From Liberia to Saint Joe’s, Emmanuel Temeh is scoring goals on the field and in life
Emmanuel Temeh finally looks the part. A short, closely-trimmed, but not completely shaved haircut replaces the dreadlocks that were his signature look when he was terrorizing high-school soccer opponents, and a neatly-groomed full beard has taken over where the chin stubble that got him in trouble with the nuns in high school once grew.
“I felt like it was all part of the maturing aspect for me,’’ Temeh said. “As I grew up I just felt like I had to be more presentable. I’m not going to make a good impression, or get a good job, with my hair like that. Not just that, I mean you could get a job with dreads, but I just felt like it was me becoming a man, being at a school like St. Joseph’s University, maturing my image was important to me.
“I didn’t want to scare people here, either. I saw some times when I would be coming back to my dorm from working out, and kids who didn’t know me would see me and cross the street. I’m not that kind of guy. I’m just like you. I’m not trying to scare you. That’s not my image. I’m not some big, tough guy. So I cut the dreads.’’
Temeh was mature before his years because he had no choice in the matter. Forced to grow up on his own after escaping from war-torn Liberia, the junior soccer player at St. Joseph’s University has a story that is scarier than a kid with dreadlocks walking up Hawk Hill.
“I was kind of little, maybe five, or six,’’ Temeh said of when his family left Liberia, spent a year in a refugee camp on the Ivory Coast and then finally arrived in the United States and settled in Trenton, NJ.
“When you’re little you see things and you don’t understand them,’’ Temeh continued. “Then you get older and you grasp what was happening. I remember walking down this path, or street, and seeing the soldiers lined up with their guns, guarding the borders, making sure people couldn’t just go between different countries.
“Those soldiers, and especially the guns, I remember that. I still have dreams about it.’’
Temeh’s real dream was always about soccer and playing it at a high level. He’s played as long as he could remember. When he finally got settled in high school, he led New Jersey in both goals and assists as a junior, while taking his school, Trenton Catholic Academy (TCA), to a 21-1 record, and finished in the top three in both as a senior, which earned him his scholarship to St. Joseph’s.
First, it took getting to the United States.
“We spent a little over a year on the Ivory Coast. It was much safer there,’’ Temeh said. “We were protected there. We were in a refugee camp. It was safe, but it was different. They spoke French there, everyone spoke French, and it was hard to find people who spoke English.
“I went to pre-school and had to learn French. Everything was French. I remember my brother going to the market and was trying to buy corn, and he insulted the woman at the market because he was speaking English, instead of French, and saying the wrong thing.’’
Temeh speaks of the family he remembers, although, as the youngest of seven siblings, he remains close to only a couple of them.
“My mom moved here first, and then she sent for all of us,’’ Temeh recalls of coming to the U.S. “She left about three years before us. She left before the war started. My father worked for the government and when the war started the rebels were killing the people who worked for the government. That was kind of scary. That’s when we got out.
“But my mom was already [in the United States]. She went ahead and tried to get settled and get a job and everything.’’
The Temeh family moved into Central Jersey, first Hamilton Township and then the city of Trenton. It wasn’t long, however, before the family splintered and moved to different areas, leaving young Emmanuel alone.
“The first thing I remember about being here was the weather,’’ he said. “I had to get used to the cold. In Liberia there were two seasons, the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season was just rain, but then it would stop and still be warm. The dry season was just real hot and humid. That’s all I knew. I’ll never forget the first time I saw snow. I didn’t know what to do. I went outside and saw it, but it was just so cold. I still don’t like the cold.’’
Emmanuel’s mother left when he was nine, moving to Virginia. His older brothers and sisters left as well, getting married, starting their own families. By the time he was in high school, it was just him and his father. And then just him.
“I was nine when they got divorced, and my father took custody of us,’’ he said. “I don’t know everything that happened, even now. I just remember they separated and the next thing we were in court and we went to live with my father.’’
“The last time I spoke to my mother was when my brother Earnest got married, about two years ago. Yeah, she knows I play soccer. I don’t think she knows how good I am. When she moved to Virginia, we lost touch.’’
Through soccer Temeh met people who marveled at his talent on the field and fell in love with his warmth, charm and engaging smile off the field. Mentors such as John Heilner, one of his youth coaches, and Sean Miller, his high school coach, helped him through the times that continued to get tougher.
“Summer of my junior year is when it happened,’’ he said. “My father worked for the state of New Jersey as we grew up, but then when the state had all those layoffs he lost his job. He started looking around. His girlfriend lived in Maryland, and she told him there were jobs down there.’’
His father found a job in Delaware, moved to Maryland, and the then 16-year-old was basically left to raise himself.
“We would talk and he would come back on weekends to make sure everything was all right,’’ Temeh said. “My brother Ernest was around, too. It wasn’t bad, except for my schedule.’’
That same year Temeh transferred from Trenton Central High School to Trenton Catholic, a soccer program that had just ended a 43-game losing streak the year before, but under Coach Miller and with the help of Temeh would proceed to put up a three-year record of 59-6-2.
“I remember when I first saw him, I told him if he came to TCA he could score 40 goals,’’ Miller said. “I was wrong. He scored 46 and set the Mercer County record.
“He was a great player. All he needed was some guidance. Of all the kids I coached, Emmanuel was special. You could just tell. You knew he was going to make it. And now he’s at a great college, he’s going to graduate and he’s going to do well. It’s an amazing story.’’
It wasn’t easy.
“Going to a Catholic school was different for me. They had a lot of rules,” Temeh said. “I had to wear a uniform, so I had to keep that clean. I had to shave, and I kind of liked having a little beard going, because I thought it made me look older and the girls liked it, but I had to shave it.
“I got a job in the summer at the local KFC to make some money and they wanted me to stay during the school year. I needed the money, so I worked there. My typical day was get up at six, get ready for school, get to school by seven, go right to the vending machine to get something to eat. When school was over, it was either practice or a game. That would go to 4:30 or five.
“I’d go home, get on my bike and ride to work. I’d change in the bathroom when I got there. I’d do my homework on my breaks and then get home around 11:30 or so, and finish it. I’d go to bed and do it all again the next day.’’
That’s not your typical teenage existence. Temeh’s was school, soccer, and work, and not necessarily in that order. But he says now it helped him become the person he became, the one with the short-cropped haircut and full beard.
“To me I always felt in my heart I was responsible,’’ he said. “It helped me mature a lot. I see kids in college now who never had to do their own laundry, never had to clean their house. So I’m a little bit ahead of that. I enjoyed my teenage years, but when you’re the man of the house it’s different. There is a lot of responsibility, but I think at the end it helped me.
“I think back to those cold days, those rainy days, walking to school when Coach Miller couldn’t give me a ride, or riding my bike. It wasn’t easy. But it did help me.’’
So did soccer.
“Soccer ran in my family. All of us played soccer at some point,’’ he said. “My dad played, according to him he was the top of his class. But all African parents say that. Any time I asked him to show me clips, or something, he would say that they got lost during the war.
“Without soccer, I don’t know where I would be. The first time I took soccer seriously was during Trenton High’s homecoming. We lived right near there and I heard the drums going and the band playing.
“Me being nosy and curious, I went over to see what was going on and I saw all these soccer teams playing. I wanted to play. I asked if I could play, they told me it doesn’t work that way. You had to sign-up and go through all of that. So I just watched, but I wanted to play.
“John Heilner was there. And as it turned out one of the teams were short a player. And I was there. John talked to the guy who was in charge, asked him if I could fill in since the team needed a player. I played in sneakers and I scored four goals in that game. That was my start in soccer.’’
From there he became a high school star, an All-State performer who almost single-footedly took one of New Jersey’s worst programs and turned them into one of the best.
And that turned into the scholarship offer from St. Joseph’s, where as a junior he was one of the team’s leading scorers, and the Hawks had one of their best seasons in years.
“I didn’t go [to TCA] to set records or anything. I just wanted to play,’’ Temeh said. “I knew TCA wasn’t very good, but that didn’t matter. I just wanted to play, and then once we saw what we had, we knew we could do some good things.’’
And now playing in college, where he also has close to a 3.0 GPA, Temeh’s story just continues to grow.
“It’s a blessing,’’ he said. “I’m not sure what God has in store for me. I think of it as I’m still on the journey. When it’s all done, and I’m out of school and I have a job, a family, then we’ll see.’’
Photo Sideline Photos, LLC