AUSTIN (KXAN) — LaRhonda Niccum remembers the first time she saw Kekuta Manneh on a soccer field. Her son Cameron’s club team was hosting the laid back and soft spoken teenager from Africa for the season.
“They said he was good and then when I saw him I was like, ‘oh my goodness, he is fantastic,’” she said.
Over the course of the season, the Niccum’s would learn more about their guest. The details about his life in Gambia that were not as apparent as his jump off the page athletic ability.
Manneh had not been to school in two years. While he could speak English fluently, his ability to read was barely above beginners’ level. Math was not much better. Niccum, a former teacher, immediately got to work.
“I was really shocked when I found out,” she remembers. “We got the teachers on board right away. I did the math because that’s what I taught.”
School wasn’t the only thing returning to Manneh’s life. For the previous five years any motherly influence was also missing. Manneh’s mother died when he was 10 years old. He learned of it while walking home from a soccer game with friends.
“I saw people crying from miles away and I didn’t know what had happened,” he remembers. “One of my friends said, ‘do you know what happened?’ He told me, ‘don’t cry but your mom passed away.’ I didn’t go home. I just stood there and cried.”
Manneh’s family in Africa had encouraged him to accept the invitation to come to America hoping he could continue his education, though his focus was solely on soccer. Yet with the Niccum’s he was beginning to see the importance of school while making strides on the soccer field. When the season ended and it was time for him to return to Gambia, neither he nor the family was ready for a split.
The Niccum’s had discussed adoption over the years. They approached Manneh about joining their family. Manneh made sure to get the blessing of his family in Africa but had long made up his mind.
“For me my answer was definitely yes because I wanted to be a part of the family,” he said.
A new family member meant adjustments for everyone. Kekuta wasn’t used to reporting where he was going and when he was planning on coming back.
“If you’re going to join our family and be with us, you’re going to be like one of our kids,” Eric Niccum remembers telling Kekuta, “so you’re going to follow the same rules.”
The Niccums had to learn – through a series of memorable trials and errors – how to prepare Gambian food.
With the family’s help, Manneh graduated from Lake Travis and became a standout striker for the Austin Aztex. The Vancouver White Caps selected him with the fourth pick in the 2013 Major League Soccer SuperDraft.
In his second season as a pro the 19-year-old is one of Vancouver’s leading goal scorers and is widely considered one of the league’s brightest young prospects.
As his stock as a soccer player begins to soar, the support from his new family is unwavering. That includes making sure he keeps up with his online college classes.
“We keep pretty close tabs through Skyping and telephone conversations,” Eric Niccum said.
Manneh hopes one day to star with one of Europe’s top soccer clubs. Wherever his journey in soccer takes him, it’s not one he’ll make alone.
“Since the first day I came here they welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “That means a lot to me. they’ve been a big part of my life.”