The gunshots would come from outside, maybe 200 yards away, in the wooded area near Keba Agostinho’s home. He was a boy then, and the idea of war was hard to comprehend. He knew that there were men outside, and that pockets of his native Angola were in chaos. He that they were killing each other in a bloody offspring of a decades-long civil war in this large country on the coast of Africa.
But on most nights, when Agostinho heard the gunshots, he wasn’t scared. He didn’t know to be. His father, Kadima, and his mother, Tambua, never talked about the war. So he didn’t either.
“You can hear it, and you could see people,” Agostinho says. “And as a kid, you don’t understand what you’re really seeing.”
Outside, Agostinho says, a patch of woods in his home country could turn into a lawless battlefield. But inside, he says, life moved on.
“It seemed like almost normal,” Agostinho says.
More than 15 years later, as Agostinho sits inside the Anderson Family Football Complex at Kansas, his idea of normal has been reset like a brand-new needle on a compass. He is a senior in college now, one of the few leftover starters on a recast Kansas defense. On Saturday, he will return home to his adopted home state when KU travels to play Rice in Houston.
More than a decade after spending his days playing soccer in the middle of a war-torn African country, he now spends his afternoons inside KU’s multimillion-dollar facilities, preparing to chase down quarterbacks in one the country’s best conferences.
As his teammates say, he is not like most other college football players. Most college football players don’t speak five languages, including Portuguese and French. Most don’t major in economics. Most don’t grow up in a country where things like running water and electricity can be considered luxuries.
“He knows what it feels to go without,” junior nose tackle Keon Stowers says “Because he’s been there with no electricity, no running water, no infrastructure.”
There was also, of course, no football. Growing up in the city of Luanda, Agostinho had never even heard of American football. He played soccer in nearby parks, using spare shoes as goals. The local kids played basketball, too. But when his father, a mechanical engineer, decided to move the family to the United States when Keba was 9, they landed in one of the most football crazy regions in the world: Katy, Texas.
Agostinho says he was drawn to the game for a number of reasons: He was still growing, of course, and he had the delicate feet of a soccer player. But he would also look at the size of the youth football teams in Katy. For a kid who could only speak a word or two of English, it was an easy way to find new friends.
“On a football team, there’s gonna be 100 kids…,” Agostinho says. “And now you have something in common.”
When Agostinho arrived at James Taylor High, he was still a few years behind some of his teammates. He was still learning the intricacies of the sport, but his athleticism was unquestionable.
“We recognized right away that he had the DNA to be a next-level player,” Taylor coach Flint Rizien says.
A few years earlier, Rizien had coached a Texas kid named James McClinton, a standout defensive lineman who would go on to star on KU’s Orange Bowl team in 2007. Rizien told Agostinho about McClinton — about what it might take to play at the next level. And when Agostinho signed with KU in 2010, Rizien thought the kid may have made more progress than nearly any kid he’d coached.
“There was some times when he was young,” Rizien says, “where there was a battle of wills.”
Last week, Agostinho finished with four tackles as KU opened its season with a 31-14 victory over South Dakota. And this Saturday, Agostinho will return to the Houston area, just 30 miles east of Katy.
The Jayhawks will face a stiff test against Rice’s high-powered spread offense. And as a defensive end in KU’s three-man front, he’ll be asked to harass Rice’s dual-threat quarterback, Taylor McHargue.
On Wednesday afternoon, Agostinho spent a few moments explaining how he’d improved his pass-rush skills this past offseason. It was straight-up football talk, something you’d hear from any proud Texan. And a decade after leaving Angola, he qualifies as one of those, too.
He can still remember those night back in that house in Angola, when the war raged outside. The sounds, the colors — everything is still vivid. But his childhood eventually led him to Texas, he says, and that place feels like home, too.
“When I first got here as a kid, I wanted to go back,” Agostinho says. “I didn’t want to be here really. But now that I’m grown, it was a good move.”