On little more than a whim, Aaron Mends exited the front door of his house five years ago to take a walk that would forever change his life.
By SAM MCDOWELL
The Kansas City Star
A one-mile stroll led Mends to a football field at Pleasant Valley Park, where he spotted a local seventh-grade team practicing for its second fall game.
Because his parents grew up in Ghana — a small but populous country in western Africa — Mends knew little about football.
He had no jersey, no pads, not even a pair of cleats. But he was intrigued.
“I didn’t care where I played,” Mends says. “I was going to kick some (rear) somewhere on the field.”
Mends’ journey to football is not unlike other paths he’s taken in his life. Self-motivated. Impulsive. And most of all, rewarding.
Mends, a senior, will lead Winnetonka onto the field at 8:05 p.m. Friday against Liberty in the opening week of the Kansas City-area high school football season.
Five years after his first football practice, Mends is an all-state linebacker, a four-time letterman and such a punishing hitter that Winnetonka coaches keep his highlight videos only a few clicks away.
Mends has secured a football scholarship to Iowa. He was voted a team captain, and he is working toward his fourth straight semester with a grade point average above 3.5.
Given his history, all of these things serve as a bit of a surprise.
Nobody recognizes this more than Mends himself.
Othello Mends moved back to Ghana 10 years ago. He left behind his wife, Anne, their three daughters and one son.
Only 8 years old, Aaron was left without a father in his home.
Although they remain close — they text often — Aaron and Othello haven’t seen each other in nearly a year.
“I think I’ve grown up differently because of that,” Mends says. “There are times in a young man’s life when he needs his father. My mom would do anything for me, but she can’t tell you everything. So you have to do it on your own.”
More specifically, Mends continues, no one pushed him in football. Or in his academics. As a result, Mends has experienced his share of struggles, oftentimes self-inflicted, in both areas.
He skipped class regularly his freshman year of high school, and his grades dipped to C’s and D’s — a product, he says, of a lack of effort, a lack of motivation and the lack of a male authority figure at home.
“He kind of came in with a lot of our athletes, and, yeah, he was a little bit of a knucklehead,” said Janice Popejoy, Mends’ music teacher at Winnetonka. “A lot of what we do in choir resembles football — we have a team, and you have a personal responsibility to that team.
“I think once he learned that in football, he learned it in here, too. It was a fun process to watch unfold.”
His maturation on the football field was interesting, too.
At his first practice in seventh grade — the result of that fateful walk — Mends decided he wanted to be a kickoff return man, but he didn’t know the lingo and mistakenly told his coach, Ty Gifford, he wished to play running back.
He wasn’t allowed to play either. Too heavy to carry the ball under league rules, Mends was forced to play offensive guard and defensive end.
An offensive lineman flattened Mends on his first career play. Mends sacked the quarterback on his second.
He played wearing tennis shoes.
“I saw two plays, and I’d seen all I needed to see,” Gifford said. “This kid could play football.”
Two years later, it would take Winnetonka football coach Sterling Edwards only three days to come to the same conclusion.
Sitting in his classroom at Winnetonka, Edwards recaps Mends’ growth process over the past four seasons with remarkable detail.
He starts with academics, before the conversation shifts to Mends’ ability as a running back and linebacker. The raw, athletic player Edwards promoted from the freshman football team after three practices has blossomed into a team leader with a bright future, Edwards explains.
He abruptly stops.
“I want to show you something,” he says.
Edwards rolls his chair toward his laptop. After three clicks, he pops open a highlight of Mends from last season.
Playing outside linebacker, Mends sniffs out a running play, knocks an offensive lineman backward to the turf and lays another bruising hit on the ball carrier.
Edwards has seen this play hundreds of times. He still reacts as if it’s the first.
“He does things high school kids aren’t supposed to do,” Edwards says.
The emergence of his impressive football resume — one that was blank until just five years ago — has led to improved academics.
As colleges began to send letters, Mends had his motivator.
“Football drives me to do well in school because I want to do big things,” Mends says. “Football made a path for me to be better in life.”
In a few weeks, he may have a bigger motivator.
Othello is planning a trip to North Kansas City to watch Aaron finish out his senior season.
To reach Sam McDowell, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/SamMcDowell11.