The University of Louisville football team’s fortunes are unlikely to rise and fall on the squat legs of Mario Agyen, a 5-foot-7, 190-pound, walk-on running back who joined the team in the middle of last season after an end-of-summer tryout.
Still, amid the daily reminders of where he stands in the team’s 114-player hierarchy, Agyen rarely forgets the distance he traveled to get there, leaving home in the Bronx five years ago with little more than a dufflebag stuffed with clothes, $1.98 in his bank account and an inexhaustible supply of determination to be a college football player.
Now, when he takes the elevator up to the football players’ commissary each morning, choosing what type of egg-white omelet a chef will prepare for him, and how much fresh fruit, turkey bacon, pearl sugar waffles, oatmeal or grits he’ll pile onto his plate, he often thinks about how he started.
Agyen often woke up famished, wondering if his breakfast would consist of one frozen waffle or two and where he’d be sleeping at night. Once, he was so hungry — and so broke — that he texted a former teacher asking to have a couple pizzas delivered to him.
He had traveled to Columbus, Ohio, after graduating from high school, sold on chasing his football dreams at what the rest of the country would later learn was a sham prep school operating under a name that became a nationwide punchline: Bishop Sycamore.
More than 135 players were lured by big promises, from as far as Texas, California, Georgia and New York, to play for Bishop Sycamore and its previous incarnation, Christians of Faith Academy, until it fell apart on national television.
Only one is believed to have played major college football: Agyen.
“Sometimes it blows my mind — damn, like I really came a long, long way,” Agyen (pronounced A-jin) said on a recent afternoon, walking around Louisville’s campus. “Taking the road I did and going through a traumatizing experience mentally, that could have messed me up and made me crash out.”
Bishop Sycamore’s public unraveling, which came when its team was overwhelmed by the powerhouse IMG Academy in a game broadcast on ESPN, has centered on Roy Johnson, the academy’s founder, who left behind a lengthy trail of lies, unpaid bills, lawsuits and broken dreams. He filed for bankruptcy in July, and is the focus of a recent HBO documentary, “BS High,” and a just-released book, “Friday Night Lies,” by Andrew King, a journalist, and Ben Ferree, a former Ohio high school athletics investigator.
Making cameos in the documentary are Agyen and his boyhood friend, Isaiah Miller, who were among a group of players who were recruited from the Bronx and whose experiences were chronicled in The New York Times nearly two years ago.
At the time, many were trying to put their lives back together after their experiences at Christians of Faith in 2018, an initial season in which several dozen teenage boys lived like football vagabonds. They were kicked out of two hotels, stayed in cabins at a rural retreat with no phone service, and then at an apartment complex where they slept on air mattresses in vacant units.
The rest of their experience was no less chaotic. Their schooling was through online learning accounts, but nobody monitored their work. On what was supposed to be the first day of classes, they took a field trip to play paintball. They were given key cards to a health club but never returned to use it. Fights broke out between the players and even the coaches.
The mother of one of the players did her best to put together meals. A handful of players resorted to stealing food from grocery stores.
The football was just as slapdash: Players shared helmets and there was no trainer to tend to injuries.
When that season ended in early November with Christians of Faith forfeiting a game at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore because it did not have enough players, the remaining players returned home to pick up the pieces.
Agyen, though, did not want to return to the Bronx.
He’d experienced too much by then. Coming home to eviction notices. Sleeping on the floor or a sofa. Old classmates in jail or worse. He could not shake the sight of a friend laying in a coffin and thinking, “This is the environment we came up in. It’s a cycle — like a box that we’re trapped in.”
He never let go of football being a lifeline out.
Agyen, the son of Ghanaian immigrants who separated when he was 10, has long carried himself with a puppy’s ebullience and a pitbull’s determination to prove himself to anyone with doubts. Agyen had pestered his father at a young age to take him to a park to train.
“Football is everything,” his father, Kofi Agyen, a taxi driver, said with a laugh. “He sleeps football. He wakes up and he thinks about football.”
The sport gave him direction. His mother, Nana Gyamfi, who has worked as a hotel housekeeper, said she fled Ghana in 1991 after the assassination of her father, a minister who opposed the government. She emphasized education so that her two children — Mario and his older sister, Angel — would have a better life. But for a long time, Mario wasn’t as interested in his class work as he was in being the center of attention.
“We’d go back and forth — he was such a clown,” said Tara Tripaldi, his sixth-grade teacher at Middle School 363 in the Bronx, who has remained close to him. “But you could see his hunger, his passion for the sport. Once he started seeing the connections between academics and college, he started killing it.”
Agyen, an honor roll student at Louisville, is on track to graduate in December with a degree in sports management.
He had never been to Kentucky; nor did he know anyone at Louisville. He chose the school after two years at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa., for a simple reason: the recruiting coordinator, Pete Nochta, answered his emails.
Just as Bishop Sycamore was making headlines two years ago, Agyen tried out at Louisville. Shortly after, Nochta informed him that there weren’t any spots.
Agyen was disappointed, but not discouraged.
He sat in the stands on Saturdays, thinking he should be on the field instead. Almost daily, he packed cones, a parachute and football cleats into a backpack and walked over to the student recreation center and its adjacent turf field, intent on proving he belonged. He ran sprints, darted around the cones, lifted weights and recruited other students to fire footballs at him from close range on a racquetball court.
He also emailed Nochta once a week, keeping in touch.
“In my head, I’d say, ‘Stop emailing,’” Nochta said. “But I liked him.”
Agyen was so much a part of the furniture at the recreation center that when he returned recently with a visitor, twice he was stopped by students who embraced him with a hug. “It’s awesome to see your dream come true,” Michael Dropsey, who is studying sports management, told him. “I know how hard you worked for this.”
College football tryouts are often nothing more than a due diligence exercise. Schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the top level of college football, have 85 full scholarships to disburse. They also have room for 35 walk-ons, with many spots reserved for local high school standouts, legacies or prospects who might need to put some meat on the bone. There’s not much room for anyone else.
“Most of the time, the guys that show up for a tryout weigh 250 pounds and want to play receiver,” Nochta said. “Or you have guys who look like they should be in intramurals. You usually don’t find guys you can put out there to compete with D-I players and not get somebody hurt.”
When the next tryout came, a year later, Agyen looked the part of a football player, catching the eye of team members who had lingered to watch. But days passed with no word. Then a few weeks. On Sept. 27, with Louisville’s running back depth depleted by injury four games into the season, Agyen got a message from Nochta’s assistant, Carter Wilson: Call me.
Agyen bolted from a sports law class and dialed Wilson, who told him there was a spot for him. Agyen was bawling before he hung up.
Agyen made an almost immediate impression on the scout team, breaking a couple of long runs against the starting defense. By the end of the regular season, he was given the scout team offense’s difference-maker award. When Louisville beat Cincinnati in a bowl game at Fenway Park in Boston, he got on the field for the first time, carrying the ball for no gain on the second-to-last play of the game.
There is no statistical record of his carry, which was credited to a defensive player who wore the same uniform number, though his roster page was recently amended to make note of it. That the oversight has not been corrected is, perhaps, a sign of his standing in the program.
Another is the need to prove himself all over again with a new coaching staff.
Chris Barclay, the running backs coach under the first-year head coach Jeff Brohm, describes Agyen as smart, meticulous and a hard worker who “likes to know the why.” Agyen showed flashes in fall camp of the shiftiness that helped him rush for more than 3,500 yards in high school. But blocking Atlantic Coast Conference pass rushers is a challenge because of his size, Barclay said, adding that Agyen’s best chance to contribute will be on special teams — something he did in last week’s romp over Murray State, along with another carry for no gain.
(Agyen did not make the 70-man travel roster in a season-opening win over the conference rival Georgia Tech. The Cardinals play Saturday at Indiana in Indianapolis.)
“He’s had to earn everything his whole life,” Barclay said. “I’ve been around those types of guys and they find a way to get on the field and help the team win games.”
Barclay and many others at Louisville have come to learn about Agyen’s path only recently, via the documentary. Jawhar Jordan, the starting running back who developed a quick bond with Agyen as a Long Island native and as someone who joined the program midcareer, said Agyen was initially reluctant to discuss his experiences at Christians of Faith.
“When you watch the documentary, wow, it’s sad,” Jordan said. “But he comes out here with a smile on his face every day. He never gave up. He kept chasing the dream. People deserve to hear his story.”
In June, Agyen, outfitted in a charcoal jacket, pink dress shirt and loafers, strolled across the red carpet ahead of a screening of “BS High” at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. He met Michael Strahan, one of the movie’s producers. Spencer Paysinger, like Strahan a Super Bowl champion with the Giants and another of the movie’s financial backers, urged Agyen to take advantage of his standing as a football player at Louisville by making business contacts.
“I’m the first in my family to walk on the red carpet,” Agyen said with a laugh. “You walk in and all these people are looking at you, lights are flashing, cameras and everything. You feel like a celebrity.”
At the end of the screening, Agyen was rewarded with a rousing ovation when the audience learned in the final credits where he was now. About the only thing better, he figures, is eliciting another one, on a bigger stage this season.