas) would be looking for them. They would kill that person. So we were in serious danger, too."


Children with guns

Bonita Caulcrick was the manager of a country club in Liberia when she met Mark Karr, a business consultant from Clymer who was working there for nine months. The two fell in love and decided to move her and her two children to Clymer.

First she needed to leave the children with her parents and travel to the United States to obtain visas. While she was fighting through the red tape in the United States in late 1989, the civil war broke out in Liberia.

"You know, when we were little, we watched TV and saw war movies and stuff," said Caulcrick's sister, Mardea, 21. "We thought it was all fun and games. When we heard the war was coming, we were all excited because we knew we were going to see guns.

We thought it was like a TV thing. We weren't aware how it was going to impact us. Now we know how it did." .

The war was between government soldiers and rebels looking to overthrow the government. In just a few years, the country was in ruins, and more than 150,000 Liberians were dead. About half the country's residents fled their homes.

Depleted armies prompted both sides to recruit children to help in the fight. Many were younger than 12.
For two years, Caulcrick and his sister were refugees with their grandparents, moving from camp to camp while their mother's letters from the States went unanswered. Telephone communication was lost.

He couldn't attend school while he was in hiding, which is why he's a 19-year-old senior now.

His mother heard nothing. She cried herself to sleep at night in Clymer, trying to convince herself her children were still alive, knowing there was a better chance death found them first. She felt helpless.

In West Africa, they were on the run, often going days without food and water. Joanna Caulcrick, his grandmother, lost the children dozens of times while running for cover and would discover them hours later, shaken but alive.

"It's very difficult to describe," she said. "Living there, you could die at any time. You went to bed with your clothes on because you might have to pick up and go. We would just leave everything behind. It was leave everything behind or die.

"The children were small, and we were trying to hide them. There would be shooting, and (the kids) wanted to get up and see what they were doing. They were kids. They didn't know how dangerous it was.
I was just covering them with my body, telling them: 'Keep down. Keep quiet.' There were dead bodies all over the streets." .

They were sprinting through the streets of Buchanan for safety one time in 1990 when a sniper opened fire, just missing Caulcrick and catching his grandfather in the shin.

His grandmother pulled out the bullet, dressed the wound with a flour bag she used as a hair tie and continued running. They eventually dipped out of the firefight, out of danger. They were safe, temporarily.

"It was really crazy," Caulcrick said. "You would be walking over dead bodies to get across the street. You would literally see your people lying on the ground.
"When you think about it, it makes you appreciate life a little more. I recognized what was going on, but for some reason I didn't have much fear in me. I don't know why. You think about it now . . . and it scares you."

Another time, Caulcrick's adopted brother, Joseph, 15, was gunned down when guerrillas fired through the door of his grandmother's sewing school. A few hours later, guerrillas rushed the house looking for people involved with the government.

Once they were convinced the people were harmless, they walked out the door and continued their search. Caulcrick and his sister watched out the window as soldiers charged into the street and killed dozens in all.

"It was like a machine gun in our yard," he said. "They were just dropping."
"At the time," Mardea said, "we were just hoping to get out of there alive."
Karr returned in 1992 to search for her children, knocking door to door in her ruined neighborhood. She roamed the camps for nearly three months.

Finally, she found them hiding out in neighboring Ivory Coast, which has had civil unrest and a coup attempt of its own in recent weeks. She pulled them into her arms and explained how they could make a new home.

It was time to find peace in the United States, to live in the serenity along Findley Lake.
"It was scary, really scary," she said. "People can try to understand that, but you never will until you're in the situation. You're thinking the best for your kids.

If I could have found anybody to get them out of there -- even if they wanted to adopt them -- I would have given them to this person. I just wanted the best for them, just so they could be safe. I just wanted it to be over." .

It was far from over.

Caulcrick poses for an All-WNY team picture in 2001. (Harry Scull Jr./The Buffalo News)

Caulcrick poses for an All-WNY team picture in 2001. (Harry Scull Jr./The Buffalo News)

Planning their escape

Karr walked into the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia in August 1992, looking to finalize visas for the children, but the paperwork was still two weeks from completion.

Outside the gates was a war-torn city, a country killing its own people in a battle over power.

She pleaded with U.S. authorities to care for the children for two weeks until everything was finalized.
U.S. officials gave her a choice: She could return to the United States and leave the children behind, or she could stay with them until the paperwork was completed.

She chose the latter, which meant leading them back through a war they thought they had left behind.

Karr and the kids were in the doctor's office awaiting a physical examination when she picked up a newspaper. There had been a massacre in Sierra Leone. Of 500 dead, about 200 were identified. One of was Jerome Blamo, Caulcrick's father.

She explained to her son that Blamo was a good man who didn't die in vain.

"I think about him a lot, Caulcrick said. "I wonder what it would be like if he was alive. Would I be here or there? I wonder about a lot of things. I wish he was here."

In September 1992, the paperwork was finally completed. The best way to reach the United States was escaping Liberia under the cover of darkness and leaving West Africa from Ivory Coast.

It meant getting a ride to the border and running 20 miles through the night to safety. The alternatives were prison or death.

Karr waited a few days for the right time before grabbing the children and disappearing into the woods. They ran into the shadows, barely able to see as they dodged through the bush.

Every step meant a step closer to freedom, slowly leaving the sounds of gunfire and visions of destruction in their wake. They had escaped death. Again.

Safe and sound

Karr wanted to discuss the horror with the children for years after they made it to Clymer, but every time she thought about what her kids had witnessed, she broke down in tears. At times, she was inconsolable.

She worried they had suffered deep emotional scars, wondered how many years in therapy were needed before they would conquer post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Instead, the kids adjusted with few problems. Mardea graduated from Clymer two years ago and is a premedical student at Denison University in Ohio. She hopes to enter medical school in two years and eventually become a neurologist.

Caulcrick is the most popular student in Clymer, the senior class president, a big brother for children, a volunteer for adults, the town's only brush with celebrity. Few could appear more displaced but be more comfortable.

He was a soccer player back home and wasn't interested in playing football until he was 15. He ran track for two years before Clymer football coach Howard McMullin asked him to try out for the junior varsity as an eighth-grader.

Clymer fullback Jehuu Caulcrick runs past Maple Grove defenders at Ralph Wilson Stadium friday night. photo by (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo.

Clymer fullback Jehuu Caulcrick runs past Maple Grove defenders at Ralph Wilson Stadium. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo.

In less than two years, Caulcrick was receiving letters from colleges. In less than three years, he made his commitment to Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State.

"I never thought those things would ever happen here," said McMullin, who has been coaching for 40 years. "He's been very good for us. We've had some real nice ballplayers here, and he's certainly added to the ingredients.

I don't think he's reached his potential. We're going to find out. I know he has the ability. He has all the tools. I can't predict that, yes, he's going to do it. He's just starting to grow up." .

He didn't crack the starting lineup for Clymer until late in his freshman year, when McMullin realized nobody could stop him. Caulcrick had more speed and power than anybody had witnessed in Class D schools since Shane Conlan dominated at Frewsburg.

Conlan had a great career as a linebacker at Penn State and played six seasons with the Buffalo Bills. Caulcrick is faster and stronger than Conlan was as a high school senior.

Caulcrick gained 4,398 yards rushing and scored a Western New York-record 516 points in his first three years. He's the favorite to win the Connolly Cup and be named The Buffalo News player of the year after this season.

He had 1,670 yards rushing and 33 touchdowns last season in leading Clymer to the division title and the Class D state semifinals for the second straight season.

A few months ago, he was arrested and detained briefly after an incident involving a 24-year-old man and a dispute with a teenage girl. He apparently was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was not charged.

The community supported him, but the incident reminded him how quickly everything could be taken away.

"You have to keep your head in the right spot," he said. "I appreciate things. I take time to appreciate everything instead of taking things for granted. Just like that, it could be gone. I've thought about how I ended up here. I don't know.

If I could have done things different, I wouldn't change a thing."

Caulcrick is presented with the Connolly Cup for Player of the Year by Mike Talluto, Chairman of Connoly Cup at Ilio Dipaulo's. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

Returning home

A few years ago, the boy born Jerome Blamo legally changed his name to Jehuu Caulcrick, his surname the same as his mother's maiden name. In a way, he was leaving everything from his past where it belonged, in West Africa.

It's much too early to think seriously about playing professionally, but it's a goal that may be within reach. More importantly, he has become a friendly, outgoing guy who is adored in his community.

"It bothers me that his dad is not around to see that," Karr said. "He was really close with his dad. His dad loved him very much. He would be proud."

His mother divorced Karr about 18 months ago. Caulcrick sees him as a good man, one who sacrificed plenty so Bonita and the children could find freedom and happiness in this country.

At some point, his mother wants to take Caulcrick back to Liberia to see his onetime nanny, Tomah Nimly. She's in her 50s now. Karr thinks she might still be alive back in Buchanan.

"I want her to see him and talk to him," Karr said. "I want him to let her know that the kid she took care of is going to be somebody."


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