[Above] Danladi, No. 8, stars for South Coast Strikers on their trip to Milk Cup, one of the top youth tournaments in the world, in 2012 where he finished with seven goals.
Abu Danladi did not even have a seat on the bus when his journey to the U.S. took off. He had to ride on his friend’s lap.
The 2013-14 Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year made history on Thursday as the first athlete from Dunn School – a tiny boarding school in Los Olivos, California – to win the prestigious award.
Boarding being the imperative word, as Danladi hails from a different country and a different life.
His path to the States started on a bus in Ghana seven years ago when he tried to catch the eye of scouts from Right to Dream, an academy that helps children in Ghana with opportunities in sport.
“Right to Dream hosted a tryout for my region, which is one of 10 regions in Ghana,” Danladi said about the first stage of his journey. “First, my local coach tells me that it is a tryout where teams play against other teams so he organizes a bus for us to go as a team . . . but when the day of the tryout comes, the coach tells us that the format changed and we could only come as individuals so he cancelled the bus.”
“I couldn’t afford the bus ticket – I didn’t even have money to eat – so I had no way to get to the tryout,” Danladi continued. “I was about to go home but one of my friends, who doesn’t play soccer – he is a really good friend of mine – said, ‘I have lunch money so I can pay for your bus and we can go down.’ He pays for a bus ticket, but he only had money for one seat, so I sat on his lap.”
Danladi found his way to the tryout, but that was just the start of the difficulties for him on the day. When he arrived at the fields, he realized that the tryouts were for teams.
“All of the other teams came with their coaches,” he explained. “I just came with my friend who was the same age as me. We were just little boys.”
Hesitant that he would get a chance to play, Danladi began to doubt why he even made the trek but his friend provided the conviction to go on and Danladi pushed his luck.
“I’m standing there and I see a team that’s about to play,” Danladi said. “I just jump into the back of the line of the players. I didn’t know anyone. The coach spots me and asks, ‘Who are you? Why are you in my team?’ I explained everything to him and he said, ‘Ok, but I can’t guarantee that you are going to play. I can only let you play if one of my players gets hurt or something.”
Danladi did not want to wish ill on anyone, but he wanted to play. He started to worry as the minutes ticked away. With only five minutes left in the game, a player went down with an injury and it was his time to take the field.
Five minutes was all he needed.
“Out of the 200 or 300 players that tried out from my region, I was the only one that was selected for Right to Dream,” he said. “Those five minutes were the deciding moments for me.”
After a week of training at the Right to Dream academy, Danladi was offered a scholarship to join the institution full time. At the tender age of 11 years old, Danladi left home. Traveled seven hours and entered a new situation with no friends.
“I remember crying on the first day that I was supposed to go there,” Danladi said. “I didn’t want to go. I was scared.”
He settled in. He made friends. He found what was lacking in his childhood at the academy with soccer training and schoolwork.
“When I was back home [before Right to Dream], I didn’t go to school because I couldn’t pay the fees,” Danladi said. “So when I got to Right to Dream, I knew I had to take education seriously.”
While Danladi found the right nourishment for his mind and physical attributes, there was a string of fortuitous events taking place thousands of miles away that would help pave the way for his pending arrival.
In 2004, King Gyan and Waid Ibrahim became the first players from Right to Dream to enroll at Dunn School.
“There was a group of people [associated with Dunn School] that wanted to give some needy and deserving kids an opportunity to get a world-class education,” Cris Avery, Danladi’s host dad, told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “They made a connection with Right to Dream in Ghana, which is one of the top 15 soccer academies in the world . . . Because of who King and Waid were as people, everyone wanted to spend more time with them. They really made a huge difference on this campus. So they decided that they had to do that again.”
UC Santa Barbara standouts Fifi Baiden and Michael Tetteh were the next duo to make the leap from the African nation to Los Olivos.
Dunn soccer enjoyed success with the influx of talent. The Earwigs were the 2006 CIF SS Division VI Champions, the first CIF title for the program.
However, the blissful run came to an end when the economy turned sour. In 2008, the Right to Dream pathway to Dunn came to a halt, as the money was no longer there for scholarships.
It was only a brief hiccup. Two years later, a touching personal speech from a senior, who grew up in war-stricken Sudan, at the Dunn graduation opened the door for Danladi.
“There was a young man named Nyuol Tong, who gave a graduation speech in 2010,” Avery explained. “At the speech, a family heard him and asked school officials, ‘I know you aren’t having anymore African students here. What can we do about that?”
The scholarship was setup for a boy from Right to Dream to come to Dunn in 2011.
“My wife and I are sitting down and watching the Blind Side,” Avery said. “She asked me, ‘Would you ever consider bringing a kid into our home?’ I kind of dismissed it as yeah, whatever. She heard that as yes and went forward with all of the plans.”
Avery’s wife, Helena, is a teacher at Dunn. She had been thinking about bringing in a boy from Right to Dream for some time, according to Avery.
The family was informed that they would be hosting a boy named Daniel who would arrive in the summer of 2011. Two weeks prior to the scheduled arrival, the Averys were told that there was a change. A boy named Abu would be joining them.
“There was this transition when he first arrived about how is he going to fit in,” Avery said. “It was the perfect fit for our family and exactly what he needed. It is kind of like this missing piece and he completes the puzzle.
“Now, what he needed was love and support,” Avery added. “At the Academy, he was given that in other forms. I think they were really focused on the soccer part of it. He really likes school. He had school taken away from him at a young age. During that time, he played soccer all day and probably helped develop his soccer but now when he comes back and goes to school, he tries really hard.”
Danladi’s love of the game helped him in those days where school was a luxury.
“I love soccer. I grew up with it,” Danladi said. “I played barefoot. I played until the light went out and I couldn’t see anymore. It keeps me alive and it’s a gift that I was given from God.”
His talent on the field facilitated his place at Right to Dream. His studious nature helped him get from Right to Dream to Dunn; even though there were some doubts about him during his first week on campus.
“My first week [at Dunn], I didn’t say a word to anyone,” Danladi said with a smile. “They thought I had problems, but I was in shock.”
On and off the soccer field, Danladi matured at Dunn.
As a soccer player, he became an unstoppable talent in the attack after featuring as a defender with Right to Dream.
“When these boys first get here, they will play club soccer and the coach will ask them what position ‘do you play?” Avery said. “Michael Tetteh was a goalie and he told him ‘I’m a forward.’ He ends up as a forward and he goes to sign a Generation adidas deal and play for the Seattle Sounders. Abu came here with Jeff Acheampong, he is a junior at Cate School [another boarding school in Santa Barbara county], and Jeff was the first person to open his mouth and says, ‘I’m a center forward.’ So Abu says, ‘Then I’m left forward.’ They put him on the left and he develops. He’s not a natural left-footer but because he is playing there and playing so much, people think he is left footed. He is not left footed.”
His club team, Santa Barbara Soccer Club, emerged as one of the best in Southern California following the arrival of Danladi and Acheampong. In 2012, SBSC won the Western College Development Association against some of the best clubs from the region. Recently, SBSC captured the 2014 Cal South National Cup U18 championship. As seen above, Danladi, No. 8, also starred for South Coast Strikers on their trip to Milk Cup, one of the top youth tournaments in the world, in 2012 where he finished with seven goals.
In high school, he was even more impressive for a different reason. He scored 25 goals and contributed 15 assists as a senior even though he missed a couple of games, played center back for a few games, and did everything else for Dunn.
“He played goalie for a part of a game this season because the goalie got hurt and no one else would do it,” Avery said. “He said whatever you need coach. It’s what makes him a special person.”
Off the field, Danladi’s timid nature gave way to a humorous young man who is now a leader on the campus. On Thursday, his peers packed into the school’s library to watch Danladi receive his historic award.
“All of them coming to the library just to see me get an award made me feel like I have a family, but it’s not just a family – it’s a family that I will remember for the rest of my life,” Danladi said. “They’ve supported me the whole way and to get this award. It was great.”
His warm personality came though to even those who have only been around him for a short period of time.
“He is an awesome kid. I love him already,” Alecko Eskandarian, the 1999-2000 Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year and this year’s presenter of the award, told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “I only met him for about an hour or two, but you can tell there is something special to him.”
The future for Danladi is yet another new experience as he will be the first Right to Dream alum to play at UCLA. The Bruins won his commitment last year over a plethora of universities.
“Abu is not only a wonderful player but a great person who brings out the best in everyone around him," UCLA head coach Jorge Salcedo said in a statement about this recruiting class. "Abu comes from the Right to Dream program and is breath of fresh air, as he’s extremely appreciative and grateful for every opportunity presented to him. He doesn’t know the meaning of entitled and always puts the team first. Abu is an electric forward who has the pace and intelligence to stretch the game with the ability pull a rabbit out of a hat to win games."
Salcedo singing the praises of the high school standout only happened because of Danladi's host dad, who wanted to give the teenager every opportunity possible for his collegiate search.
“I cold called UCLA and said I have a really good player at my house, you should take a look at him,” Avery said. “UCLA told me that they only recruit [Development] Academy guys, but send us a video. I sent them the video of him scoring four goals against Tottenham in the Milk Cup. They went from not knowing who he is to seeing if he could graduate early from high school. UCLA said we need him right now and it was a full court press.”
The Dunn star headlines the top ranked recruiting class headed to Westwood in 2014. He is the third Gatorade Boys Soccer National Player of the Year to play at UCLA, the first since Jordan Harvey in 2002.
This summer, Danladi will make the trek back to his home in Takoradi, Ghana. He will see his parents for the first time since his arrival in the States in 2011. Brave enough to leave his home at 11 years old, he returns as a young man cherished by those who have been graced by his company.
 Right to Dream is an Academy in Ghana that was established by Tom Vernon in 2000. It’s alumni list includes former Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year Emmanuel Boateng as well as World Cup hopefuls David Accam and Abdul Majeed Waris.
 Tong is a refugee from South Sudan. He is a senior at Duke University. He founded SELFSudan (the Sudan Education for Liberty Foundation).
 Editor’s note: While UCLA does recruit the best of the best, the Bruins have been open to players from a number of different development paths. Eleven of the 28 players on the 2014 roster came from outside of the Academy.