Almost five years ago, 20 children from six countries received their naturalization certificates in a special ceremony commemorating World Refugee Day.
Serge Gboweiah, a 10-year-old at the time from the Ivory Coast, was the first one to take the microphone at the event at Catalina High School. He took the opportunity to thank his parents for helping him become an American citizen.
“It was cool because the lady asked, ‘Who would like to come up and talk about your parents?’ So I stepped up and I acknowledged my parents and they were grateful for that,” Gboweiah said Thursday at Wings Over Broadway at Camino Seco and Broadway, where he was honored with a plaque in front of a packed restaurant of teammates and coaches for being named the APS Digitial Print/Tucson Conquistadores Player of the Week.
Gboweiah (boh-way), now a sophomore at Desert View, has a strong nucleus of support including his parents and family and coach Robert Bonillas and the rest of the Jaguars’ staff. Gboweiah rushed for 166 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in Desert View’s 20-6 win over rival Sunnyside last week, but the numbers tell only part of his emergence as a football player and track athlete locally.
He says, “Yes sir” or “yes ma’am” and looks people in the eyes when he speaks. He conducts himself beyond his 15 years.
A source of inspiration for that behavior comes from Salpointe senior star running back Bijan Robinson, of whom he has met and befriended.
“I just look up to people I respect and seeing how one person, Bijan, the way he acts … I just try to look up to people that act that way. And also my parents act like that. So that’s where I get that from,” Gboweiah said.
“I talk to (Robinson) some times when I get the chance to. He gives me advice. When I talk to him in person, he gives me advice. He tells me to stay out of trouble and to stay focused, stay on the grind. Stuff like that.”
After his breakout performance at the varsity level against Sunnyside, Gboweiah received a text from Robinson.
“He said, ‘Congratulations,’ and to ‘keep it up,'” Gboweiah said.
On stage at Wings Over Broadway during our show (see video in this story), I brought the question up to Gboweiah again about Robinson’s impact on him, especially with Robinson being one of his peers. Robinson has announced will play collegiately at Texas.
“He’s also from Tucson,” Gboweiah said of Robinson. “And we don’t really see a lot of Tucson athletes getting offers and leaving here. So when he talks to me about sports, and being a running back, he encourages me to become a better running back and better person in general. So that is one thing that motivates me.”
The young running back/cornerback is in his first year playing for Bonillas, the former four-year letterman with the Arizona Wildcats who is in his eighth season coaching the Jaguars. Bonillas and the coaches have become father figures to Gboweiah, he said, because of how they care for his development on the field and in the classroom.
“I enjoy playing with Coach Bonillas because he knows his players. Sometimes when I’m down or something, he will come up to me. He’ll be like, ‘What’s up with you?’ And you know, he will try to get me back into my mindset and get ready for practice,” Gboweiah said.
Bonillas, also a Nogales High School graduate, will coach against his alma mater tonight at Jaguar Stadium at 7. Both teams are undefeated. Nogales defeated Cholla in the season opener two weeks ago.
The zest for coaching is at a high level for Bonillas, who is in his eighth year of trying to build a winning program at Desert View following two years as a head coach at Nogales and a decade as a Sunnyside assistant.
He talked about his team comprised mostly juniors who the coaches have tried to groom since their freshmen seasons. Young standouts such as Gboweiah, along with junior running back Carlos Alvarez, bring energy to the group and make Bonillas’ arduous practices competitive and erstwhile.
“We have a pretty young team in the sense that most of our kids are juniors. We have a few seniors on our team … like five of them,” Bonillas said. “They’re doing a better job of taking on that leadership role. We’ve been we’ve been together two years now and going on to our third year, their junior year.
“I kept telling them you know you got two good years for varsity experiences to see how far they can push. I mean, by how far, we’re talking about our playoffs and giving yourselves an opportunity in the postseason.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.