ATLANTA -- In the heart of this former Civil War battleground, a melting pot of the South and mecca of culture and diversity, sits Georgia Tech, where Francis Kallon and Junior Gnonkonde remain on track to meet in a spot once considered the most unlikely of places.
A football stadium.
Kallon and Gnonkonde crossed oceans without a shred of knowledge about the American sport to land in Georgia, a hotbed of high school football talent. And in methods as different as their journeys, they were drawn to the game, which has provided opportunities to stay long-term in the United States.
Both are committed to sign as defensive ends with Georgia Tech in February.
Hard decisions, humor, sadness and, ultimately, great achievement fill their stories.
And something else bonds Kallon and Gnonkonde, these two odd studies in the unpredictable world of recruiting: a newfound love of football.
Legend of the halls
Thirty miles from the center of Atlanta in Lawrenceville, Ga., you'll find Central Gwinnett High School, a sprawling campus of 2,700 students. The Black Knights compete in Georgia's largest classification, AAAAA. Out back by the football stadium, a large castle overlooks the field. The only facility of its kind in America, according to Central Gwinnett coach Todd Wofford, it houses the press box and meeting rooms.
Francis Kallon lives here in the northwestern region of a metropolitan area home to more than 5 million. Subdivisions with fancy, British-sounding names dot the landscape.
Kallon arrived from the south of London in June 2010. The youngest of four children, he lived with his mother and attended an all-boys high school. Kallon graduated, as customary, after two years, ready to attend a prep school, then college. He had already settled on Imperial College in London because of his love of science.
"Pretty normal kid with a normal life," Kallon said.
When his mother decided to relocate to Georgia two years ago, Kallon was reluctant to join her at first, but agreed to move at the end of his school year.
"My mom, she wouldn't have been happy if I hadn't come," he said.
Kallon cleared the International Newcomers Center in Gwinnett County with ease. The only surprise? A grade of D on his transcript in physical education. Take one look at Kallon (6-foot-6 and 240 pounds when he arrived), and it's clear he wasn't a D student in P.E.
Francis explained to his school counselor, Tiffany Brown, that the D stood for distinction.
"That grade was a little incongruent with him," Brown said, "but we got it fixed."
Kallon adjusted to the co-ed school, played basketball and fared well in the classroom. Soon, Wofford learned about this 6-6 athlete at the school. Only Wofford didn't know Kallon.
"It's like Bigfoot," the coach said. "I'd heard about this guy walking around, but I hadn't seen him."
Sometime last winter, they met.
From Ivory Coast to rural Georgia
Some 220 miles south of Atlanta, there's Lakeland, Ga., population 2,700. Housed in a building that connects to the elementary school and middle school, the Bulldogs of Lanier County High School, enrollment 421, compete in Georgia's smallest classification: A. There's no castle -- or much of anything, really, other than a few bleachers and a track -- out back by the football stadium.
Junior Gnonkonde lives here with three other seniors from his home country of Ivory Coast: Malik Kone, Emmanuel Ezoua and Teddy Somolo. Three of them stay together in an apartment under the watch of John White, the Lanier County athletic director, baseball coach and bus driver.
"If they do anything," White said. "I get a phone call."
Gnonkonde arrived here (along with Kone, Ezoua and Somolo) in August 2008, a high school freshman without a home. He had traveled to San Francisco earlier that summer, knowing no English, to play in a basketball tournament. When it ended, the travel party split, some panicked over word of civil unrest in their home country.
So Gnonkonde and his teammates flew to New York and ultimately relocated to southern Georgia.
"I don't know if we'll ever know exactly how they made it here," White said.
Life in Ivory Coast was difficult, the boys said. They had shelter and food but little else -- and no guarantee of an education if they returned to their homeland.
So while two teammates settled in New Jersey, Gnonkonde, Kone, Ezoua and Somolo made a home in Lakeland, whose residents were unequipped to handle four immigrants with language barriers and no guardianship. For a short time, their status was illegal in the United States until White gained custody of Gnonkonde. Others assisted with the boys, too.
"The people in this community have gone above and beyond," White said. "It's been everybody. Everything they've needed, it's been pretty much given to them."
Kim Rampley, a Spanish teacher at the high school, spoke to the boys in their native French. They communicated through an odd mix of three languages and used Rosetta Stone software to assist with English until their immersion in American culture gave them a better handle of the language.
Despite the barriers, the boys fit in well.
"They were instant celebrities," Rampley said.
Gnonkonde, the second youngest of eight children, communicates adequately today. He talks to his family in Ivory Coast but has not seen any relatives in more than three years. This is his home now.
Asked what he thought of Lakeland when he arrived, Gnonkonde said: "I was scared, but they said they were going to work with me."
The boys have thrived academically. Kone is a contender for
valedictorian among a senior class of approximately 100. All four plan to attend college.
"You start trying to pass the graduation test for American history when you've been here just three years," White said. "That gets kind of tough."
Gnonkonde maintains a grade-point average of 3.3.
"It's a great opportunity," Ezoua said. "The children in the states don't know how many opportunities they've got. We know."
As for the exposure to football, shortly after the boys arrived, the 6-foot-5 Gnonkonde saw the team at practice.
"He asked what they were doing," White said. "He didn't know. We told him, and he asked if he could do it.
"We said, 'Yeah, we'll give it a whirl.'"
'I had a helmet. I had pads. It was really cool'
Kallon decided soon after he met Coach Wofford that he wanted to play. But his parents were firmly against it.
"I don't have any understanding of football," Rose Kallon said, "but when I looked and saw people playing, I was not happy at all."
Francis' father disliked the idea even more. And this is a man who is persistent in getting what he wants.
Born in the African nation of Sierra Leone, the elder Kallon made connections through playing volleyball to earn a scholarship to study agronomy at Tashkent University in the former Soviet Union.
During the time of his studies, he returned home to marry Rose. They relocated to London, and three years after Francis was born in 1994, his father left England to start a business in Africa. Political violence prevented his re-entry to Sierra Leone, so Kallon landed in bordering Guinea. After several months, his business brought him to the Atlanta area in 1997. Two years ago, Rose decided to reunite with her husband in Georgia.
"But not American football," he said. "I saw 10 people falling into each other and said, 'I don't think so.'"
So when his son came to him with the request, the elder Kallon said no. Over and over, he said no.
But Francis "tormented us," his father said.
So Dad struck a deal with Francis: Get a perfect report card and attain a score on the SAT that his father considered unreachable, and he could play football.
When Francis did it, his parents finally agreed.
Over the span of nine practices and a scrimmage in May, Kallon received 13 scholarship offers from the likes of Arkansas, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Illinois.
"Word spread and everybody was coming in to see him," Wofford said.
Still, Kallon had never played a game. In one of the first spring practices, he hammered a teammate who had run out of bounds. Didn't know the rules. Wofford had to laugh.
"He's still learning," the coach said. "But I'll take that 15-yard penalty on Friday night. He's going to terrify the other team. They're going to think he doesn't know what he's doing -- that he's just killing everybody."
The smallest things amused Kallon.
"I had a helmet. I had pads," he said. "It was really cool."
But the best was yet to come.
Gnonkonde immediately took to football. And at 6-5 and 210 pounds as a freshman, he was a natural. At 220 pounds today as a senior, he's a "freak of nature," said White, the athletic director.
The best thing about the game?
"Physical contact," Gnonkonde said, "and the crowds."
He's attended college games at Florida State, Georgia and, of course, Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets learned of Gnonkonde early. Offensive line coach Todd Spencer told White that Tech would do a better job than any school in recruiting Gnonkonde.
"He has," White said. "We went to Georgia Tech, and it was over with."
Gnonkonde committed in February.
When new Lanier County coach Brent Miller started in May, he knew little about Gnonkonde.
"It was a pleasant surprise," Miller said, "because, I think, this year, he has really learned football. It takes a certain amount of knowledge to understand the game. Like if I tried to play croquet, I might understand the ABCs, but I wouldn't know the nuances. Now he understands little things, but there's still so much he has to learn."
Gnonkonde plays defensive end, tight end, and he's about to try punting.
"Really," Miller said, "he's just an athlete."
'This is where I live now'
Kallon played his first game on Aug. 26. In a 54-15 Central Gwinnett win over Mountain View, he recorded 10 tackles, including three for losses, one sack and a blocked punt.
Even Mom and Dad liked it.
Through four games, he's got 37 tackles, including 9½ behind the line of scrimmage, five sacks, three blocked kicks and two fumble recoveries.
Colleges are taking notice. Despite Kallon's commitment to Georgia Tech -- he's now the star among its 11 pledges -- interest is growing. Alabama continues to take a hard look at the 260-pound Kallon and may soon offer a scholarship.
Mom and Dad, by the way, prefer Georgia Tech. He can go away for graduate school, they said, though trips this fall to see other school are OK.
Recruiters actually like his inexperience.
"He doesn't have any bad traits yet," Wofford said. "Some kids think they're too big-time to hustle. Francis doesn't know what that means, so he just goes."
For example, Kallon approached Wofford in the spring with this question: "Coach, what's my purpose on this play?"
Wofford told him what to do. Kallon went out and did it.
"What he's told me," said Brown, Kallon's counselor, "is that it's his job to go after the ball."
It's no different down in Lakeland, where Gnonkonde plays with motivation that his Georgia-born teammates simply cannot understand.
When he tried football as a freshman, Gnonkonde said, the other Lanier County players made fun of him for his lack of knowledge.
Ridicule has given way to respect.
Still, hardships exist, like his quest to gain U.S. citizenship. Gnonkonde has a hearing on Sept. 27 to receive a green card.
"It's been a long, tedious process," White said. "This is all new ground. Nobody knew who to call."
By standards of American culture, Lawrenceville and Lakeland are a world apart. Yet they're bound by the singular opportunity that football provides two teenagers to create a life unthinkable not long ago.
"I'm looking to stay here as long as it takes to be the best I can be," Kallon said. "I can go visit to see my family and the people I started life with, but this is where I live now."
Gnonkonde couldn't have said it any better.
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman