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From war-torn Liberia to long shot NFL draft prospect, BYU’s Dayan Ghanwoloku says he will play pro football ‘one way or another’

Cougars’ star safety probably won’t be selected in the draft April 23-25 because he was not invited to the NFL combine and didn’t get a traditional pro day due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he remains undeterred about realizing his NFL dream

BYU defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku returns a fumble for touchdown against the California Golden Bears in Provo on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. The Cougars’ safety is hoping to hear his name called during the NFL Draft April 23-25.
BYU defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku returns a fumble for touchdown against the California Golden Bears in Provo on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. The Cougars’ safety is hoping to hear his name called during the NFL Draft April 23-25.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — In a normal year, only 35 or so college football players who didn’t get invitations to the NFL Scouting Combine in February are selected in the NFL draft in late April.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic caused most schools around the country to cancel their pro days, NFL scouts were unable to get out to various workouts and see prospects for themselves, or invite prospects to their cities for private workouts.

That means fewer than 10 non-combine invitees will get drafted April 23-25, most draft observers believe. In other words, the odds are long for former BYU players such as Dayan Ghanwoloku, Austin Lee, Moroni Laulu-Pututau and Aleva Hifo. They didn’t get the exposure the combine brings and had to organize their own opportunities to show their wares to former NFL scouts in small gatherings in Dallas (Ghanwoloku), Orem (Laulu-Pututau), Las Vegas (Lee), and Denver (Hifo).

Although his prospects of hearing his name called late next week appear slim, Ghanwoloku remains unfazed and undeterred.

“I know I’m going to play in the NFL,” he told the Deseret News last week. “I’m going to get there, one way or another.”

Local football fans are well-aware of Ghanwoloku’s inspiring story. His family escaped the war-torn West African country of Liberia and came to Utah when he was 5 years old and his sister, Yassah, was just 7. They were met at the airport in Salt Lake City by their stepmom, whom they had never met, and raised by her and her parents in the Ogden area until their father, Robert Lake, came over from BYU-Hawaii, where he was a soccer player.

He was known as Dayan Lake when he played for Layton’s Northridge High and during his first season at BYU, but he changed his last name to Ghanwoloku (pronounced: GAH-WOH-lo-koo) to honor his African roots and his late uncle Gayvelor Ghanwoloku before spring camp in 2017.

“I have gone through hardships and made it this far. I have graduated from BYU (in sociology),” Ghanwoloku said. “I have overcome a lot of setbacks. This coronavirus thing isn’t going to stop me from reaching my goals. Yeah, there are bumps in the road, but I just feel like I will make it, regardless, because that’s just what I do. I have to be the best me.”

Ghanwoloku said he hopes to use his platform to advocate for underprivileged youth, perhaps partner with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to open a similar youth development program in his native Liberia, or an impoverished community in the United States.

A successful career in the NFL would be the next step in accomplishing that goal.

“For me personally, yeah, it is my life story, and that is my why to what I am doing,” he said. “People think that is intriguing. But to me it is more than just football. It is about representing who I am as a person.”

Ghanwoloku’s agent, Evan Brennan, who also represents Hifo and Laulu-Pututau, said Ghanwoloku’s prospects of at least landing an undrafted free agent deal have brightened considerably as his film and the numbers he posted at a private workout in Dallas in front of a former Cleveland Browns scout have gone out to all 32 teams.

“Although prospects aren’t great for guys not invited to the combine, especially this year, I have had 15 teams call me about Dayan in the last three days,” Brennan said on April 9. “I don’t think he is going to get drafted, but he will be a highly sought after PFA (priority free agent).”

Most impressive was a laser-timed mark of 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a time that would have tied him for second among safeties at the combine. His times of 4.25 in the shuttle run and 6.85 in the 3-cone drill would also have been in the top five.

Although he made 207 tackles, intercepted seven passes and forced seven fumbles while appearing in 48 games over his four-year career as a safety and a cornerback, Ghanwoloku did some of his best work on special teams. That versatility, and willingness to play on special teams, has attracted attention, Brennan said.

“He is fast enough, he can play a variety of defensive back positions, and he is a really good open-field tackler,” Brennan said. “For most teams, versatility comes into play big time. He’s got that. That’s what he is, a guy who can fill the back end of a 53-man roster.”

Said Ghanwoloku: “Strong safety or nickel cornerback, those are the two spots they like me at. And then doing my thing on special teams, because that is the plus-one right there, the thing that will help me out and set me apart.”

After BYU lost 38-34 to Hawaii in the bowl game in Honolulu, Ghanwoloku and his wife, Madison, packed up their belongings in Provo and moved to Houston to stay with her family for three months. They recently returned to Orem and have been living with friends while Ghanwoloku trains with Hifo and a pair of former Cougars who are in the NFL, linebackers Sione Takitaki and Harvey Langi.

Ghanwoloku said he met his marketing agent, Jay Joshi, at the NFLPA Bowl in January, where he forced and recovered a fumble. He chose Brennan, a BYU graduate, as his agent because he wanted the personal attention for which Brennan is known.

Ghanwoloku’s uncle’s favorite NFL team was the Philadelphia Eagles, so he’s sort of adapted that as his. His favorite NFL player is the “Honey Badger,” Tyrann Mathieu of the Kansas City Chiefs.

“I like his playing style just because he is so aggressive in what he does, and he is a field general,” Ghanwoloku said. “That is what I hope to be in the NFL some day, just go out there and be a baller.”