By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Absegami boys soccer assistant coach Eli Gbayee and I sat at a small table in a classroom at a church in Atlantic City on a gray December afternoon. I didn’t really know the man, had only interacted with him a handful of times, and knew just a few basics about his life story. I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to interview him. So we sat at a table — Eli in his customary suit and tie — and I turned my tape recorder on. More than an hour later, the tape recorder was still running, and I wasn’t doing very much talking. Eli spun harrowing tales of running from gunfire in his war-torn home country of Liberia, being separated from his mother and siblings and ending up alone — as a 5-year-old — in a tepid refugee camp where he had to eat out of garbage cans and once went nearly two weeks without any substantial food. He spoke openly and candidly about the years he spent in the refugee camp, and how by a stroke of luck years later an aunt found him and eventually reunited him with his mother. His eyes lit up as he described landing in New York City as a boy who had just turned into a teenager. All he had to his name was an African robe and a pair of sandals. He didn’t even know what a winter coat was. He had never known of winter. And seeing all those giant buildings, he said it was like being transported to some alien world. He began his high school career at Absegami, and for the first week he didn’t eat lunch because he had no money, and feared he would be arrested if he took something from the lunch line at school. A teacher finally brought him down to the office and found out he was enrolled in the free lunch program. Most high school students loathe chicken patty sandwiches from the cafeteria. Eli couldn’t get enough of them. To him, they may as well have been lobster and filet mignon. He would ride his bike miles every day from Egg Harbor City to Absegami High in the summer to attend summer school. His thirst for education rivaled the thirst he had for clean water back in Liberia. Eli eventually graduated from Absegami High School as well as Stockton College, and now is a substitute teacher in Atlantic City. He’s also started a non-profit organization called “Hope For Liberia.” He is collecting goods and clothing that he hopes to be able to ship back to the children of his homeland. The boundless positive energy that Egg Harbor Township sophomore Meg Conover exudes has made her one of the most popular athletes in the school. (Photos by Ben Hale/Benjamin Hale Photography) The boundless positive energy that Egg Harbor Township sophomore Meg Conover exudes has made her one of the most popular athletes in the school. (Photos by Ben Hale/Benjamin Hale Photography) In the day-to-day grind, we often think of high school sports as something that kids just do, coaches coach and parents watch. But at times it can be so much more than that. Eli Gbayee is just one example of the incredible life stories that are waiting to be told, and it’s a pleasure here at Glory Days Magazine to provide a forum where these types of stories can be brought to the masses. With our cover stories, we try to tell human interest features about outstanding athletes and people who make an impact, not only in the sports they play, but in the communities in which they reside. We told Eli’s story in our Dec. 12, 2014 edition, and here’s a quick look at some of our other memorable cover stories from this past school year. October 6, 2014: Following a girls soccer game between Ocean City and host Mainland Regional, I took a photo of Red Raiders goalie Arianna Segich presenting a green rose to her counterpart, the Mustangs’ Brooke Vitale. Each Ocean City player did the same, presenting a green rose to a Mainland player. The gesture symbolized the Red Raiders’ support of their bitter rivals, who were reeling from the loss of Aisling Cooke, an incoming freshman who was killed in an automobile accident a few days before the start of the school year. It was an emotional story to write, but I think an important one because it showed that in difficult times, high school athletes understand that life is bigger than the sport. Mainland coach Chris Connolly was nearly brought to tears by the thoughtfulness of the Ocean City team, as well as nearly every other team Mainland played throughout the season. Teams made some kind of gesture to say, hey, we are with you in this and we understand your pain. November 26, 2014: The cover story featuring Egg Harbor Township defensive end Angelo Branca and his unique bond with special needs student Tyler Millett was perhaps one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written. The fact that, as a middle schooler, Angelo was able to see past Tyler’s disabilities and accept him as a friend shows the kind of value system young Angelo was brought up with at home. And to see Tyler flourish this past fall as honorary assistant “Coach T” showed just how far a little bit of love and respect can go for a special needs student. In a time when bullying still is so prevalent in our school systems, the story of Angelo and his buddy Tyler is a shining reminder that there are so many good kids out there who go out of their way to make everyone in their particular school feel wanted, included and needed. The future holds great things for both of these young men. The friendship that has developed over the past few years between EHT football star Angelo Branca and special education student Tyler Millett was a heartwarming cover story during the fall sports season. The friendship that has developed over the past few years between EHT football star Angelo Branca and special education student Tyler Millett was a heartwarming cover story during the fall sports season. January 16, 2015: I never thought I would have an interview subject talk so openly and honestly about multiple attempts to take her own life, but that’s just what Jackie Adams did as we spoke about her high school career at her parents’ kitchen table in Ocean City. The former Red Raiders soccer star suffered several serious concussions and ended up missing a majority of what she had hoped would be a brilliant high school soccer career. It didn’t turn out that way, but Jackie is a fighter. The concussion effects caused severe depression that led to two suicide attempts in her teen years, and she continues to struggle today trying to get through college at Stockton University. It’s not easy for her to read or concentrate for long periods of time, and she took this spring semester off to enroll in an intensive post-concussion program at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. Jackie still faces a lot of challenges, but no longer does she sit around feeling depressed. She is proactive on social media, interacting with other people who suffer from PCS (post-concussion syndrome). She also is very active with the Upper Township Challenger Sports League, helping kids with disabilities enjoy such games as baseball and soccer. Jackie may not have had a memorable high school athletic career, but something tells me she will be remembered for much more important things in the years to come. January 30, 2015: If you’ve never met little Meg Conover, get yourself to an Egg Harbor Township girls basketball game next season. She stands just 4-foot-6, but has made a bigger impact in that school than anybody who is a foot or more taller. The youngest daughter of local baseball umpire Jim Conover, little Meg, Jim said, never has a bad day. Her infectious smile and personality have inspired not only the girls basketball program, but the entire school. She truly is a superstar. And the best thing about our cover story on Meg? She got to “autograph” more than 60 copies! Jim said she was on cloud nine for weeks, feeling like the biggest star i
n the school. And, rightfully so. February 27, 2015: We wanted to take a little bit of a different angle on Black History Month, and I decided I wanted to get inside the lives of mixed race athletes a little bit and understand what it was like for them growing up. People advised against the story idea, saying stay away from anything that involves race. But I’m a firm believer that you can’t just sit there with the elephant in the room. Open discussion about race relations is the only way to improve them, and we learned a lot from this story. It was interesting to see that mixed race athletes were open to learning about both sides of their family history, and how they feel that they are the reason that their families have grown closer and become more understanding of each other throughout the years. The strength, athleticism and grace that athletes such as EHT’s Haley Drinks, Jamie Cheeseborough and Corinne Davis have shown throughout their high school careers allowed them to become leaders in the school, and no doubt all three will continue to be important role models as they begin their college careers. March 13, 2015: The headline on our cover story about Holy Spirit wrestler Pat D’Arcy was “Perfect Ending.” And the culmination of his high school career was like something out of a movie. Pat had lost in the state final as a junior, and a singular determination to stand on the top step of the podium before he graduated fueled his desire for a year. Pat won the state championship in dramatic fashion, capping off one of the most brilliant wrestling careers in Cape-Atlantic League history. It was amazing to follow his journey through the district, regional and state tournaments, and Pat proved that with hard work, determination and focus, anything is possible. May 22, 2015: Try finding somebody who has a bad thing to say about Bob Soifer. It might take you a while. Soifer has been coaching baseball locally for more than 40 years, and after dealing with some health issues, he returned to the bench at Holy Spirit as an assistant coach after giving up the head coaching duties to Steve Normane prior to the 2014 season. Then, just before the start of the 2015 season, his beloved mother passed away. But, Soifer is a baseball fanatic and just couldn’t stay away. Coach Normane said he told Bob to just come by when he could, that any help he could offer would be much appreciated. “Coach Soif” showed up every day, the entire season. His love and passion for the game was rewarded when the Spartans went on an unbelievable run through the state playoffs that culminated with a state championship. Seeing the smile on coach Soifer’s face when the boys he helped turn into men celebrated one of the most improbable state championship runs in state history, well, that’s what high school sports is all about. And that’s why we love it so much. Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]