Don’t challenge Samwel Uko to a contest for best first-year football memory because you’re not going to win.
Back in 2011 as a sixth-grader, Uko was approached by a community football coach who asked him if he was interested in playing football.
“I said ‘What is that?’ ” laughed the soft-spoken Grade 11 student, who had come to Canada with the rest of his family at age five from the African nation of South Sudan. “So I went on YouTube and I watched. I said ‘Man, this is football? I really like it.”
So Uko joined the Abbotsford Falcons peewee team, and that season, in one of his games, rushed for more than 700 yards and eight touchdowns.
I know, right? Pretty cool.
And last season, as a 10th grader who split time between the Abbotsford Panthers junior and senior varsity high school teams, he wound up rushing for one touchdown and returning a kickoff 90 yards in the Subway Bowl B.C. double-A championship final at B.C. Place Stadium, a game his team lost 53-34 to North Vancouver’s Carson Graham Eagles.
“His lateral movement is just so quick and he can see the lanes between the tackles and slide through and he does it faster and as easy as I have seen any running back,” said Panthers head coach Jay Fujimura, whose program has moved up to triple-A this season and closes out the non-conference portion of its schedule Saturday (1:30 p.m.) by playing at its crosstown rivals, the Robert Bateman Timberwolves. “He takes contact when he needs to, but in the open field, he makes you miss.”
At 5-9 and 175 pounds he’s not as big as former W.J. Mouat superstar Maleek Irons, and although a burner, he may not have quite the level of jet-propulsion that former St. Thomas More Knights running back Keynan Parker had en route to winning the 100- and 200-metre titles at the B.C. high school track and field championships.
What Uko does have is uniquely his own, and last Saturday at Vernon, in a battle of Panthers, Uko carried 26 times for 368 yards and five touchdowns as Abbotsford improved to 3-0 with a 48-17 win.
Last season as a junior varsity player, he rushed for 2,247 yards and 29 touchdowns in nine games, averaging 250 yards per game, and 17.3 yards-per-carry.
Uko is proud of his accomplishments, although it takes a lot of persuading to even get him to talk about himself. Despite his massive talents, he is as polite and humble as they come.
“The offensive line is blocking for me, making holes, and the coaching staff are calling the right plays,” said Uko when asked about his success against Vernon. “It feels great to have these teammates, and the best part is that they are all very supportive.”
Of course, as rewarding as it has been for him to discover the game and very quickly excel at it, the most satisfying thing for Uko has been celebrating his new home in Canada.
“It took me two years to learn English,” he said of his transition to life in Abbotsford beginning at age five. “I was speaking Arabic and everyone else spoke English. But I just kept on learning. And then being able to communicate and finding football, it’s given me a whole new family.”
His biggest hero?
“That’s Chase Claypool,” he says of his former fellow teammate, the star wide receiver who is now a freshman at Notre Dame. “When we were in community football, Chase was a running back. I saw him play and I said ‘Coach I want to be a running back.’ ”
Looks like he made the right choice.