At last, Pitt freshman finds a home
Pitt freshman Patrick Amara was homeless, hungry and forced to live with so many different families that he lost count.
Football might have saved him.
Amara, an all-state safety at West Catholic High in Philadelphia, finally has the structured life he always wanted. He has a scholarship, a schedule of classes for Pitt's summer semester and the hope that one day he will help carry the Panthers to the top of the ACC.
“Athletically, I certainly think he's good enough,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “As a (person), this guy is big time.”
Born in London 18 1⁄2 years ago, Amara barely knew his mother and lived in Philadelphia with his father, Patrick Sr., a former security officer for the government of Sierra Leone, a small nation on the west coast of Africa.
Amara's father eventually returned to Sierra Leone, where he owns a taxi business, leaving Patrick to live with — by his count — “six or seven” families while in high school.
Asked if he wondered where his next meal would come from and where he would stay certain nights, Patrick said, “Every day.”
“Once you're starving and you see your friends say, ‘Oh, my mom cooked dinner for me,' you start to feel that loneliness,” he said. “You're not eating (regularly). You're mad. You have practice. You're fatigued.”
Desperate, Amara thought about seeking help from some “associates.”
“I knew they were bad, selling drugs, having guns, weapons. But I knew I didn't want to associate myself with them,” he said.
In a weak moment, he called one.
“I said, ‘Bro, I can't take it anymore. Is there any way I can make some fast money?' He just laughed. He said, ‘No way I would let you do something like this.' I said, ‘I'm not going to do it anyway.' I had too much to lose. God blessed me with the strength, the mindset, the focus to stay on track.”
Growing up quickly
Amara admits he often felt like an adult despite not yet having turned 16.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “I shouldn't have had to deal with that kind of stuff, issues that grown men go through.”
Amara remembers the day the electricity, cable and phones were shut off in the apartment he shared with his father.
The elder Amara ran an extension cord into the hallway of his apartment building to “bootleg” utilities, his son said. Caught in the act, father and son were asked to leave. They found alternate housing, but their problems persisted.
Amara saw his father unable to afford birthday and Christmas gifts and worrying about paying the rent.
“One day my dad came in crying,” Patrick said. “I never saw my dad cry before.”
“I said, ‘Dad, what's wrong?' He said, ‘Man, I can't take it anymore.' ”
So Amara suggested his father return to Sierra Leone, where he had a better chance of making a living.
“He was a great father, and I appreciated everything he did, (but) I said, ‘I think it's best for you to go back home and live your life,' ” said Amara, who connects regularly with his father through email.
Amara stayed behind, and last year he moved in with godparents Tony and Lisa Beaty.
That relationship began when Amara considered transferring from Upper Darby to Prep Charter, where Tony was football coach. It flourished after Amara decided to go to West Catholic and began working out at Beaty's gym in Drexel Hill.
Beaty, now the coach at Chester High, noticed Amara losing weight. When Amara confessed that he hadn't been eating regularly, Beaty said his wife had trouble sleeping at night until they decided to bring him into their home with their son, 9-year-old Elijah.
“His wife felt uncomfortable about the way I looked,” said Amara, who said he often ate sardines for dinner or dollar meals at a Save A Lot grocery store. “They said I looked very sad.”
“It's worked out really well,” said Tony Beaty, who said he trained at his gym 10 athletes this past year who committed to Division I universities.
Amara, outgoing and friendly, said he counts former Pitt and current Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy among his friends. He met McCoy through mutual acquaintances.
“He said whatever he did in college, he was always focused,” Amara said. “He partied, but he didn't party too much.”
Amara's goal is to join McCoy in the NFL.
“I want to be the next Troy Polamalu,” he said.
Amara played in the Big 33 contest last month, an all-star game that has sent at least one participant to each of the first 48 Super Bowls. Who among this year's players will keep the streak going?
“I know I'm going to be in the Super Bowl,” Amara said.
‘Man of my word'
Before that, Amara hopes to change the culture at Pitt, and he said he believes members of the past two recruiting classes will make that happen.
“They worry about education,” he said. “They worry about the team. Not like the recruiting classes we had before: transfers, failings. We are not going to have any guys like that. We all want to have winning mentalities.”
Pitt offered a scholarship to Amara a year ago at its prospect camp after Amara and a cousin rode seven hours on a bus from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. He arrived at 1:30 a.m., and was met by recruiting assistant Joe Hueber. Amara worked out that morning, met with Chryst and was on the bus back home before nightfall.
“Here was a guy who wanted to be at Pitt,” Chryst said.
After Amara made a verbal commitment, other schools continued to recruit him, and he said he considered flipping to Georgia Tech.
“We really had to fight at the end to keep him,” Chryst said.
Said Amara: “I'm a man of my word. I wouldn't let down the city of Pittsburgh and embarrass myself like that.”
He said his goals include earning All-ACC and All-American honors and playing Florida State in the ACC Championship Game.
Big 33 coaches said Amara was one of the best athletes on the Pennsylvania team. While playing cornerback, he recorded an interception that helped send the game into overtime.
When Pitt opens training camp Aug. 3, Amara will be one of seven safeties on the roster, led by senior Ray Vinopal and sophomore Terrish Webb. If he develops as coaches expect, Amara may contend for a starting job in 2015.
Coatesville coach Matt Ortega, who coached the Pennsylvania squad in the Big 33 game, didn't predict immediate stardom for Amara, but he likes his short-term chances.
“He has closing speed that you see in cornerbacks,” Ortega said. “It's rare to see guys as tall as him (6-foot-2 on a 190-pound frame) have that kind of speed.
“It's hard anyplace to go in there and play as a true freshman. But if he doesn't play his first year, he will very, very early.”