Rise Above: Courage Okungbowa
Tennis star lived up to his name, rescued his family from serious car accident
This story appears in the March issue of ESPNHS magazine.
The story almost writes itself: Star tennis player rescues family after horrifying car accident. His name? Courage.
It doesn't get more perfect than that, folks.
But there are multiple layers to the story of Courage Okungbowa, a soft-spoken junior at Wiregrass Ranch (Wesley Chapel, Fla.) and the courageous tennis player in question. It's about a split-second reaction, yes, but it's also about the courage of his immigrant parents and the courage it takes to step up in the wake of a devastating accident -- not just immediately but also in a sustained, long-term way.
Courage Okungbowa's parents, Stanley and Mabel, are native Nigerians who came to the United States, as the story goes, to pursue a better life. Their journey was an arduous one that involved hard-won amnesty and risky travel through war-torn Sierra Leone. The names of their four children -- Courage has two brothers, Foresight and Destiny, and a sister, Precious -- reflect the struggle and the aspirations involved in their coming to the United States.
Stanley, who learned tennis from a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s, came to see the sport as a vehicle to a better life -- and a way to keep his children out of trouble. Courage started at 8 and was a natural, though at first Stanley wasn't thinking about state titles or scholarships.
"Where we lived in D.C. and Virginia, it was crime-ridden, too much crime, so people kept their children home," Stanley said. "I couldn't live with that, so I introduced tennis. First, it was to get them out of trouble. Now they love it so we just stay with it."
Indeed, when Stanley and Mabel made the decision to move the family to Florida, tennis was the motivating factor.
"We came here purposefully to come and play tennis," Stanley says. "Florida is the place, the mecca of tennis. That's what we call it."
The journey proved to be life-altering, however. Mabel secured a nursing job and went ahead by a month. The rest of the family left in August 2010 straight from -- where else? -- one of Courage's tennis tournaments in Virginia Beach.
They drove through the night until, on a bridge in North Carolina, a car swerved in front of Stanley's minivan, hitting the bumper and sending the car careening into a guardrail. The minivan spun in circles before skidding off the bridge and landing, back end first, in a shallow river.
Stanley hit his head on the steering wheel and was knocked unconscious. His children, sleeping at the time of the accident, woke up with a start. As the car began to sink, Courage got his siblings out of the vehicle and onto the shore. When Stanley came to, the car was still sinking, and he climbed out and onto a palm tree until help arrived.
Dazed, he told the first responders he was OK. It wasn't true. Stanley sustained physical and cognitive injuries that kept him in the hospital for months. He still struggles to remember things, relying on Courage to fill in the gaps. He relies on Courage for a lot.
"He's taken over everything I used to do," Stanley says. "He guides me through."
As heroic as Courage's actions were in the wake of the accident, the courageousness and maturity he has displayed in its aftermath have been equally impressive.
With his father recovering (and the medical bills piling up) and his mother working long hours, Courage ran the household and looked after his younger siblings. This from a 16-year-old adjusting to life in a new state and just trying to keep his tennis dreams alive.
In his first year at Wiregrass Ranch, Courage was the team's top player and didn't lose a match until the state tournament. An "A" student who was always focused, Courage has been even more motivated since the accident.
"It taught me a lot of things about life," Courage says. "That you can go at any time, whether you're a kid or whether you're an adult. I really think about that time and try to be more appreciative now and try not to take too many things for granted."
"Bad things that happen to you sometimes make you stronger," says Wiregrass Ranch tennis coach and athletic director Dave Wilson. "He understands what his family has sacrificed for him, but I don't think you realize things in your own life until something happens to you."
With Foresight joining the team this year as a freshman, and with Courage markedly better than he was a year ago, expectations are high for Wiregrass Ranch. Courage plans to enjoy every moment.
It doesn't get more perfect than that, folks.
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