Steve Irvine -- The Birmingham News
UAB soccer coach Mike Getman heard the stories during the recruitment of Atak Yai. Stories of a 6-year-old boy and some of his family members swimming through crocodile-infested waters and walking for two days so the youngest boys could escape their war-ravaged home in Sudan.
Stories of a young boy losing his mother because medical attention wasn't available after she was bitten by a dog and a young man growing up with little contact with a father who sacrificed so much for his children.
Stories that seem hard to understand unless you've walked in the same shoes.
"Not only did he survive these things, but he's the happiest person you've ever met, and he's just so upbeat and positive about life," Getman said. "How could that be? He should be the maddest, meanest, nastiest person on the planet and yet he's not."
Yai's life is certainly filled with many tragic elements -- as with the other "Lost Boys of Sudan" who fled the country -- but his story includes as much triumph as it does tragedy.
The 18-year-old Yai was an all-state soccer player at Murrah High in Mississippi and is currently a true freshman forward on the UAB soccer team.
"He's a terrific soccer player," Getman said. "He's a good student, a dedicated student. He's what a college athlete is supposed to be.
He just happens to have this extraordinary background."
Yai remembers little about an early childhood spent in a country in the middle of a civil war. His mother died in 1997 and he left Sudan later that year.
"My understanding was we left because of the war, but my dad told us it was because of the education," said Yai, whose father decided his sons needed to leave Sudan to seek better lives while he stayed behind.
Yai and his brother, Mabior, left Sudan on an airplane but they had to travel by foot for two days to reach the plane. Atak could walk only short distances, and when he tired his father carried him.
"We came to the town where the airplane was supposed to be and it wasn't there yet," Yai recalled. "We had to wait about another week. We didn't know what day it would come back. We told my dad to go back home and we'd stay with my auntie. We stayed with my auntie for that week and when the airplane came we went to Nairobi, Kenya."
Atak and his brother received the education they craved during their six years in Kenya, but life was far from easy. Meals didn't always come on a regular basis and they often lived with relatives in cramped spaces. Sleeping on a bed was often not an option.
In Kenya, Atak was introduced to and fell in love with soccer. His first taste of the sport came on dusty fields with a soccer ball formed out of paper and rope. They played in bare feet.
Eventually he followed his brother into club soccer, where his game flourished despite brutal coaching tactics.
"We would always get (physically) beat up by the coaches," Yai said. "We had a game where the game was no more than three touches before we take a shot. I took more than three. My coach took me out of the game. He said 'Leave the ball and come here.' I told him I was sorry and he just knocked me out. I think I was 12 or 13."
He arrived in the United States in 2005, landing in Atlanta and settling in Clarkston, Ga. His apprehension of living in a foreign land was eased by a community filled with refugees from war-torn countries.
Once again, soccer helped Atak and his brother adjust to a new home. They joined a local soccer team -- the Fugees -- that was chronicled in Warren St. John's book "Outcasts United."
After a year, though, the Yai brothers were among a group of refugees who moved from Clarkston to Jackson, Miss., a move that Atak didn't welcome at the time. However, he clung to his brother and eventually prospered in Jackson.
Seeks reunion with dad
Now, he sets out on his own, even though he could have joined his brother at Bellhaven College in Jackson. Atak said he'll still rely on support from Mabior, just as he does with phone calls to his sister in Kansas City and oldest brother in Atlanta.
Eventually, the dream is for all of them to reunite with their father in Sudan.
Atak has not seen his father since arriving in Kenya in 1997. Their phone conversations are rare because his father has to travel to another village to find a phone.
"Sometimes I think about him and cry, so I don't really want to think about it," Atak said. "That's how I want to do it. I don't even remember how he looks like. I have a picture -- my brother has it -- that's the only way I can tell that's my daddy. I can't wait to see him again."