PROVO — On the night of Aug. 6, 2002, Dayan Ghanwoloku Lake, barely 5 years old, and his 7-year-old sister, Yassah, arrived at the Salt Lake International Airport from war-torn Liberia with, literally, only the clothes on their backs.
Danger abounded in the West African nation. Liberian children were frequently abducted, given guns and trained to fight as soldiers in a civil war that killed 250,000 people.
Dayan and Yassah with their younger sister, Sienneh. | Courtesy Dayan Ghanwoloku family
“My older sister and I could have been part of that,” said Dayan, a BYU sophomore cornerback who recorded two interceptions Oct. 14 against Mississippi State. “But we got out just in time. There were kids my age that got caught and had to go fight with the rebels. Fortunately, it wasn’t us.”
Waiting for Dayan (sounds like “Ryan”) and Yassah that night at the airport was Jenny Lake, who had married the children’s father, Robert. Robert Lake had studied and played soccer at BYU-Hawaii, where the couple met.
Together, with the help of many others, Robert and Jenny worked tirelessly to bring the children to the United States, which proved to be a challenging feat due to the ongoing rebellion against dictator Charles Taylor and his ruthless regime that displaced one million people and ravaged Liberia.
“It was by the grace of God that those kids came,” Jenny said. “It was a scary time. It was in the middle of the war. It was just a miracle.”
In the United States, everything was new and different for Dayan and his sister.
“Seeing white people for the first time was crazy for me,” Dayan recalled. He also remembers marveling at lights that turned on and off and toilets that flushed.
At the time they arrived at the airport in Utah, 15 years ago, Robert was still in Hawaii attending school so Jenny became their guardian.
“That was the first time I met my stepmom,” said Dayan, whose biological mother still lives in Liberia.
Jenny’s parents, Hans and Gayle Flink, drove Jenny and the kids to their home in Ogden. On the ride there, Jenny held one child in each arm. The children looked in wonder at their new surroundings.
“I felt so much gratitude that they had made it,” Jenny recalled. She and the kids lived with her parents for almost a year when they first arrived in Utah.
"They've been loving and supporting him since day one and that's a major reason he adjusted so well," Jenny added. "Their home is his safe place still to this day. He'd do anything for them. He also had the love and support of aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, ward members, teachers, coaches."
How did Dayan and Yassah acclimate to their new lives?
Dayan Ghanwoloku and his sister, Yassah. | Courtesy Dayan Ghanwoloku family
“Kids are really resilient. They were coming out of such a desolate situation,” Jenny said. “They were malnourished. Robert and I would send money but there was no food. The kids adjusted well when they got here. People rallied around them. But those first few days were really difficult. I didn’t know how to do Yassah’s hair. They didn’t have clothes. I had no idea what it meant to live in a third-world country. My mom made soup for them to eat that first night and they picked out the rice. The first time we took them to church, Dayan was crawling under the benches.”
While English is the official language of Liberia, tribal languages are also spoken there. The children arrived speaking a version of English and they had a limited vocabulary.
As he grew up, Dayan adjusted quickly to the language and culture — but he’s never forgotten where he came from.
“He always loved Liberia, his heritage. It’s just part of his heart,” Jenny said. “He talks about it a lot. It’s always been a part of him. He always identified with that part of himself.”
BYU's Dayan Ghanwoloku with his parents, Robert and Jenny, and his grandparents, Hans and Gayle Flink. | Courtesy Dayan Ghanwoloku family
So it did not surprise Robert and Jenny when Dayan told them that he wanted to change the name on the back of his jersey this season from Lake to Ghanwoloku (GAH-WOH-lo-koo) — to honor his African roots.
“We were completely supportive of him doing that,” Jenny said, who added that Dayan put Ghanwoloku on the back of his jersey one year when he played little league football.
The timing of the name change at BYU was inspired by Dayan’s uncle, Gayvelor Ghanwoloku. About 18 months ago, Gayvelor passed away unexpectedly.
“Gayvelor was very involved in the kids’ lives,” Jenny said. “When he passed away, it was hard for everyone. Using (Ghanwoloku), it was out of respect for him.”
Gayvelor had emigrated to the United States from Liberia, earned a Master’s degree at Temple University and became an engineer.
When Dayan and Yassah arrived in New York City from Liberia, Gayvelor was there at the airport to make sure the two children made their connecting flight to Salt Lake City. Gayvelor was also instrumental in helping pay for and bring the children to this country.
“When he passed away, I wanted to represent him in some way,” Dayan said. “He’s one of the reasons why we got here. But putting Ghanwoloku on my uniform, I feel like I’m representing my family’s name of both sides. It means a lot to me.”
Robert and Gayvelor are the sons of a Liberian tribal chief. When their father was a young man, he was educated and taken in by a couple visiting from the United States. It is believed that the couple, named Lake, belonged to the Peace Corps. Out of respect, he took on the name Lake.
Since then, many of the family have dropped Lake in favor of Ghanwoloku. Dayan’s middle name is Ghanwoloku.
“It’s their family name,” Jenny said.
Of course, African culture remains a big part of the Lake household.
“Robert will cook Liberian food, especially if Dayan’s coming home,” Jenny said. “African food is a staple at our house.”
As a youngster, Dayan naturally gravitated to soccer, like his father. He dominated his youth league and sometimes Jenny would have the coach pull him out of games because he was so much bigger and faster than the rest of the kids.
But Dayan played other sports, too — including football. He played football at recess at school and by seventh grade, his friends told him he should play organized football.
“I used to get into trouble when I was a kid because just playing around I’d hurt other kids on accident,” Dayan said. “I was always bigger than everyone. They’d cry and I’d feel bad. In soccer, they started calling a lot of fouls on me. I couldn’t handle that. My dad said to do football.”
Still, for Dayan, football was an acquired taste.
“I didn’t like it right away. I put on my helmet and I didn’t know how you were supposed to run in all of this stuff,” Dayan recalled. “The helmet and pads were heavy. It was different for me. I told my parents that I couldn’t breathe in my pads. I didn’t want to play. It was too hot. My parents told me to stick with it and after a while I got used to it. All the coaches did was give me the ball and told me to run. They made it simple for me and I learned over time. I watched the NFL Network every day. I picked up little stuff and I watched college games and my coaches taught me.”
Dayan almost quit football to play soccer but a friend convinced him to try out as a ninth-grader for the Northridge High football team. Dayan played varsity as a freshman and he picked football as his sport of choice.
It didn’t take long for college recruiters to identify Dayan, who eventually earned Deseret News 5A first-team honors, as a talented prospect.
When Dayan took some unofficial visits at BYU, he met Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, a native of Ghana who became the No. 5 overall pick of the Detroit Lions as a defensive lineman in 2013.
“It was an inspiration because Ziggy played football for three years and then went to the NFL," Dayan said. "It motivated my dad. Education always came first. Ziggy went here and graduated from BYU and made his way to the NFL, too. I figured I’d follow Ziggy’s footsteps, I guess. That was my thing.”
Dayan has noticed how Ansah has given back to his homeland by putting on football camps for kids in Ghana, among other things. Dayan would like to return to Liberia someday and help build libraries and schools there for the children.
“Gayvelor served as a good role model for Dayan. He was very educated and always took care of people back in Liberia,” Jenny said. “That was his main goal. I always tell Dayan, ‘It’s not a coincidence that you are here. You need to take advantage of your opportunity. You better use that opportunity to help.’ Robert was captured a couple of times during the war and let go. They tortured him and people were shot right next to him. I tell them, ‘There’s a reason why you are where you are.’ Dayan sees himself giving back and giving hope to the kids in Liberia."
For the most part, Dayan feels comfortable in Utah. Because he arrived in the month of August, he figured it would be warm here all the time.
“My first winter I never went outside and I didn’t want to go to school,” he remembered. “My hands were frozen. My first Halloween I came inside, crying. I didn’t go trick-or-treating for a couple of years. Stuff like that. I still don’t like snow. But I’m used to it now.”
Both Dayan and Yassah, who is currently living at home in Layton and working as a certified nursing assistant, are thriving.
At BYU, Dayan redshirted in 2015 and ended up starting eight games at cornerback last season. He accumulated 113 return yards on three interceptions, including a 50-yard pick-six against Boise State.
BYU defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku runs back an intercepted pass past Mississippi State offensive lineman Greg Eiland during game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. | Jim Lytle, Associated Press
Against Mississippi State, Dayan, who has started every game this season, had two interceptions, returning one for 67 yards and another 38 yards. The second INT set up BYU’s only touchdown of the day.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder now has five career interceptions for 218 yards — which ranks No. 5 in career interception return yards in BYU history.
While Dayan is representing his family name well, what has been the reaction to his decision to put Ghanwoloku on the back of his jersey?
“Everyone asks, ‘How do you say that?’ I tell them the ‘n’ is silent. People make up stuff because it’s a big word but if you just sound it out, it’s pretty simple,” Dayan said. “People ask me why I changed my name. It’s my middle name. I changed it for my uncle. I explain the story and where I’m from. I tell them I’m from Liberia, in Africa.”