Like many NFL players, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu has the dream of building his mom a house. Soon it might become a reality, even though she lives 5,000 miles away in Sierra Leone.
“I’m trying to build her a house back there now,” Sanu said of his mother, Aminata Koroma. “My mom is very humble, doesn’t ask for much. Whatever she does, I’m there for her. But she’s grateful for whatever I’m there for. She’s just amazing, and proud of me for accomplishing my dreams and my goals.”
Koroma left her homeland in 1975, seeking a better life in New Jersey, far from the civil war that plagued Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. The Western African nation remains in a state of crisis, having been beset by a sagging economy, the highest maternal mortality rate in the world (according to the latest data reported by the World Bank Group) and an Ebola virus epidemic that killed thousands in 2014-15.
But Koroma returned to the West African nation in the mid-1990s, bringing young Mohamed and his older sister, Jabbie, with her.
“That is home for my mom,” Sanu said.
Koroma stayed behind three years later when Sanu, then age 6, returned to New Jersey in the care of Jabbie and her husband.
“She is well-known around there,” Sanu, 27, said of his mother, who runs an orphanage in her hometown. “She wants to give back to those who are there. Not everyone is as fortunate as I am, as blessed as I am. She’s trying to give everybody the same opportunity in life that I got.”
Sanu, whose father, Samuel, was a member of the Sierra Leone national soccer team, was blessed with natural athletic ability, but it was on the streets of Dayton, New Jersey, that he refined the talent that has kept him in the NFL for going on six seasons.
He recalls a visit from an NFL player to his grade-school classroom — he forgets who exactly, though he does remember a No. 80 jersey, so he’s guessing a wide receiver — and a Super Bowl ring being passed around. The sparkles from the diamonds caught his eye and lit a fire.
“I saw it and immediately thought to myself, ‘I want one of these,'” Sanu said.
He almost got one in February, if not for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’ mighty second-half comeback in Super Bowl LI. Sanu, a key possession receiver for the Falcons, had two receptions for 25 yards in the game after catching a career-high 59 passes for 653 yards and four scores in his first year in Atlanta after four with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sanu might have been better known during championship week for the discussion that arose in the wake of President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban. While the ban would not have affected Sierra Leone — and Koroma’s travel to the game — Sanu was thrust into the limelight during the Super Bowl media session by reporters asking about his Muslim faith and his thoughts on the issue.
Sanu largely demurred, preferring to talk about the upcoming game, but when asked to discuss his mother’s homeland and his upbringing, he lit up.
He said he eagerly awaited his mother’s next visit so she can cook him some of his favorite traditional dishes. He longs for the cassava leaves his mother serves and the fufu (a cassava and plantain dough ball) that she pairs with soup.
It is a piece of home, even if just a taste.
When he talks about his favorite foods, there is a youthful exuberance in his voice, which his former South Brunswick High School coach, Rick Mantz, fondly remembers. Now the director of high school relations at Rutgers University, Sanu’s alma mater, Mantz said, “He is today the exact same kid I met as a 16-year-old.”
“He’s always been the most optimistic kid,” Mantz said. “He can will things into happening. You would’ve thought this kid had a million dollars. No matter what happened, you always thought he’d find a way to help everyone around him.”
Though he hit pay dirt, scoring a five-year, $32.5 million deal with the Falcons last year, Sanu is frugal and steadfast. He has seen too many teammates, from high school to college to the NFL, fall into the same trap.
Once their circumstances change — a few extra zeros in the paycheck, a little more financial freedom — they change, too.
“Sometimes it’s natural for guys, but you can get lost in that life,” Sanu said. “You go from humble beginnings to having millions of dollars, having nice cars, eating great meals. You go from eating ramen noodles every day to that. You’ve got to stay humble.
“I stay eating ramen noodles.”
That, and fufu, at least when mom’s around.