‘I saw it as a lesson’: How an alleged human trafficking scheme shaped Kingsley Jonathan’s football career

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on December 28, 2018 at 12:52 am Contact Matt: [email protected] The coaching staff thought they had a superstar in the making. After playing football for just one season at Eastern Alamance (North Carolina) High School, their freshman phenom, Jonathan Kingsley, was named a MaxPreps Freshman All-American and helped lead Eastern Alamance to the state semifinal.Kingsley stood at 6-foot-4 and weighed over 200 pounds. He was believed to be 15 years old and had immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria the year before.“He came in not knowing everyone and just by his actions being a great guy, he drew others,” Eastern Alamance head coach John Kirby said. “His motor ran hard and he always stayed to try to learn.” But over the course of the ensuing months, much of Kingsley’s perceived background proved to be misrepresented. He wasn’t 15 years old. His name was Kingsley Jonathan, not Jonathan Kingsley. His passport showed he should’ve been a junior, and not a freshman in high school. An alleged human trafficking scheme placed Jonathan near the epicenter of a federal government investigation on the opposite side of the world from his home.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textMax Freund | Staff PhotographerTwo moves and three years later, Jonathan is a sophomore defensive lineman at No. 20 Syracuse (9-3, 6-2 Atlantic Coast) and ranks third on the Orange with five sacks. He will likely earn his second start this Friday against No. 16 West Virginia (8-3, 6-3 Big 12) in the Camping World Bowl due to Alton Robinson’s absence for “personal reasons.” Jonathan, who SU head coach Dino Babers calls one of his favorite players because of his endless motor and cheerful character, has endured an arduous path to reach his position. Yet, through it all, Jonathan mustered the strength to find his way in a foreign land.“Some things I wish didn’t happen, but I always trusted God,” Jonathan said. “I knew it was his plan. That’s what he wanted me to go through, to experience that, so that I could help people coming from Nigeria and be an example. Throughout the whole process I saw it as a lesson. God showed me things that I needed to learn, things that I needed to open my eyes to.”***A gifted student and basketball player, Jonathan’s parents believed he could go much farther in the United States than he could in Nigeria. They obtained a visa, a passport and an I-20 form, he said. Once he arrived in North Carolina, he was met by Aris Hines and Brandi Thomason, who would host Jonathan. The two never had any contact with him or his family before he reached the U.S., Jonathan said, but Hines was the one that had Eastern Alamance send the I-20.Hines and Thomason enrolled Jonathan in the eighth grade that year, where he adjusted to the culture and new way of life in America. He lived with Hines and Thomason as well as several other kids from different countries that the couple hosted. But according to reports, Jonathan’s visa indicated he was supposed to attend Evelyn Mack Academy in Charlotte, where his parents were paying for him to go. But he was on his own in a new world. He did what was asked of him.Jonathan didn’t think anything of it when he walked into his eighth-grade classroom in the fall of 2014 and nearly every kid was much smaller than he was. It was a different place. He didn’t know anyone. The following year, he attended Eastern Alamance and earned a spot on the varsity football roster. He was a “humongous” kid and a gifted athlete. He’d never stepped foot on a field and needed others to put on pads for him, but he adapted quickly, Kirby said. Josh Shub-Seltzer | Staff PhotographerHe became one of Eastern Alamance’s best players. He stayed after practice every day to learn more and work on his technique and develop his knowledge of the game. When he went home, after completing his homework, he spent hours on YouTube where he learned the tactics and roles of each position watching NFL players, especially defensively, where Jonathan became a force.“You get to hit people and don’t get yelled at,” Jonathan said. “I love hitting people and I get this kind of adrenaline rush. You can do it and not get yelled at. And then you can do it again and again.”By seasons end, Jonathan was a MaxPreps Freshman All-American and one of the best up-and-coming players in the country. Rivals.com visited Eastern Alamance frequently as did several Division I coaches. During that season, Jonathan said, he moved in with Tim and Tyra Grate, whose son was a teammate of Jonathan.The Grates could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts.At the same time, Hines was out of town for a few months, and when he returned he saw the Grates worked to become Jonathan’s legal guardians. In response, Hines called the schools who faced Eastern Alamance, claiming that the Eagles played an ineligible athlete. Since the Grates had not yet become Jonathan’s legal guardians, his legal guardians’ residency was still home in Nigeria.Eastern Alamance was forced to vacate its wins in both football and basketball, but the blowback from those calls along with the disappearance of three girls also staying with Hines and Thomason opened questions into Hines’ and Thomason’s background. Investigations found Jonathan was just one of a series of foreign students that Hines and Thomason hosted in order to exploit their parents for money, upwards of $27,000 according to initial reports. Police reports indicated both Hines and Thomason were charged with obstruction of justice and obtaining property by false pretense. Throughout the following weeks and months the Department of Homeland Security visited Mebane, as it, along with local investigators, dug deeper into the activities of Hines and Thomason. Some reports suggested that the pair had conducted similar schemes in Oklahoma and West Virginia.Neither Hines nor Thomason could be reached after multiple attempts to contact them.“I was just trying to keep my head down and stick with the people I know I can trust and with the family I’m with now,” Jonathan said. “I just watched it play out.”***Before Jonathan’s senior year, St. Frances (Maryland) head coach Henry Russell and assistant coach Messay Hailemariam heard about Jonathan’s situation, how he’d been taken advantage of, and they wanted to do whatever they could to help. Jonathan’s play on the football field was just an extra bonus they never planned on. “Coach Messay and I were like we’ve got to find a way to help this kid,” Russell said. “He’s in a bad spot and it’s not his fault.”Max Freund | Staff PhotographerRussell and Hailemariam reached out to the Grates and arranged a meeting. Shortly after Jonathan enrolled at St. Frances, 328 miles away from Eastern Alamance. Immediately, Jonathan wanted to play football, but he would have to wait. He wasn’t yet eligible to play, and Russell and Hailemariam had to obtain clearance from the federal government to do so.Due to his victimization in what was believed to be a human trafficking scheme, Jonathan was witness to an FBI investigation. Russell and Hailemariam had to work with the Department of Homeland Security just to make sure he could stay in the United States as an ordinary student. Along with that, because of his ineligibility in North Carolina, the two had to obtain clearance from the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) if Jonathan wanted to play football, which he terribly desired. Jonathan stayed back after every practice to work with the coaching staff and figure out how to improve. Even if he couldn’t play in St. Frances’ games, he wanted to ensure he could still play in college. Hailemariam, an Ethopian, was a former Division I football player. Following his playing career, he immediately became a coach. He knew the cultural power of the sport.“I told him football would allow him to gauge the new country, acclimate. He had an opportunity for free education … to graduate with a degree debt-free,” Hailemariam said. “I told him to be grateful for that. You’re from Nigeria and have an opportunity few people get. Don’t be complacent.”Those words motivated Jonathan and they still do. He asked for help in his technique and game from his teammates and in turn tutored around a dozen of them. After two months of waiting, Russell received word from the MIAA that Jonathan was eligible. When he informed Jonathan of the decision, Jonathan nearly cried. Russell remembered his smile grew wide, tears formed in his eyes. He remembered Jonathan repeatedly asked if it were true. He became a star outside linebacker, and intercepted a pass in the state final to seal a victory. As a three-star recruit, he gained attention from schools like Syracuse, Tennessee and South Carolina. “Him not knowing football, I was just lost for a second. I was like ‘How could you be this good at a sport that you know nothing about?’ I was confused,” his teammate Gary Brightwell said “I’d ask him every day, are you lying to me? You’re just playing one of those games with me again? For him not to know anything about the sport, he sure do make a lot of plays.”Max Freund | Staff PhotographerDespite his success, several collegiate coaches were scared to offer him a scholarship because of his past, Russell said. For someone so focused on being part of a family, Jonathan struggled to find a coach willing to let him be part of one. He finally found that in Dino Babers and his staff at Syracuse.“Coming from everything I’ve been through, that was mainly what I was looking for,” Jonathan said. “They have my back, no matter what happens.”During that senior year, Jonathan and his roommates from St. Frances visited Syracuse for the Orange’s game against South Florida in September of 2016. Following the game, Brightwell said, Jonathan committed on the field.“Not too many people could make it that far being through what he went through,” Brightwell said. “Usually people break, but he just stayed focused the whole way.”***As a sophomore this season, Jonathan has elevated his game. Backing up defensive ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, Jonathan ranks third on the team in sacks behind the two, despite not starting. Few players on the team have a higher motor than Jonathan, Babers said.“He has no governor,” Babers said, referring to the speed regulator on tour busses. “I love him. I absolutely love him.”Due to Robinson’s absence in the Camping World Bowl, Jonathan will likely fill into his role starting alongside Coleman and defensive tackle Chris Slayton, playing on perhaps the biggest stage of his young career.At the same time that this game will happen in Orlando, Florida, Hines and Thomason are living in Texas, away from prison. Charges against the pair were dropped this past July because Jonathan provided “inconsistent statements” and there were “significant problems obtaining pertinent and relevant evidence from federal authorities.”In an interview with WTVD in Raleigh, North Carolina, Hines stated the following in relation to Jonathan.“The parents had signed off on it, it had the Nigerian seal from a notary. And when we went to the school, if they had told us that we needed a court-ordered document, which we didn’t know at the time, we would have went through the courts and got the proper document to enroll the kid.”Hines and Thomason have been linked to dozens of other cases of human trafficking, specifically involving athletes. But inconsistencies let them avoid prison. Jonathan doesn’t have animosity toward them. He doesn’t know where he’d be otherwise.  “They made it possible for me to get over here. That was a big deal,” Jonathan said. “I always wish everybody the best…They have their life, I have my life.”For years Jonathan bounced around, struggling to find his place. He was subject to an FBI investigation and did not know where he’d end up. Now, Jonathan doesn’t have to worry about any of that. He has found his family, and he’s finally home.— Senior Staff Writer Matthew Gutierrez contributed reporting to this story. Commentslast_img

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