by Greg Hall
Papay Glaywulu has not seen his mother since he left the Ivory Coast of Africa at the age of five. There is not a day that goes by where his memory of her touch does not spur him on to make her proud of the man he wants to become.
Papay (pronounced Poppy) was born in Liberia and is one of 19 children. His father managed to move some of his family to Dallas when Papay was five to free him from the civil war torn Ivory Coast where Papay was shuttled between his family's farm and refugee camps.
How much does Papay remember about life as a youngster along the Ivory Coast?
“I remember a lot actually,” said Papay as he and I slowly walked around his home track at Park Hill High School.
“We had a farm and as soon as you could walk, you were expected to work on the farm. We had animals. We grew things.”
His eyes brightened and a smile crossed his handsome face. “I remember that my dad was always bringing me back turtles from his hunting trips,” he laughed. “I had about seven of those things as pets.”
No one who knows anything about high school track and field would confuse Papay Glaywulu with one of his pet turtles.
The Park Hill senior's meet-record triple jump of 50-2.5 feet at last month's Kansas Relays placed him second in the nation at the time. (He is currently ranked sixth in the country.) He also runs the lead leg on Park Hill's 4x100 relay team that won their district title last week. He recently accepted a track scholarship to Oklahoma where he hopes to become the first member of the Glaywulu family to graduate college with a four-year degree.
So how does a kid from an African refugee camp who walked four miles to school each day with nothing more than a pencil and a notebook manage to accomplish so much?
With a lot of help.
Papay's third grade teacher at Chouteau Elementary School in the North Kansas City School District was Kendra Carpenter. Prior to the start of that school year, she prayed to God to show her what her purpose was in her life as an educator.
“I walked into my third-grade class that year and there sat Papay,” she said.
To say Papay was a challenge for Carpenter and the NKC School District that year would be a vast understatement.
“He had so much rage in him,” recalled Carpenter. “He would just see red and explode over even the smallest of things. He plotted revenge against his teachers, his classmates. He just wanted to strike out at everyone.”
Papay remembers his third-grade self in vivid detail.
“In third grade I was the WORST student,” Papay recalls with a hint of embarrassment. “I would cuss out all of my teachers. I got in a fight almost every day. I would throw tables. I would throw chairs. You name it, I was throwing it.”
There were times Papay's anger became so uncontrollable Carpenter would have to remove all of the other students from her classroom for fear Papay would throw something and injure someone.
When Mrs. Carpenter would sense the rage about to boil over in Papay, she would make him go to the back of the classroom and into the open coat closet to perform jumping jacks and push-ups in an effort to diffuse his fury.
“I think I deserve some credit for his athletic success,” laughed Carpenter. “I was the first person to get him to start working out!”
Papay was such a regular in Dr. Daniels' principal's office at Chouteau Elementary that on the odd occasion when he wasn't sitting in an office chair awaiting discipline, the office secretary and staff were genuinely concerned about his wellbeing.
“They'd say, we can't start detention without Papay,” said Papay. “That's when you know you're a bad student when you leave the office and go back to your normal class and everybody in the office is asking, 'Where's Papay?' I was in there so much I should have been paying rent!”
Carpenter had seen students who acted out to seek attention. This was not Papay.
“He was truly angry inside,” said Carpenter. “I knew he had come from an African refugee camp and those scars were why he had so much rage.”
His anger issues became such a problem that multiple meetings were held with the school administrators to determine whether Papay should be moved to an alternative school for children with extreme behavior.
“I left every one of those meetings in tears,” recalls Carpenter. “I pleaded with the administrators for him to stay in a regular school environment. I knew there was so much good in him and he just needed a chance to know people cared. I kept repeating to everyone, 'He'll be okay!'”
“She would tell me over and over, 'You're a special kid. You're a special kid,'” said Papay. “I would get tired of hearing that. I never thought I was special. I had all these anger issues and she would calm me down and talk to me.”
A gift of a bible from Carpenter helped Papay learn how to better cope with his anger. She had spoken to Papay's father and he gave her his permission to give him his first bible.
“I started reading all of the stories in there,” said Papay. “I read about David and Goliath. I read about Noah and the ark. I would try and resist her trying to help me but she just never gave up on me. She kept after me into the summer after third grade. She would keep saying, 'You're a special kid. You're going to do wonderful things.'”
“She changed my life,” Papay said in a quiet but fierce tone. “She's so special to me. Mrs. Carpenter never gave up on me. She always kept a level head.”
“Fourth grade comes along the next fall and I go to school and I didn't have that anger anymore,” said Papay. “It was like she took all of that anger out of me and threw it away. I no longer wanted to yell. I didn't want to throw stuff. I didn't want to fight. I just didn't feel right. It was like I wasn't me anymore. It's not who I thought I was. After that first day in fourth grade, I've been me ever since.”
Papay lost touch with Carpenter when he moved out of the NKC School District in sixth grade and into the Park Hill School District. He ran into Dr. Daniels, his former principal at Chouteau, his freshman year at Park Hill and Dr. Daniels gave Papay Carpenter's new email address.
Papay then sent his former third-grade teacher an email that she remembers to this day.
“If he never accomplishes anything more in athletics, what he wrote in that letter is more than enough to know how successful his life has become,” said Carpenter. “He wrote to thank me and Dr. Daniels for everything we did for him and for refusing to give up on him. He was all of 14 years old at the time but he wrote, 'I want you to know that you are the reason I am the man I am today.'”
Papay invited Carpenter to one of his freshman track meets and she said she would try to attend but she wasn't sure if she could make it. She was able to juggle her schedule and arrived a bit late to the meet but she hoped she was in time to see Papay jump.
As she walked toward the track’s entrance gate, there was Papay patiently waiting on his former teacher’s arrival.
“I don't know how long he had been standing there waiting for me but there he was, all by himself, just waiting for me to show up. He's a special kid.”
After a great freshman outdoor track season at Park Hill that saw Papay qualify for state in the triple jump and make All-State, his future as a track star looked bright. However, injuries curtailed his sophomore season and a disappointing junior year at state resulting in a bunch of scratch jumps that left him not even qualifying for the finals. His bus ride home from state last year had him contemplating what went wrong.
Papay worked 30 hours a week at three different restaurants his junior year to save money to send to his family in Liberia and to bring his mother to the United States for a visit. All of this atop being a fulltime student and a member of the Park Hill track team.
“People look at my grades and think I'm stupid,” said Papay. “I know I'm not stupid. I just don't have enough time to do everything and the thing that slides is my studies.”
CB Cadenhead runs the Palestine Prowlers Track Club in south Kansas City. Some of Kansas City's best track talent over the last 20 years like former Olympian Muna Lee and Blue Springs' twins Carlos and Khalil Davis are alums of the Prowlers. CB heard from Kate Whitaker, a former teacher of Papay's, that he was looking to get some help over the summer to improve his triple jump.
“We talked to Papay about joining our track team but he had a lot of issues with his work schedule,” said CB. “I assured him that we would work around his schedule. We are in this for more than winning track meets. We work with kids to make a difference not just over the summer but over their lifetimes. His is a gut-wrenching story. I just admire his tenacity.”
Papay arrived at the Prowlers' first practice as pretty much an unknown commodity. He had not scored at the state meet since his freshman year. He didn't even make the finals in the state meet a few weeks earlier. His track resume just did not include the kind of eye-popping results you expect from someone wanting to garner attention from college recruiters.
“I sent him over to the jump pit to work with my brother, KC,” recalls CB. “The next thing I know, KC is running over to tell me how special this new triple jump kid is. I had never heard of the kid before he showed up and here is my brother telling me he thinks this kid can triple jump 50 feet! I immediately started to do some research on him to find out what we had. I went on MileSplit and TRA to find out who this kid is and why I had not heard of him.”
KC, or Coach C to his track kids, watched Papay do a run through and a jump that first practice and he immediately knew this kid was different.
“I could see there was something special about him,” recalls Coach C. “It was almost as if he had another gear that he didn't know how to get to.”
Papay jumped 50'-5” after just a few weeks with Coach C and the Prowlers. He then finished second in the nation at the USATF Junior Olympics in Sacramento.
“We didn't let him take a full jump for the first three weeks we started working with him,” said Coach C. “He's a naturally gifted athlete and so we worked backwards with him and simplified things. Once he started having success and jumping 50 feet, he started calling me every day wanting to work out!”
Coach C was driving to the Northland to work out with Papay and then waiting for him to shower and dress for work so he could drop him off at Buffalo Wild Wings.
“I didn't mind putting in the extra time to work with Papay,” said Coach C. “He was so humble and so eager to do what we were asking him to do that it was a pleasure to work with him.”
“CB told me if you're not getting stronger you're getting weaker,” said Papay. “I didn't lift that much last year but I lifted all through indoor last winter (with the Prowlers). We lifted almost every day and it really builds you up.”
“There is nothing but upside to that young man,” said Coach C. “Once he gets to Oklahoma and he is able to jump fulltime…he is going to be the Big 12 champ very soon. He's going to wreak havoc in that conference. And he's not so far away that I can't get down there to kick him in the butt when he needs it.”
Papay was standing on the Park Hill track when I approached him for our first interview wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and track spikes. His torso looks like it was chiseled from Gibraltar. Does he follow a strict diet to stay so fit?
“I just try and stay away from drinking that soda,” smiled Papay. “I'll eat just about anything else but they try to tempt me at work with that Mountain Dew. I tell them, 'I can't do it!'”
How about the famous wings at BWW?
“Oh yeah! I eat those every day! I eat those Buffalo Wild Wings wings every day. I'm not gonna lie about that!”
“When it comes to college visits, it wasn't so much about the track program or the facilities with Papay,” said CB. “It was more about who had the best food! He said, 'Pitt State had really good food when I went there so that's where I want to go.'”
“Hey, nothing against Pitt State but…,” said CB. “I told him, 'Hold on now, you can probably do a lot better than a scholarship to Pitt State.”
“I was like, hold on now – what about Oklahoma?”
“Yeah, coach,” said Papay. “Their food was a little better.”
Papay looks like a serious lad until you get to know him. He still burns intensely inside but he now knows how to direct that intensity for good rather than destruction. He also likes to have fun.
His freshman year at Park Hill track was not what he expected.
“My freshman year I came out for track and it was really boring and lame,” recalls Papay. “Everybody was just running and stuff and I was like, this ain't really for me. I learned you need to come out here and bust a couple of jokes and have some fun.”
Papay has a nickname for everybody. It is how he lightens the mood and makes the painful track workouts enjoyable.
“I make track fun,” said Papay. “I call everybody on our 4x100 relay team 'Carvel.' A lot of people think track is boring or it's too hard or it's no fun – but I come to practice and laugh every day. We make special t-shirts, we've got handshakes. People look at me and they say, 'Man, track is fun! You see what Papay is doing?' Track doesn't have to be just all hard work and seriousness.”
When I pushed him on what 'Carvel' means, he explained that it is a word he came up with that means, “Let's get it” or “Let's finish it out, finish strong.” “We tell each other, 'Go ahead, Carvel. Finish it up!'”
“When we were putting our 4x100 relay team together this year,” said Papay. “I saw Payton Stanfield lining up with us and I asked coach, who is this white kid?”
“That's our fast white kid,” the coach responded.
“Man, you know if you put the white kid on our 4x100 team, we lose the intimidation factor,” Papay responded with false disappointment.
“When you look at a 4x100 team and you see black, black, black, black – you think fast, fast, fast and fast! When you see our 4x100 team with one white kid, everybody is thinking, 'We got that Park Hill team beat with that white kid.' Next thing you know, we won the relay and (the competition) is saying, 'But they had a white kid!'”
“We call our 4x100 relay team the Carvels – except we have Payton. I told him, 'You don't look like a Carvel…but we'll call you Carl!' We all mess around like that all the time and laugh at each other.”
When you consider the mighty leap Papay has made from African refugee to angry third grader to now a Division I scholarship athlete, his 50-foot triple jumps seem like little more than a simple hop, skip and a jump.