In 2009, John Lee Hancock’s “The Blind Side” took the entertainment industry by storm, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture while raking in $57.5 million in just five days.
With the help of Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw, Hancock depicted the life of Michael Oher, who transformed from a troubled and homeless child into an All-American offensive lineman and eventual first-round pick for the Baltimore Ravens.
Hancock could make another quick $50 million by hopping on a flight to Arizona’s Jimenez Practice Facility, because the Wildcats have their own version of Oher in 6-foot-4, 220-pound linebacker Dame Ndiaye.
In 18 short years (he turns 19 on Friday) Ndiaye has dealt with being poor and struggling in his native Senegal, living in the projects of Brooklyn, N.Y., being a homeless student at Hoover High School in San Diego, Calif., to now contending for a spot at linebacker under Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.
“I never thought I would be here, especially playing football. It’s crazy,” Ndiaye said. “Everything is new to me, that’s why I think of it as a marathon. If I just keep working and getting better it’s going to be so easy for me.”
That would be a first, because it seems like nothing has come easily for Ndiaye.
He grew up with his mother in Senegal where food and water came at a premium. After eight years there, Ndiaye moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., to live with his father.
It was there, in one of the world’s hoops hotspots, that Ndiaye developed a love for basketball. He idolized Kobe Bryant for his work ethic and wanted to one day be like the Black Mamba.
“My goal was to be in the NBA,” Ndiaye said. “I worked at it countlessly.”
Ndiaye made his first step in pursuing that goal when he left New York on a plane by himself to San Diego’s Hoover High School, known for enrolling underprivileged kids.
In San Diego, Ndiaye lived with different friends or family members on a seemingly week-to-week basis. He had almost no stability in his life, outside of basketball. While grades and his attitude were often an issue, his play on the court was not. Alongside Arizona basketball freshman and best friend Angelo Chol, Ndiaye began to excel for Hoover head coach Ollie Goulston. Hoover won the championship his sophomore season and Ndiaye led the team in scoring in the state finals.
“His sophomore year, Dame played great,” Goulston said. “We wouldn’t have won the championship without him.”
He carried that play into his junior year when he averaged more than 16 points per game. Mid-major programs were on the verge of calling about Ndiaye, and his senior season would all but cement a likely scholarship to a Mountain West Conference or Pac-12 Conference school, according to Goulston.
But while Ndiaye thrived on the court, his scholastic performance wasn’t always where it should have been. Ndiaye and Goulston didn’t always see eye to eye, and that, combined with Ndiaye’s wishes to play football, led Goulston to kick one of his best players off the team.
“It was a culmination of a bunch of things that he had done,” Goulston said. “At the time I’m sure Dame did not understand it. I felt that for his progression as both a person and an athlete, I had to kind of take away what he liked.”
Goulston praised Ndiaye’s work ethic, calling him fearless and competitive, but said his drive to be great was so high that it almost hindered his progress.
With little direction and his passion taken away from him, Ndiaye turned to football. He’d always had the perfect build for the gridiron, but Ndiaye had never played the game in his life.
When he lined up at defensive end and at wide receiver, however, he looked like a natural. In the first, and only, eight games of his career, Ndiaye racked up 36 tackles, seven sacks and three forced fumbles while catching 18 passes for 333 yards and five scores.
As Ndiaye succeeded on the field, he still bounced around from home to home — until former NFL defensive end and Hoover assistant coach Burt Grossman, who was known for his no-filter personality, welcomed Ndiaye into his home.
For the first time in his life Ndiaye had some sense of consistency.
“I learned to be a man easier,” Ndiaye. “I learned to grow up on my own. I learned my work ethic.”
With Grossman, his wife and two kids, Ndiaye had the father figure and family he’d been missing. He calls them his “second family,” talks to Grossman “all the time” and visits when he’s in town.
Thanks to the Grossman family, Ndiaye turned in a 3.5 GPA his senior year after struggling to pass in prior years. He impressed on the football field and eventually earned a scholarship to Arizona, and in the end, credited his hardships in San Diego.
“My experience in San Diego, all the struggles I went through, was probably the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Ndiaye said.
After battling an injury and redshirting last season as a freshman defensive end, Ndiaye is now adjusting to a new head coach and a new position at linebacker, where he gets an earful from defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel every practice.
He said he’s “really struggling” with the new position and the scheme and isn’t fully healthy from his leg injury a season ago. Rodriguez agreed, although he can see the potential.
“He’s got to learn to get his pads lower,” he said. “He’s probably got a lot of bruises in his chest right now, but once he learns to lower his pads a bit and get in shape I think he’ll be able to help us somewhere.”
Ndiaye’s been studying film with UA linebacker Jake Fischer and is often the last player off the field.
“The kid works his butt off, so even if you mess up a lot you’ve got to have an attitude like that and get better in competing every day,” Fischer said.
Ndiaye, a talented athlete, is driven to make it to the next level and help his family out of poverty. He hasn’t seen his mother, who’s still in Africa, since 2000. He hasn’t seen his father since 2010. Ndiaye’s motivation is greater than simply fame and notoriety.
He’s been on a journey across the world, in and out of homes, sports and attitudes. It’s ultimately led him to the football field, where the outside world disappears and he can work toward living his dream of making it to the NFL and reuniting with his family.
“I feel like this is what God told me to do, to play football and help me out some day,” Ndiaye said. “I feel like that’s the best thing for me.”