May 8, 2017

Prospect Profile | Abu Conteh

Abu Conteh was far too young to understand why he was running, what he was running from, or where he was running to all those years ago.

It was 1998 and he was a three year-old living in Sierra Leone during the 11-year long civil war that wouldn’t end until 2002.

The rest of this tale – the one that takes him from Sierra Leone to Ghana to Winnipeg to Minnesota to North Dakota to Louisiana and back to Manitoba – is what makes Conteh one of the most intriguing draft prospects in the 2017 Canadian Football League Draft and one of the most compelling figures entering Winnipeg Blue Bombers rookie camp later this month after the club selected him in the third round, 23rd overall, Sunday night.

“I don’t remember much of what happened back in Sierra Leone,” began Conteh in a chat with “Most of what I know comes from what my people – my mom and my sisters and stuff – tell me.”

“I wouldn’t say I was a rebel child, because I wasn’t holding up guns or anything like that. But I was missing from my mom for seven months during the war until the Red Cross rescued me.”

The Sierra Leone Civil War began in 1991 when the Revolutionary United Front attempted to overthrow the government, then led by President Joseph Saidu Momoh. The estimated casualties during the war were 50,000, while over two million people were displaced.

“I can remember people running away,” said Conteh. “I can remember the rebels were coming and my mother and my dad were busy packing.

“My dad told me to go wait outside while they hurry up and pack. My mom said there were gunshots. I just started running. I just ran and ran… I don’t know where, it was just where everybody else was running.”

It’s here where Conteh was separated from his family. He doesn’t remember when or where they stopped running, just that those he scattered with were hiding in bushes.

“It was civil war,” he said. “I was just hiding out with somebody until the Red Cross came and rescued us.

“That was a hard time in our lives.”


Abu Conteh (37) with teammates.

Conteh ended up in Ghana and was reunited with his mother Hannah some seven months later. What happened next is the journey that brought him to North America and, ultimately, to the Bombers.

He immigrated to Winnipeg with his mother and three other kids – he calls them his two sisters and his brother, even though they aren’t biologically related.

Conteh’s story has many of the same themes as that of Faith Ekakitie the Bombers first-overall choice, who immigrated to Canada from Nigeria and fell in love first with basketball.

In fact, Conteh didn’t really find the game of football until after first trying it at Kildonan East with the Reivers.

“The coaches at Kildonan East wanted me to play football, but to be honest, I wasn’t really that interested,” Conteh admitted. “I had a brief moment right before I moved to the States, but I never stuck with it.”

Conteh’s travels brought him next to Woodbury, Minnesota when his mother remarried (he has spoken to his biological father, who remains in Africa, a ‘handful of times’) but he never played football in his senior season.

In fact, his re-introduction to the game, so to speak, came only after he was spotted in the weight room by then University of Minnesota defensive backs coach Jay Sawvell, who was in town to recruit a kicker.

“He saw me working out in the weight room and was told I was a kid who had transferred but didn’t play football,” Conteh recalled. “He came over and gave me his business card. I called him later that night and he gave me an unofficial visit to Minnesota and told me they would be willing to have me come as a walk-on and that they would teach me the game before I could eventually get a scholarship.”

Unfortunately, Conteh’s ACT scores weren’t high enough to get him to Minnesota and, through a Sawvell connection, ended up instead at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D.

Not only did Conteh’s pure athleticism help him start to learn and excel at the game, he was also a MCAC Academic Award winner in 2014-15 as a sophomore.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that he was a 6-2, 205-pound defensive back who hit like a safety and had the cover skills to play cornerback. That led him from a tiny junior college in North Dakota to historic Grambling State in Louisiana.

Conteh describes his years in Louisiana as filled with adversity.


Abu Conteh (23).

“I grew up in Grambling,” he said. “I was away from family again and there were a lot of ups and downs.

“My first year at Grambling everything just moved so fast and everything seemed so new. My first year at junior college I hardly played. But in the second year I was switched to corner and I ended up starting. When I got to Grambling… the game down south is faster. My head was on a swivel and it was a lot to take in and I was expected to take it in quickly. It was hard, but I’m glad it happened now. Now I know how to handle those kinds of situations.”

Conteh had been on CFL teams’ radars for a while and began to really draw attention from the north at Grambling’s Pro Day in April and later when he attended a B.C. Lions free agent camp in Texas.

He was in Hamilton for a pre-draft workout last week when he spoke with the Bombers for the first time.

The club’s brass remains intrigued by his athleticism and, according to GM Kyle Walters, “there’s something different about the way he looks, the way he moves.”

“I’m honestly surprised the Bombers took me,” said Conteh. “But it is so very cool, man. Very cool. I had flown back home to Minnesota after writing an exam and was watching the first two rounds on TSN and my family was kind of confused because it just ended. I told them it was still going on, but they only booked a two-hour slot for it to be televised.

“A minute or two after I explained that to them my phone started buzzing all over the place. I looked at it and it was Winnipeg and everybody went crazy.”

“I’m definitely still a huge student of the game,” he added. “But I feel everybody is to some extent. I’m still learning every day. There’s still stuff coaches say that I’m always trying to put into my game. I always say the sky’s the limit for me. With every rep, every practice, every day I can feel myself – I can see myself – getting better.”

Asked to describe his road travelled – from fleeing his home war-torn country to Winnipeg and Kildonan East High School to three destinations in the U.S. and back to Manitoba – Conteh chuckled.

“It’s been very adventurous,” he said. “That’s the word I would use, ‘adventurous.’ You know, I don’t really talk about what happened when I was young unless I am specifically asked about it. It’s nothing I dwell over, but of course it had a lot to do with who I am as a person. I don’t look on it as having affected me in a negative way at all.

“I’m looking forward to coming home. It’s going to be something special. I’ve never even been to a Bombers game, but I do know the fans are diehards.”