Football helped immigrant brothers embrace being different
DENVER (AP) — Komotay Koffie steps outside Landow Performance in suburban Denver where he's just finished another training session in his quest to join his brother, Indianapolis Colts edge rusher Kwity Paye, in the NFL.
"I'm not even supposed to be here," offers Koffie, 25, a chiseled 6-foot-1, 200-pound defensive back from Northern Colorado who was born in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone.
He isn't fretting over the break he's taking on the eve of his college pro day, where he'll deliver 20 reps on the bench press and solidify his status as a potential Day 3 selection.
What he means is he shouldn't even be here in the United States.
When war followed their family to Guinea, where Kwity was born, Agnes Paye reached out to her grandmother in Rhode Island, who agreed to sponsor her so she could move to the U.S.
Only she neglected to put the kids' names on the immigration affidavit. It was hard enough leaving behind the boys' father; there was no way she'd abandon her young children.
"I told them I can't leave my babies," she recounted.
A woman processing her paperwork fell for her precocious kids and added the boys' names under Agnes' — Komotay and Kwity are full-blooded brothers; their different surnames are a cultural tradition — and all three were granted passage to a better life.
"It was just a blessing," Agnes said. "I knew that God had a better place for these children.
"We were just coming to survive, to be in peace, a place where you don't have to get up in the morning and run for your lives or worry about finding food."
Yet, even in the U.S. she found herself steering her boys from the sounds of gunfire that sometimes rattled their modest apartment.
To keep them off the streets and out of trouble, she signed them up for sports at the Boys & Girls Club. Soccer, basketball, track. When football season rolled around, she signed them up for that, too.
When they arrived at that first practice and heard the thud of bodies smashing into each other, "we were scared to play," Koffie said.
When the coaches asked all the kids to bring their birth certificates the next day, the brothers, who were years away from becoming U.S. citizens, could only provide their immigration cards.
"It looked like a mugshot with all these fancy numbers," Koffie recalled, "and I remember me and Kwity were embarrassed even to pull them out because they made us stand out."
This was one more thing to get teased about, along with their accented English and western African diet. Those taunts, however, "only added to our fire," Koffie said.
"It was like, 'OK, you guys want to make us stand out and tease us like we're different, we're going to show you how different we are,'" Koffie recollected.
The brothers made a pact to run faster and hit harder than the other kids.
"When we got onto the football field, it was like nobody could compare to us. We were on a whole different level. We stood out," he said.
They soon won over their teammates and quickly learned the ins and outs of the game.
"And that's when we fell in love with it," Koffie said.
So they made another vow, to do all they could to repay their mother, who was working long hours as a nursing assistant, for all she'd done to provide them a better life.
"I remember we were in our bedroom one night, we were like 10 and 8 and we promised each other we'd do everything we could to get her out of there," Koffie said.
His younger brother blossomed into a 6-foot-2, 260-pound defensive end who, after starring at Bishop Hendrickson, a Catholic academy in Warwick, Rhode Island, excelled at the University of Michigan on his way to becoming a first-round pick in last year's NFL draft.
"The first thing he did was retire my mother and buy her a car," Koffie said. "Then, he started working on finding her a nice home."
If Koffie can join his baby brother in the NFL, he wants to send for their father, who didn't have a sponsor like their mother did when she fled the warfare almost a quarter-century ago.
"The war broke them up all those years ago, but they're back together now, they're engaged," Koffie said. "I want to try to bring him over here to America so we can all be a family once again."
Agnes is edgy as this year's draft approaches.
"With Kwity we were sure-sure," she said. "For Komotay, I'm just a little nervous and praying someone will give him a shot because he's a fighter."
At 15, he moved in with a family friend in Tennessee to face better competition and try to earn a college scholarship.
After three seasons at Knoxville Central High School, Koffie transferred to Milford Academy in New York for his senior season.
He played one year of junior college ball at North Dakota College of Sciences, earning that coveted Division I scholarship at New Mexico State University.
He transferred to Northern Colorado for his final season so he could play for head coach Ed McCaffrey and secondary coach Jimmy Spencer, who had a combined 25 years of NFL playing experience.
He earned his criminal justice degree when the pandemic wiped out the Bears' 2021 season, then provided leadership and savvy play in McCaffrey's inaugural season in 2022 while his younger brother was playing out his rookie season in Indianapolis.
"My brother took a straight road to the NFL and my road has been up and down," said Koffie, who played safety, cornerback, nickelback and inside linebacker, a versatility he hopes makes him an attractive prospect for somebody.
"I'm just hoping for an opportunity," Koffie said. "The thing about me, once I get my foot in the door, I'm gonna take care of the rest."
Here's the stunning part: Despite their two-year age difference and divergent paths, the brothers have never played football together.
"We were never on the same field, either. We practiced at different times," Koffie said. "So, my brother has never seen me play."
That could soon change.
"I just talked to him last night," Koffie said. "I was like, 'How crazy would it be to be on the same field warming up?' I'm telling you, it would probably be a very emotional moment to look across the grass and see each other.'"
Fulfilling a dream and a promise, together.