Caulcrick's Story Is One For The Ages
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article appeared in The Post-Journal on December 15, 2014.
A visitor to Bonita Caulcrick's Victorian-style home finds the mailbox to the right of the front door, opens the lid and pulls out an envelope. Inside are a stack of family photographs, some dating back 20 years.
The pictures are making the rounds. It's April 2007 and the NFL Network is asking for them. Newspapers and TV stations from throughout Western New York are, too. When Jehuu is your son and the NFL Draft is only days away, it's not surprising that Bonita and the media are becoming good friends.
"Forgot to mention that the fellow from Channel 2 took with him a couple of pictures," Bonita writes on the front of the envelope. "He's supposed to have them back by Wednesday."
The visitor returns to the car, opens the envelope and begins flipping through the pictures. Almost immediately, he realizes he won't need those extra prints. The 30 images in his possession - containing the smiling faces of Bonita, Jehuu and Mardea, Bonita's daughter - will work just fine.
As the visitor backs out of the driveway, he glances one more time at Bonita's house and notices there are three rocking chairs on the porch. By the time he gets to the end of the block, he can't get the thought out of his mind: Wouldn't it be something if Bonita, Jehuu and Mardea sat in those chairs and told the remarkable story to a captive audience?
Nobody would believe it.
Liberia is a country located on the west coast of Africa bordering the north Atlantic Ocean. It's where the Caulcricks used to call home. Bonita, one of nine children, grew up in a family where her father was a health inspector and her mother was a home economics teacher.
"We worked really hard as children for what we had," she said. "It was hard work, but we had all the fun things.
"We had a wonderful life."
But, years later, it was turned upside down.
Civil war does that.
Separation does that.
Fear does that.
Mix them all together and that's what Bonita, Jehuu and Mardea experienced when the fighting in their country, which began in 1989, made them wonder if their family would ever be whole again.
"It brings back a lot of memories of what the kids went through,'' Bonita said as she sat at her dining room table in her Westfield home seven years ago. "I worried about them."
To make matters worse, she could do nothing about it.
As the brutality of civil war raged on, Bonita was thousands of miles away in the United States, with her then-husband. Jehuu, then 7, and Mardea, then 9, were back in Liberia living with their grandparents, unable to communicate with their mother.
No phone calls.
For two years.
To make matters worse, Bonita's parents were forced to flee with the children, going from one refugee camp to another. Death was everywhere. Many times when Jehuu and Mardea emptied their backpacks at the end of another long day on the run, they found bullets mixed in with their personal belongings.
Sadly, tragedy did hit close to home. Jerome Blamo - Jehuu and Mardea's father and a bodyguard to Liberia's secretary of defense - was found assassinated. The family found out about Jerome's murder when they read it in the daily newspaper in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. A cousin was also shot and killed, while a grandfather was caught in the crossfire, shot in the leg while protecting his grandchildren.
By 1992, Bonita could stand it no longer. She flew from the United States to the neighboring Ivory Coast, took a van into Liberia and spent months searching for her family. Miraculously, she was successful, locating her children and her parents at, ironically enough, their original home. All were physically fine, but Bonita still had to convince U.S. Embassy officials to grant Jehuu and Mardea visas. It took some pleading, but, weeks later, the family was headed to Findley Lake and a new life.
"I'm just grateful that they were able to come to the states and let their talents come out," Bonita said.
No one could have predicted just how much.
Jehuu's favorite sport when he arrived in Chautauqua County was soccer, which he had played when he lived in Liberia. But by the time he was in fifth grade at Clymer Central School he was introduced to American football during after-lunch recreation, supervised by varsity coach Howard McMullin.
It became clear rather quickly that Jehuu, who would also become a star track and field athlete, was meant to be on the gridiron.
By the time his high school career was over, Jehuu had led the Pirates to four Section VI championships, rushed for 6,449 yards, scored 100 touchdowns and amassed 712 points. As a senior, he was rated the third-best fullback in the country by Rivals.com, was a Super Prep All-American, the Connolly Cup winner, and the New York State Class D, the Western New York and The Post-Journal player of the year.
When Jehuu arrived in East Lansing, Mich., to begin his college career, Mardea, was starting her junior year at Dennison (Ohio) University. A pre-medicine major in those days, she was a dean's list student. Now married, she also has a master's degree in public health from Drexel University in Philadelphia.
"Just think of these kids,'' Bonita said. "I look at them and my daughter's doing wonderful and Jehuu is doing great. Why? Why did God spare them to do that? There were other kids (in Liberia who died). There has to be a reason."
In four seasons with the Spartans, Jehuu rushed for 2,395 yards (No. 11 on Michigan State's all-time list) and 39 touchdowns, which are the second-best total in school history. Only two-time All-American Lorenzo White (43) had more. Many of Jehuu's friends in Chautauqua County and even some members of the media can only imagine what his career totals might have been had he been given the opportunity that current coach, Mark Dantonio, afforded him during his senior season in 2007.
All told, the 6-foot, 254-pound bruising running back led the Big Ten Conference and ranked 11th in the NCAA in scoring, averaging 9.7 points per game. His 21 rushing touchdowns were a school record at the time he graduated and the ninth-best single-season total in conference history (tied with Wisconsin's Ron Dayne). His 872 yards on the ground were a career high.
To Bonita, it's all a miracle, one she wants to share with her family in Liberia. In fact, she wants to visit her homeland with her children. She knows it could be dangerous, foster ugly, ugly memories, some that still creep to the surface on occasion.
She remembers the time, years ago, that she and her children were driving to Erie, Pa., one summer afternoon.
"There was this smell, this rotten thing,'' Bonita said. "They both said that it smelled just like back home with all the dead bodies. That's terrible that they would both remember that smell. Jehuu was 9 and Mardea was 11 when I got them out of there, so they were in it for like four years. That's something that will always be in your mind."
Still, she feels compelled to return to her former home for one reason.
"They had a nanny there who took care of them,"Bonita said. "I want her to see them, so she can know what they turned out to be."
Do you believe in miracles?
Jehuu Caulcrick was inducted into the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.