Josh Wleh hugged his mom Vesta Wleh after he signed his letter to play football at Bemidji State University Wednesday Feb 03, 2016 in Brooklyn Park, MN. ] National signing day a Park Center High School. Jerry Holt/Jerry.Holt@Startribune.com
Josh Wleh was 5 years old when his family immigrated to the United States from Liberia. Football, American-style, was nowhere on the family radar.
“Football? We didn’t know anything about it,” his father, James, said.
“American football, you mean,” corrrected his wife, Vesta, Josh’s mother.
“Right. American football. All we knew was soccer,” James replied.
But young Josh simply wasn’t built for soccer. He was small and thick, with immense strength for his size. A few years after the family arrived, his parents let Josh try out for football.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Wleh, now a 5-10, 270-pound ball of brute force, was one of seven members of Park Center’s football team to sign a national letters of intent Wednesday, committing to become a defensive lineman at Bemidji State.
“When I stepped on a football field [for the first time], I felt right at home,” Josh said. “It’s a place I love to be, where I can be myself. This is a dream come true for me.”
The Wleh family may not have understood American football, but they understood Josh’s desire to play.
“We saw his passion to play football and his love for it,” a beaming James Wleh said. “We wanted him to chase that dream.”
That kind of support, from family, friends and coaches, is why Park Center has been able to turn out nearly a dozen college football players over the past two years, Pirates coach Paul Strong said.
“We want to make sure there are positive influences in this kids lives,” Strong said. “We care about them as people. We ask our coaches to get involved. We reach out to them when they need it.”
The 7 a.m. signing ceremony at Park Center’s Forum Conference room was mostly full, despite the lingering snowstorm outside.
Sitting at a long table at the front were 11 placards with students’ names — only 10 could make it — making it the biggest signing ceremony in school history. Seven were football players: Amani Hooker (Iowa), Ty’Shonan Brooks (MSU Mankato), Ben Stewart (Minnesota-Crookston), Peyton Wensel (MSU Moorhead), Taylor Comstock (Minnesota-Crookston), Tamel Quinn (Concordia-St. Paul) and Wleh. Three other football players — Karl Altenburg, Malcom Lawson and Ronde Berry — are expected to make football commitments soon.
Park Center also recognized girls’ hockey player Emily Ach (Augsburg), baseball player Kyle Schnobrich (Luther) and soccer player Sam Moses (Wisconsin-Superior). Soccer player Kayla Palme (Texas-Dallas), was ill and couldn’t attend.
Strong, who stood quietly in the back of the room during the ceremony while each of his players got a turn in the spotlight, was asked if any single player getting this far was particularly gratifying for him.
“They’re all special,” Strong said. “Every one of them.”
Jim Paulsen • 612-673-7737