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Sports Features of Friday, 4 February 2011

Source: .nytimes

To the Super Bowl via Ghana: A Packer Family’s Journey

McKINNEY, Tex. — The mother of Charlie Peprah, the Green Bay strong safety, sat on her couch, VCR remote in hand, and fast-forwarded through the history of her native Ghana until the grainy image of her father, Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, filled the screen.

Acheampong was a general who became the Ghanaian head of state in a bloodless coup in 1972. He was overthrown six years later, placed under house arrest, and executed by a firing squad in June 1979.

There can be no taping over history, but Peprah’s vivacious mother, Elizabeth, senses it being rewound whenever her middle son walks through the door of the home he bought for her in this Dallas suburb.

“He’s like my dad reincarnated,” she said Wednesday.

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Peprah, 27, visited his mother two nights earlier upon arriving in town for the N.F.C. champion Packers’ clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.

It was a circuitous journey home. After playing at Alabama, Peprah was drafted in the fifth round by the Giants in 2006 but did not make the team. He was picked up by Green Bay and released last season after he sustained a knee injury. Peprah appeared in two games late last season with the Atlanta Falcons, then was re-signed by the Packers.

Injuries thrust Peprah into the starting lineup in Week 5 and that is where he remained, contributing 63 tackles and 2 interceptions.

“You can’t take anything for granted in this league,” he said, “and you have to take advantage of each opportunity.” He added, “After what my mom, my family’s been through, I feel like I can handle anything.”

Peprah’s grandfather Acheampong (pronounced aye-CHAM-pong) established the National Redemption Council and sought to make his agriculturally rich country more self-reliant. The council militarized Ghanaian government, and Acheampong, amid accusations of corruption, gradually lost public support.

He was forced out in July 1978 and succeeded by Lt. Gen. Fred Akuffo, who was overthrown and executed with Acheampong.

Elizabeth Peprah, who had six younger siblings, said she was the last family member to see her father alive. She made him a dinner of fufu, a West African staple that is similar to a dumpling, and soup. The next morning, June 16, 1979, she said she was awakened by a phone call from a friend who informed her of her father’s death.

“That night when I took him his food, he said, ‘Tell everybody I was a good man and pray for me,’ ” said Elizabeth Peprah, who was 25 at the time. “The way he said it, it bothered me the whole way home.”

Moments before he was executed, Acheampong took off his watch and handed it to an executioner. Was he sending a message? Peprah’s mother often wonders, Did he want it returned to his loved ones so they would know his last thoughts were of them, or was it meant as one final magnanimous gesture to his enemies?

The watch found its way back to the family, and over time the story has found a place in Peprah’s heart.

“There was a nobility to his life,” he said, adding: “I think because I grew up hearing his story, I’m desensitized to it a little bit. I might take it for granted.”

Elizabeth Peprah and her husband, Josh, a lieutenant in Acheampong’s army, fled to Europe with their 18-month-old son, Richard. They ended up in the United States, in Fort Worth, where Josh studied engineering at Texas Christian University.

Peprah was born in 1983 in Fort Worth, and shortly thereafter the family settled in East Plano. His parents divorced when he was in middle school, and his father returned to Ghana to work for the government.

“I don’t want to be dark and graphic when I say this,” Peprah said, ‘but a lot of people in my mom’s situation might have contemplated the easy way out, if you know what I’m saying.” He added, “Just the fact she was able to make it is amazing.”

Left to shepherd three rambunctious boys through adolescence, Elizabeth Peprah shelved her dream of becoming a nurse and worked multiple jobs, including an all-night shift as a gas station cashier.

“Every time I’d go to that job,” she said, “I’d get out of my car and pray, ‘Dear Lord, keep me safe for these eight hours.’ I can’t lie to you. Inside I’d be shaking, but I would act like I was fine.”

“I was determined not to become a failure,” added Elizabeth Peprah, who still works as a cashier at a Home Depot in Allen. “I was determined not to let the opportunities my children had in this country slip away.”

Richard Peprah, now 32, played football at Wyoming and earned a master’s degree in marketing. He is thinking about pursuing a doctorate while his wife attends medical school. The youngest son, Josh Peprah, 19, is a redshirt freshman defensive back at Wisconsin. At Alabama, Peprah earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a master’s in financial planning.

He is careful with his money, borrowing his girlfriend’s digital camera for media day at Cowboys Stadium rather than replacing the one he lost. Peprah appeared to spare no expense on his mother’s two-story home, which has four bedrooms and a gourmet kitchen.

“It feels good to be able to take care of her a little bit,” said Peprah, who did not appreciate how much joy his mother took in his success until he went to see her Monday.

He walked through the front door, where a red plastic runner covered the hardwood floor like a red carpet. Green and yellow streamers hung from the ceiling, 26 balloons floated in the air and congratulatory signs adorned the walls. His mother, wearing his No. 26, was waiting with outstretched arms to give him a big hug.

“You forget how big a deal this is until you come home and see how excited your family is,” Peprah said, adding, “I kind of had to pull myself back a little bit because I’m trying to stay focused on the game itself.”

It was weird, he said, to see the Giants win the Super Bowl the season after they released him, like watching your first love marry someone else. Peprah never imagined that three years later he would be playing in the Super Bowl practically in his hometown.

“You can’t really write it up any better than it’s played out,” he said.

Peprah bought his allotted 15 tickets for the game. His cheering section will include his father, who will travel from Ghana, a couple of relatives from England, his brothers and his mother, wearing her 26 jersey and a foam cheesehead.

Elizabeth Peprah’s radiant smile could have melted the ice on the streets and her voice was jubilant as she talked about the way she and her family overcame the exhausting days and fearful nights that made this joyful week possible.

“I think Charlie takes right after my dad,” she said, adding, “He would have been so proud of him.”