Growing up in Accra, Ghana, whenever Ernest Bawa would cry, his mother noticed that there was one thing that would always lift his spirits: watching his brother juggle a ball.
“That’s when they knew I would probably grow up and like to play football,” Bawa said.
He continued to practice the sport throughout his life, and it opened up new opportunities for him. Bawa became the first member of his family to attend high school and play football at a Division I college.
Even after a season cut short due to injury and the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNC sophomore and men’s soccer star still found his way back to the game.
“I guess football was just a way to use my time,” he said. “And then I ended up liking it.”
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 in trouble for charges of drugs, arms trafficking or armed robbery. Some even died.
When he was growing up, he said Ashaiman had a certain reputation and people had preconceptions about the area.
“If 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, like, full of trouble,” Bawa said.
Seeing the commotion around him, he said he remained focused on his craft, focusing on his development as a football player and doing his best to stay out of trouble.
“I would say it was an escape from what was going on in the neighborhood,” Bawa said.
Although he made efforts to balance his social life, he devoted more and more time to his future football career. This created some tension with his friends, but his interest in football continued to grow.
“And I heard names,” Bawa said. “Like, ‘Oh, you think you’re better than us. You’re a sellout, 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 Right to Dream in Ghana.
The academy is dedicated to helping students with “academics through education, football, and especially in developing their character to the fullest,” according to its website. Bawa played college football there.
The academy is also where he met his best friend, Kelvin Baffour, who is two years younger than Bawa and has 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 he’s in his element, his energy is contagious.
“He’s that kind of guy where we go to high school dances, and he’ll be in the middle of the mosh pit,” Baffour said. “He’s that kind of guy.”
“Only one in my family to accomplish this”
After completing junior high, 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 died before he was old enough to remember.
As special as his academic achievement was, Bawa said he didn’t initially achieve that feat back then.
While in quarantine at the start of the pandemic during his senior year of high school, Bawa was also recovering from bilateral hip surgery he had undergone.
This time, he said, allowed him to process the importance of his high school diploma.
“I’m starting to think, like, ‘Wow, I’m the only one in my family doing this,'” Bawa said. “It may not seem like much to people, but this time has helped me reflect.”
Bawa’s abilities on the pitch stood out when he arrived at Taft, but his leadership skills proved equally impressive for his head coach, Ozzie Parente. Parente, Taft’s football coach for nine seasons, acknowledged Bawa’s talent was on par with players older than him, but athletes of all ages admired his leadership and passion for the game.
“He had very high expectations of himself – it didn’t matter if he was the youngest or the shortest or new to the team or whatever,” Parente said.
Bawa’s Right to Dream bandmate Baffour later joined him at Taft. The two reunited and continued their connection both on and off the pitch.
“So coming here and then being on the same team with him was fun in itself because we enjoyed each other’s company a lot,” Baffour said.
When it came time for Bawa to choose a college, his coach gave him advice on how to make the right decision. But Parente said the young footballer did his 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. First drawn to the team colors, he saw that the team also had a winning pedigree.
Towards the end of his time at Taft, Bawa made contact with UNC men’s soccer head coach Carlos Somoano and then-assistant coach Cristian Neagu.
After months of conversations, Neagu offered him a spot on the team, telling him he could take two weeks to make up his mind.
“I don’t need two weeks, man,” Bawa told him.
Bawa arrived at his dream school in 2020, but not without continued challenges.
He was still recovering from his surgery and adapting to competitive football again. Even before the procedure, he had been out of acting for about a year, making his first year as a Tar Heel his return to real competition in about two years. Bawa said he sometimes misses routine touch passes in training. His trainer did not spare him and he began to lose confidence.
“The only thing that got me a scholarship to Right to Dream Academy, got me a scholarship to Taft School, got me this full ride to the UNC, was not going well,” Bawa said. “You could bet I was struggling.”
After the school year ended, he resorted to what had gotten him through tough times in the past: football.
Bawa took the offseason to recover mentally and physically for 2021. Over the summer, he played in the United Soccer League for Manhattan Soccer Club.
Bawa has scored five goals in seven games, gaining momentum with his game for the season and, at the same time, training to be ahead of his competition for the coming year.
He knew he had to deliver a rebound season.
He knew he had to make a good second impression.
But those expectations Bawa places on himself got him so “excited” for the season, he said, that he had to remind himself to trust the job he did.
“Calm down, you’ve done all the work you had to do,” he told himself. “Work doesn’t lie.”
It took him a few games and practices, but just like during his time in Ghana, Bawa’s preparation paid off.
In six appearances for the Tar Heels, he had three goals and one assist. He’s second on the team in points, with seven so far, and is tied for first with seven shots on goal.
“The fact that I worked so much in the summer gave me a really good start,” he said. “And I like to say that I’m lucky to have been able to help the team so often with a few goals that I’ve scored.
“You don’t have to follow the same cycle”
Bawa has certainly not forgotten those who helped him get there: his family, Coach Parente and Baffour.
Sundays, he says, are for talking to his mother. He calls his brother and sister as soon as he can.
He also remains in contact with Parente; the two often exchange stories on Instagram and talk about football. Seeing Bawa’s game now as a varsity athlete, Parente said he also noticed his evolution as a person during this time.
“He’s really part of my family and the Taft family,” Parente said. “We are following his career very closely.”
Baffour described Bawa as inspirational, citing his ability to play college football. As Baffour soon steps up to the next level, he turns to his longtime teammate for advice.
“After every game, he calls me,” Baffour said. “If I can 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, her heart remains in her hometown. With his football success so far, he said he wants others from Ashaiman to experience success with their passions as well.
“It’s a lot to take in,” he said. “At the same time, I feel a huge responsibility to show people in my village that it is possible to do this. You don’t have to go through the same cycle over and over again.