‘Work doesn’t lie’ for UNC male footballer Ernest Bawa
Growing up in Accra, Ghana, whenever Ernest Bawa started to cry his mother noticed that there was one thing that would always comfort him: watching his brother juggle a ball.
“That’s when they knew I would probably grow up and love to play football,” Bawa said.
He continued to play the sport throughout his life, and it opened up new opportunities for him. Bawa became the first in his family to attend high school and play football at a Division I college.
Even in a season cut short due to injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNC sophomore and male soccer star have always found their way back to the game.
âI guess football was just a way to use my time,â he said. “And then I ended up loving him.”
Dedication to the game
Bawa grew up in Ashaiman, located in the capital of Ghana, Accra. There, he said he saw many of his peers get into trouble for drug trafficking, arms trafficking or armed robbery. Some even died.
When he was growing up he said that Ashaiman had a certain reputation and that people had preconceived ideas about the area.
âIf you’re from Accra and someone asks you, ‘Where are you from? And you say, ‘Ashaiman’, they know you’re a rascal, they know this guy is in trouble, âBawa said.
Seeing the commotion around him he said he remained focused on his craft, focusing on his development as a soccer player and doing his best to stay out of trouble.
âI would say it was an escape from what was going on in the neighborhood,â Bawa said.
Although he made efforts to balance his social life, he devoted more and more time to his future football career. This created tensions with his friends, but his interest in football continued to grow.
âAnd I heard names,â Bawa said. “Like, ‘Oh, you think you’re better than us. You’re a bastard, you’re fake. You’re not a real friend.
But Bawa’s dedication to the game paid off, as he eventually received a scholarship to play for the Right to Dream in Ghana.
The academy is dedicated to helping students with “academics through education, football and most importantly to fully develop their character,” according to its website. Bawa played football there during junior high school.
The academy is also where he met his best friend Kelvin Baffour, who is two years younger than Bawa and committed to playing football at Notre Dame in 2022.
Baffour and Bawa developed a strong bond, with Baffour admiring the older Bawa. Although Bawa struggles to balance his social life with football, Baffour said that once in his element, his energy is contagious.
âHe’s the kind of guy where we go to high school dances, and he’ll be in the middle of the mosh pit,â Baffour said. “He’s that kind of guy.”
“Only one in my family to accomplish this”
After graduating from high school, Bawa attended Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut for high school.
No one in Bawa’s family had attended high school before him, which he said was not uncommon in his village. Bawa’s mother grew up on a farm, her two older siblings dropped out of high school, and her father passed away before he was old enough to remember.
As special as his academic achievement is, Bawa said he didn’t achieve this feat at the time.
While in quarantine at the start of the pandemic in his senior year of high school, Bawa was also recovering from bilateral hip surgery he had undergone.
This time, he said, made him realize the importance of his high school diploma.
âI’m starting to think, like ‘Wow I’m the only one in my family to accomplish this,’â Bawa said. “It may not seem like a lot to people, but this time has helped me think.”
Bawa’s abilities on the pitch stood out when he arrived at Taft, but his leadership skills were equally impressive for his head coach, Ozzie Parente. Parente, Taft’s nine-season football coach, acknowledged that Bawa’s talent was on par with players older than him, but athletes of all ages admired his leadership and passion for the sport.
âHe had very high expectations of himself – it didn’t matter if he was the youngest or the smallest or new to the team or whatever,â Parente said.
Bawa Right to Dream teammate Baffour then joined him at Taft. The two reunited and continued their connection both on and off the pitch.
âSo coming here and being on the same team with him was fun in and of itself because we really enjoyed each other’s company,â said Baffour.
When it came time for Bawa to choose a college, his coach offered him some advice on making the right decision. But Parente said the young footballer had done due diligence and knew exactly what he wanted.
“Work doesn’t lie”
Bawa found North Carolina to be a viable option after researching different college football programs. At first drawn to the team’s colors, he discovered that the team also had a winning pedigree.
Towards the end of his time at Taft, Bawa established contact with UNC men’s football head coach Carlos Somoano and then assistant coach Cristian Neagu.
After months of conversations, Neagu offered him a spot on the team, telling him it could take two weeks to make up his mind.
“I don’t need two weeks, man,” Bawa told him.
Bawa arrived at the school of his dreams in 2020, but not without continuing challenges.
He was still recovering from his surgery and was adjusting to competitive football again. Even before the procedure, he had quit playing for about a year, making his first year as Tar Heel his return to real competition in about two years. Bawa said he sometimes missed routine touchdowns in practice. His trainer didn’t take it easily and he started to lose confidence.
âThe one thing that got me a scholarship to Right to Dream Academy, to get a scholarship to Taft School, got me all this way to ‘UNC, was not doing well,’ Bawa said. “You could bet I was having a hard time.”
At the end of the school year, he resorted to what brought him through difficult times in the past: football.
Bawa has taken the offseason to recover mentally and physically for 2021. Over the summer he played in the United Soccer League for the Manhattan Soccer Club.
Bawa has scored five goals in seven games, building momentum with his game for the season, and at the same time, training to stay ahead of his competition for the coming year.
He knew he had to deliver a rebound season.
He knew he had to make a great second impression.
But these expectations that Bawa placed on himself made him so “excited” for the season, he said, that he had to remember to trust the work he had put in.
“Calm down, you’ve done all the work you need to do, he told himself. Work doesn’t lie.”
It took him a few matches and practice, but just like during his time in Ghana, Bawa’s preparation paid off.
In six appearances for the Tar Heels, he has scored three goals and one assist. He’s second on the team in points, with a total of seven so far, and tied for first with seven shots on goal.
âHaving worked so hard this summer gave me a very good start,â he said. “And I like to say I’m lucky to have been able to help the team on several occasions with a few goals that I have scored.
“You don’t have to follow the same cycle”
Bawa certainly hasn’t forgotten those who helped him get there: his family, Coach Parente and Baffour.
Sunday, he said, is to talk to his mother. He calls his brother and sister when he can.
He also remains in contact with Parente; the two often send each other Instagram stories and talk about football. Seeing Bawa’s play now as a varsity athlete, Parente said he also noticed his development as a person during this time.
âHe’s really a part of my family and the Taft family,â Parente said. âWe are following his career very closely.
Baffour described Bawa as an inspiration, citing his ability to play college football. As Baffour soon takes to the next level, he turns to his longtime teammate for advice.
“After every game he calls me,” Baffour said. âIf I watch a game, we sit down and analyze for ourselves how we think things went. After all my games too, I call him to have conversations like that.
In Chapel Hill, his heart remains in his hometown. With his success in football so far, he said he wished the other residents of Ashaiman would find success with their passions as well.
âIt’s a lot to take,â he said. âAt the same time, I feel a huge responsibility to show the people in my village that it is possible to make this happen. You don’t have to go through the same cycle over and over again.