Mohamed Sidique wanted to play basketball.
“I loved’’ the game, said Sidique, a junior at Brandeis University who, instead, has developed into an NCAA Division 3 All-American in track and field.
He came a bit late to the sport. And to many things American. His life had been a tangled web of discovery and tragedy.
Now, there is athletic glory.
Competing at the NCAA’s Division 3 outdoor track and field championships at Ohio Wesleyan University last weekend, Sidique extended all of his 6-foot-3 frame to earn a fifth-place finish in the triple jump, with a personal-best jump of 48 feet 1¾ inches.
“All I wanted to do was give back to Brandeis,” he said. “The people there have given me so much.”
His performance culminated a triumphant return for the 24-year-old, who survived a childhood in war-torn Sierra Leone, has persevered through the passing of both of his parents, and is back in competition after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament and breaking a pubic bone as a collegian.
He was born in New York City’s Harlem section, but a year later he and his mother moved to Sierra Leone to rejoin the rest of the family. There were some peaceful years in the West African nation. “It was a normal childhood,” said Sidique. “I have great memories of going to school and having fun with my family, until I was 6. Then things became really bad.”
The civil war between the Revolutionary United Front and the government broke out. It lasted 11 years; 50,000 lives were lost.
Sidique felt and witnessed the horrid depths of the conflict. His family lived in Freetown, the capital city. “Things were difficult around that area. You’d see things you wish you could un-see,” he said. “There were random killings. You’d see people with their hands cut off. The rebels would say, ‘Short sleeve or long sleeve?’ It meant, ‘Do you want your hand or arm cut off?’ Everything got crazy. You had to stay in your house.”
The rebels recruited young boys. “If they captured you, they’d force you to join them and kill people,” he said.
With the aid of intervention by the United States, Sidique and his two sisters, all US citizens, fled for New York to rejoin their mother and three brothers.
“We got a small apartment in Harlem. All seven of us lived there. It was tough, but cool too. It taught me the value of family.”
School was difficult.
“I didn’t do well at all,” he recalled. “Being from Africa, kids made fun of you. Teachers would laugh at your accent.”
Sidique dealt with it: “Why would you let something like that break you when I’d been through so much already?”
Things got better when he got to middle school. “That’s when I found sports,” he said. Basketball came first. He was on the team for two years, then quit to “concentrate on academics.” In his senior year at St. Raymond’s High School for Boys, he said, “I wasn’t doing anything but getting fat.’” He joined the track team. “I had a little speed and could jump.”
Sidique was not necessarily looking to do the long jump and triple jump.
The events, he said, “kind of picked me. My best friend said, ‘You should try it.’ ” Sidique went on to win the New York City title in both events and was named the tournament’s MVP.
A discussion with a high school friend, 2009 Brandeis grad Suahd Iddrissu, led him to the school’s Waltham campus. He was initially denied admission, but he enrolled in the Myra Kraft Transitional Year program. He called it “life-changing.”
But playing pickup basketball before his official freshman year, he hurt his left knee.
He thought it was just minor soreness, and continued to be active. But once the indoor track season started that winter, he said, “I only competed in three meets. They were all terrible.” An MRI revealed the torn ACL, as well as damage to the knee’s meniscus, medial collateral ligament, and patellar tendon, prompting surgery. His sophomore year was wiped out as well.
Sidique was determined to get back to the triple jump. Hard work had always paid off. He could do this. What he could not do was see the future, and it was about to strike with heartbreaking fury.
The day he turned 22 — April 14, 2012 — his father, Hassan, a diplomat in Sierra Leone, died of heart failure. Six months later, his mother, Mariama Conteh, died of a heart attack. Both succumbed in Africa.
The memory of his mother — who was more of a presence than his father — drives Sidique. “She’s the main reason I do everything,” he said. His track workouts are maniacal.
“My goals have never wavered. I do everything with my heart. I put in a lot of work pushing, pushing myself. You don’t win a race on race day. You win it at practice.’’ At the regular season conference meet, he said, “I was almost like another person. There was no way I was going to lose. I knew it. I told myself, ‘You’re not losing today.’ Nobody beat my first jump. I jumped better each jump.”
“He’s very, very serious about track,” said Kevin Trotman, a sophomore at Brandeis who joined the track team this year, competing in the discus.
When Sidique’s mother died, “He told me, ‘I’ve got to go back to Africa,’ ” Trotman recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll be gone for a while.’ He spoke in a monotone.
“He’s a very strong soul. I’m not sure how he does it.”
This has been Sidique’s breakout season. “Pretty much,” he agreed. He is quick to mention assistant coach Marlee Berg. “She’s amazing. I’m a sponge, just listening to her about how I can improve.”
Berg, a Chelmsford High grad who earned an NCAA title in the high jump while competing for Westfield State in 2009, said Sidique “is a pleasure to work with.
“He comes to every competition and practice with a positive attitude. He has a real passion for track. He has so much potential.”
Berg is amazed how Sidique has bounced back from his injuries. “To triple-jump again, that was a mental barrier he had to get over.”
“I was barely walking this time last year,” he said. “I went to the nationals confident, humble, and motivated.”
He has not made this journey alone. “The athletes and trainers at Brandeis have helped me so much,” he said. “I owe them everything.”
So he gives back, having become a whirlwind on campus working with the admissions office as a community adviser and tour guide. “I make sure no one gets in trouble,” said Sidique, who was elected a team captain as a sophomore. He is an American studies and philosophy major.
Trotman calls Sidique a mentor. “I met him on orientation day,” he said. “One of my friends pointed him out. . . If I had any questions, I knew who to go to. He was like a big brother. We talked about basketball. He knows when to be serious, but he’s one of the best jokesters too.”
Sidique jokes about “being attacked” for being a Yankees fan. “I love Boston, but I still love my New York teams: Knicks, Jets, Rangers,” he said.
Sidique’s life has stabilized. His siblings are spread out between New York and Providence. “We’re all doing well, standing on our feet,” he said. Images of Sierra Leone will never fade, but his new life steered him at Brandeis, and it is all good.
People with no knowledge of Sidique’s past are drawn to him. He is charismatic, and willing to help anyone on short notice. Trotman said he is lucky to have met Sidique as soon as he arrived at Brandeis.
Immediately after his success at the nationals, “I said a prayer for my mother and father,” Sidique said. “I dedicate everything to them. I wasn’t able to care for them. I didn’t get a chance to see my parents grow old.”Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.