Provo • When his football-playing days are over, BYU junior safety Dayan Ghanwoloku wants to use his degree in sociology to open a private boys and girls club for underprivileged youth, perhaps in the country where he was born.
The first story he will share with the youngsters is his own remarkable journey as a 5-year-old refugee from the war-torn West Africa nation of Liberia to northern Utah and then BYU, where he has emerged as one of the best players on the team and a potential NFL prospect.
“People always ask me, ‘What is it like, coming to America?’ Ghanwoloku said. “I am like, ‘shoot, I am living the American dream, I feel like.’ Because everyone has a different American dream. I feel like this is mine. Just coming to BYU was a blessing for me.”
Having missed the McNeese, Washington and Utah State games while recovering from an ankle injury he sustained during BYU’s 24-21 win over Wisconsin, Ghanwoloku shined in the Cougars’ 49-23 victory over Hawaii on Oct. 13 and is ready to face Northern Illinois on Saturday.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT BYU
When • Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • ESPNU
“It feels good to be back,” he said after practice Tuesday. “I just hated watching the games from the sidelines, so it felt really good to be back with the boys.”
Ghanwoloku was sorely missed because he is arguably BYU’s best defensive playmaker. He recovered two fumbles in the 21-18 loss to California, for instance, and returned one 36 yards for a touchdown.
“He has rare playmaking ability,” said BYU safeties coach Preston Hadley. “He has the ability to play man coverage on receivers. He tackles well in space, and he’s a versatile player. He has a presence when he is out there.”
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said Ghanwoloku’s return was big for BYU’s defense, which struggled to stop the balanced attacks of Washington and Utah State.
“It is huge for us to get any good players back, definitely,” Tuiaki said. “Just his experience and his tackling ability and the way he plays helps us a lot.”
Ghanwoloku said he is still trying to learn the nuances of playing safety, after starting in 21 games as a cornerback his first two seasons in Provo.
“At corner, I feel like I made more plays,” he said. “But at safety, I feel I fit there the best. As I get to know the position more, I will do better there.”
Doing better, and taking advantage of the opportunities that he has been given after fleeing Liberia drives Ghanwoloku every day, he said.
“Having my parents and my sisters here with me, I don’t want to disappoint them or ruin anything for them or me,” he said. “So that’s why I try to work my hardest in school, even though I am not a school person. I just do it for myself and my family and try to get my degree and work hard and hopefully make it to the NFL and help them out.”
Ghanwoloku never wants to forget his African roots, which is why he changed the name on the back of his jersey from Lake to Ghanwoloku (pronounced: GAH-WOH-low-koo) before spring camp in 2017. He said he had done it for one season while playing Little League football and did it again to honor his uncle, Gayvelor Ghanwoloku, who died in 2015.
“After he died, I felt like I wanted to represent his life in some way,” Dayan — rhymes with Ryan — said at the time, noting that Ghanwoloku was previously his middle name. “He is a big reason why I got to this country. Representing my family’s name means a lot to me.”
Dayan said during Photo Day in August that if Gayvelor and his father, Robert, hadn’t gotten him and his sister, Yassah, who was 7 at the time, out of Liberia that they would have been trained to fight as soldiers in a civil war that was ravaging the poverty-stricken country.
The war killed more than 200,000 people.
“One of those [casualties] could have been me or my sister,” he said. “We’ve just been blessed beyond belief.”
Although most natives of Liberia speak English, Dayan said it took awhile for him to understand what his grandparents, step-mother and classmates were saying at first. He also remembers the shock of seeing a white person for the first time when he and Yassah arrived at the Salt Lake City airport. He just remembers “bits and pieces” of his life in Liberia. He remembers being “scared all the time.”
As for learning football, he says he spent hours and hours watching the NFL Network and college football games on TV. He almost quit the sport after his first Little League game because he couldn’t stand wearing a helmet and all that padding.
Now he wants to take the sport to Liberia, much as former BYU star Ziggy Ansah of the Detroit Lions has done in his native African country of Ghana.
“My journey is far from over,” he said.
But it is off to a remarkable start.
FROM REFUGEE TO COLLEGE FOOTBALL STAR
BYU safety Dayan Ghanwoloku’s journey from Liberia to Provo:
2002 • Fled the war-torn West Africa nation of Liberia at the age of 5 with his 7-year-old sister, Yassah, and his father, Robert Lake
2002-2003 • After arriving in the United States in August of 2002, lived in Ogden and Layton with his step-mother, Jenny Lake, and her parents, Hans and Gayle Flink
2004-2014 • Excelled at soccer as a youngster, then began playing football in the seventh grade and made the varsity squad at Layton’s Northridge High as a freshman
2015 • Signed with BYU after an all-state career as a running back, receiver and defensive back at Northridge
2016-17 • Redshirted in 2015, then started in eight games at cornerback as a freshman and all 13 games as a sophomore before moving to safety prior to the 2018 season
2017 • Changed the name on the back of his jersey from Lake to Ghanwoloku to honor his uncle, Gayvelor Ghanwoloku, who had passed away unexpectedly 18 months prior
2018 • After missing three games with an ankle injury, returned against Hawaii and made four tackles, broke up a pass and recovered a fumbled punt