Cover-Story-Gus-Edwards

Gus Edwards: The American Dream

Born in the middle of the Liberian Civil War, Gus Edwards and his family fled the violence to find a better life in the United States. But no part of it was easy.

By: Ryan Mink



When Gus Edwards called his father to share the life-changing good news of his contract extension with the Ravens, Sackie Edwards was in Liberia taking photos in front of their old cinder block home.

It hadn't changed a bit, and neither had the neighbors he chatted and posed with. They were all still there and remembered the Edwards family that fled more than 20 years ago.

Gus was born in 1995, in the middle of Liberia's 12-year civil war that tore the country apart and killed around 250,000 people.

Named after a woman who sponsored Sackie as a schoolchild, baby Augustus came home from the clinic to that one-bedroom rental house. That's where Sackie, his wife, and their three children lived until they had to split up the family for their safety and in hopes of a brighter future.

Sackie was in Liberia for the burial of his mother last month and figured he might as well go see the old house. That's when the phone rang with his son on the other end about to sign a two-year contract extension with $8 million guaranteed. Sackie sent Gus the photos of the house, which Gus hadn't seen since he left West Africa when he was 6 years old.

"It was just amazing," Gus said. "I was just taking it all in like, 'Wow, this is really where I come from.' Seeing that – God is good."

'JUMPING OVER BODIES'

Sackie met his wife, Mamie, a couple years after the First Liberian Civil War broke out. They were both looking for food on Newport Street, a hub a couple blocks away from the largest green space in the capital city of Monrovia – a cemetery.

They soon had their first child, a son, Josh. Then came a daughter, Johnetta. Gus was third, the middle child of an eventual five. It was a lot of mouths to feed, but Sackie chuckled when asked what he did for work.

"There were no jobs," he said. "I was just hustling."

Not long after Gus was born, the violence escalated and Sackie knew he had to get his family somewhere safer. So he moved them in with Mamie's mother a few miles outside of Monrovia. He stayed behind, however, because there wasn't enough room and he needed to continue to try to make whatever money he could downtown.

Sackie decided to seek refuge in the tightly guarded Greystone compound, an annex of the U.S. Embassy. During that time, if a displaced person could make it to Greystone safely, they were allowed to stay. But that was a big "if."

Sackie knew the dangers of trying to move around the city. In 1994, the year before Gus was born, he went across rebel lines to search for his parents and siblings. He was arrested, jailed, and heard his captors say they were going to kill him at midnight or early the next morning.

He was saved when their boss, who arrived later, was miraculously a former classmate of Sackie's and freed him. Sackie went on to find his mother, sisters and brothers. His father had been killed by the rebels.

Rebel soldiers patrol in their area of occupation in Monrovia during the civil war. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)
Rebel soldiers patrol in their area of occupation in Monrovia during the civil war. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)
Older rebel fighters wrestle the gun from a young fighter caught looting with it. (left) A fighter from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia runs and shoots during an offensive on the frontline in Monrovia. (right) (AP Photos/ Ben Curtis & Jean-Marc Bouju)
Older rebel fighters wrestle the gun from a young fighter caught looting with it. (left) A fighter from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia runs and shoots during an offensive on the frontline in Monrovia. (right) (AP Photos/ Ben Curtis & Jean-Marc Bouju)

That experience wasn't enough to deter Sackie from facing danger for his family. He told his wife and kids not to leave their house under any circumstances. He would be responsible for bringing them food. With some friends, Sackie would slip out in the early morning hours, hoping to go undetected.

"Once you leave that compound, you were taking your own risks," Sackie said. "But I had to do it. I cannot say it was smart, but you had to do it to survive."

Were there any close calls?

"I was jumping over bodies, but no close calls for me," Sackie said. "I was always blessed."

Sackie lived apart from his family in the Greystone compound for about seven months. Eventually, even that became too dangerous because stray bullets flying into the compound kept killing people. It was time to get out of Liberia.

Sackie's older sister, Sarah Togba, was a shopkeeper in Liberia who had made a connection with an American woman and traveled back and forth with her since 1988. The woman ultimately brought Sarah to the United States full-time to watch her children, and Sarah was determined to send for the rest of her family.

She discovered the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the nation's largest faith-based nonprofit serving vulnerable immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. It's actually headquartered in Baltimore.

"Simply put, we resettle refugees, reunite children and parents, and rekindle the American Dream," LIRS's website says.

Sackie with his children. (photo courtesy of Sackie Edwards)
Sackie with his children. (photo courtesy of Sackie Edwards)

The organization arranged for a group from their large, extended family to come to America, but there were only two spots for Sackie's immediate household.

They decided that Sackie and his oldest daughter would go to establish roots and send money back. The rest of the family would flee to Ghana, where it was safer, to wait for him to send for them.

By the end of 1999, Ghana was "home" to about 10,000 Liberians. Another 130,000 were in the Ivory Coast and about 100,000 fled to Guinea – neighboring West African countries. While safer, it was still far from comfy in Ghana's Buduburam refugee camp.

"It was tough to leave them, but I knew it was an opportunity," Sackie said. "I knew when I went to the United States, that would open doors for them."

A photo of Sackie's last day in Liberia. (photo courtesy of Sackie Edwards)
A photo of Sackie's last day in Liberia. (photo courtesy of Sackie Edwards)

By the time Sackie and his daughter left in February of 1999, Gus was nearly 4 years old – old enough to feel the anguish, but not understand why. For years, Gus clung to a photo taken the day Sackie left for America.

"When I got in the car, he was in his mother's arms crying. I still remember it like it was yesterday," Sackie said. "He cried and cried. He said he wanted to come with me. I told him, 'I will send for you. I won't forget about you, Gus.'"

'I FOUND A PURPOSE'

When Sackie landed in Staten Island, N.Y., his first job was at a White Castle hamburger chain. He enrolled in a nearby community college, but struggled to pay for tuition, his own expenses and send money back to Liberia, so he dropped out.

Back in Ghana, Gus, his mother, and his younger brother, Josephus, waited … and waited. They were there for two years, but Gus's memories of that time are fuzzy.

The schools were so poor in Ghana that Sackie sent enough money to pay for them to go to private school (don't envision an American private school). They could afford one year, but that was it.

"I only remember those last couple of months and not being able to go to school," Gus said. "I remember being concerned about that because other kids were going to school and I just had to wait to see if I was going to America or not."

In September of 2001, the door finally opened to the rest of the family. Gus was 6 years old. His clearest memory of Liberia is posing for photos on the day he was leaving. He was being humble because he knew everybody wanted to come to America, but inside, he was bursting with excitement.

"I just couldn't wait to see my dad," Gus said. "I didn't remember my dad at all. I didn't know what it was like to have a dad."

The day Gus came to America (photo courtesy of Sackie Edwards)
The day Gus came to America (photo courtesy of Sackie Edwards)

Gus only had a single photo of him and his father, taken the day that he left for America two years earlier. But when Gus landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, he immediately spotted his father in the crowd and ran to him.

"We were all very, very excited," Sackie said. "We were happy to all be in a safer place."

Certainly safer by Liberian standards, but not safe. The family moved in together in a two-bedroom subsidized apartment in Park Hill, a notoriously rough neighborhood in Staten Island, known for its gangs, drugs, and violence.

Sackie and Mamie had another child in America, so there were seven in that apartment. They made an extra room at night by hanging curtains across the living room.

Transitioning to America was tough for a child immigrant, even in "Little Liberia" as that neighborhood is commonly called, and Gus's broken English made it harder to relate to other kids in school. He was slow to speak out loud in class "because I was shy about how I sounded" and is still a soft-spoken guy.

The neighborhood was so bad that Sackie told his children not to go outside except for school, a reminder of their lockdown days in Liberia. For the most part, Gus obeyed. He was always a humble kid who listened to his parents, Sackie said.

Gus as a player for the Staten Island Hurricanes. (photo courtesy of Sackie Edwards)
Gus as a player for the Staten Island Hurricanes. (photo courtesy of Sackie Edwards)

But one day, Gus was walking with a friend when they asked a man for directions. That man was Sam Barnes, a hip-hop producer (Tone) who made up half of Trackmasters, one of the greatest producers of all-time. He produced 20 platinum records and worked with Michael Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and 50 Cent.

"Crazy, right!?" says Gus, who is now an aspiring rapper going by "Gusto."

Anyway, Barnes kept throwing a football back and forth with Gus and eventually asked him if he wanted to play for the team he founded and coached. Gus was into basketball at the time but agreed to try it out.

His mother didn't want him to play because she thought he would get hurt. His dad questioned why he didn't want to pursue basketball but relented when Gus – before ever having played organized football – said he thought he could be really good.

Gus joined Barnes' Pee-Wee team, the Staten Island Hurricanes. It was founded in 2002 and has won seven national American Youth Football championships, becoming a farm team for the local high schools and colleges.

Gus went through spring practices not knowing what was going on, so they put the tall, athletic kid at defensive end. On his first sack, he knocked the quarterback out cold.

"I saw how happy everybody was and I was like, 'Oh, that's what I'm supposed to do,'" Gus said. "I just took off after that."

Gus liked the physicality of defense, but he wanted the ball. So when he first arrived at Tottenville High School and the coaches told everybody to go to their position groups, Gus put himself at running back.

At 6-foot, 215 pounds, Gus became one of the top 50 running back recruits in the country. He first verbally committed to in-state Syracuse, but switched after their head coach, Doug Marrone, left for the Buffalo Bills. Gus pivoted to the University of Miami because he was already a Hurricane at heart – a Staten Island Hurricane.

"When I found football, I found a purpose," Gus said. "I was 11 and I didn't know what I wanted to be. When I found football, that's when I made the decision to go after it. Since then, it's been a purpose. It's been a way out."

'GIVE IT ONE MORE SHOT'

In just his second college football game, Edwards ran for 113 yards and three touchdowns as Miami blew out Savannah State, 77-7. It was the most points scored in Miami history.

After Edwards punched in a 9-yard touchdown late in the third quarter, both teams' coaches agreed to shorten the fourth quarter to 12 minutes. Savannah State had been run over enough.

"Gus the Bus," a nickname given to him first by Miami's fanbase, was born.

But Edwards was still playing backup to Duke Johnson, who came in one year ahead of him and was an immediate star. Johnson ran for a whopping 1,652 yards as a junior in 2014 before becoming a third-round pick of the Cleveland Browns.

Edwards had waited for two years, receiving about six carries a game and posting back-to-back seasons below 350 rushing yards (all while averaging 5.4 yards per carry).

With Johnson off to the NFL, it was finally Edwards's turn to lead Miami's ground game in 2015. He was named the starter at the end of camp, but a week before the season-opener, Edwards suffered a Lisfranc foot injury that required surgery and ended his season.

"Gus worked extremely hard for the last nine months to prepare for this moment," Miami Head Coach Al Golden said at the time. "He set a high standard and did a great job leading and being unselfish. We are tremendously disappointed for him, but we will be there with him on the road to recovery and anxiously await his return."

By the time Edwards returned, sophomore Mark Walton, who had impressed in Edwards's absence, had grabbed the reigns as the featured back and the coaches didn't look back. Edwards topped 100 yards in the season opener but was given just 15 carries over the next five games. After a midseason rebound game, Miami's offensive coordinator, Thomas Brown, said he should have given Edwards more playing time.

"It's my fault for not getting him involved more with the offense," Brown said. "But he's been consistent, hasn't complained, and worked his butt off."

Brown, who is now the running backs coach of the Los Angeles Rams, did give Edwards some advice that would ultimately change his career. He helped turn him into "The Bus."

"He had to realize how big he is," Brown said. "I think because he is elusive at times and is athletic, he tried to worry about making guys miss more. I told him, 'You can overpower guys if you play behind your pads and hit it full speed. There's nobody [that's] going to step in front of you.'"

Edwards still finished the season as the backup and reached the end zone just once all year. He had one more year of eligibility because of the lost 2015 season and was set to graduate from Miami in May, so he decided to transfer.

Miami uncharacteristically blocked him from going to Syracuse or Pittsburgh – the two teams who had shown the most interest – because both were also in the ACC and on the upcoming schedule. Miami didn't want to get run over by its former player.

With the help of his former high school coach, Edwards landed at Rutgers, which had also courted him coming out of high school but had a new coaching staff. Rutgers often recruits in Staten Island, so Gus figured "if they didn't treat me right, they'd have to hear it from my high school."

Rutgers running back Gus Edwards (13) runs into the end zone during an NCAA college football game against Illinois Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Rutgers defeated Illinois 35-24. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)
Rutgers running back Gus Edwards (13) runs into the end zone during an NCAA college football game against Illinois Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Rutgers defeated Illinois 35-24. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)

"I was blessed to be at Rutgers," Edwards said. "I just wasn't ready for it to end there – me not playing at Miami, calling it quits, and ending my dream when I had come so far. I had to figure out something else for myself. I had to give it one more shot."

When news of his transfer came out, there were doubters. One blog wrote, "Edwards has little chance of succeeding at Rutgers and the team improving. There's little chance of Gus the Bus making it to the NFL. But a guy has to dream."

Edwards had heard from naysayers before. Sometimes when he would play football in the parking lot behind his Park Hill apartment building, kids would tell him he was wasting his time, that he wasn't going to make it to the NFL. Sackie would tell him, "even though it's the long way, just be patient."

A major reason Edwards picked Rutgers was it was close to home, just a half-hour drive away from his parents. After never seeing him play in four years at Miami, his family gathered in the stands at Rutgers.

But more important than that, Edwards had a new big change coming his way and he could use his parents' help. He and his girlfriend were expecting a baby.

Born on the 13th, just like his dad, Augustus Jr. supercharged Edwards's drive. Edwards changed and fed him in the mornings before heading to Rutgers for 12-hour days of practice, film study, weightlifting and tutoring. Then he came back to his son and girlfriend every evening at their off-campus house. On weekends, Mamie helped babysit.

Edwards dedicated his season to his Baby Bus. With "EDWARDS SR" on his back, he piled up 816 total yards rushing, scored seven touchdowns, and was named the team's most valuable offensive player

Edwards followed it up with a buzzworthy Pro Day in which he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds and put up 17 bench press reps – showing elite athleticism in a now 6-foot-1, 229-pound frame.

He had done enough to put himself on the NFL radar and give hope to a brighter future.

"I want to set up a better life than I had for my son, put him in a better environment than I had,'" Edwards told NJ.com after his Pro Day. "It's definitely a great motivation for me every day.''

'TAKE ADVANTAGE WHEN IT COMES'

For as tough as Edwards's childhood was, he said draft day was "honestly one of the worst days of my life."

Edwards was hearing that he was likely going to be a late-round draft pick and several teams, including the Ravens, Chargers and Bills, seemed very interested. He and his parents saw 20 running backs get drafted that April weekend in 2018, but not Edwards.

He was so angry that, as soon as the draft ended, Edwards drove six hours to his high school friend's place in Buffalo just to get away.

"I knew how my parents felt. I knew they were worried," Edwards said. "They don't really understand the [undrafted] process, so they probably felt like it was over."

Ravens Running Backs Coach Thomas Hammock, who is now the head coach at Northern Illinois, had kept in touch with Edwards during the pre-draft process, and he sold Edwards on signing with Baltimore. It was close to home and had a history of loving big, physical backs.

Hammock and Rutgers Head Coach Chris Ash worked together years earlier at Wisconsin. When Hammock called for a report on Edwards, Ash gave it to him straight.

"He said, 'Thomas, our O-line is very, very bad. He's not having the opportunity to really showcase what he can do,'" Hammock said.

"In the recruiting process, Gus also brought up he had a son and how that changed him as a person. He talked about how he's motivated to be a provider. That intrigued me. When you find a young man that has those types of goals, you can usually push them further than what they think is possible because you understand their 'why.'"

Running back coach Thomas Hammock runs drill with RB Gus Edwards at Ravens Training Camp
Running back coach Thomas Hammock runs drill with RB Gus Edwards at Ravens Training Camp

As they entered the 2018 season, the Ravens had Alex Collins, Javorius Allen and Kenneth Dixon returning. In addition to Edwards, Baltimore also signed two other undrafted rookie running backs, De'Lance Turner and Mark Thompson. Edwards never emerged from the crowd at Miami, and now he was going to have to do it in the NFL.

"That whole offseason, the one thing about Gus that really stood out to me was his work ethic," Hammock said. "Anything that I asked him to do, he did it – and he did extra."

Hammock said Edwards was a "finesse player" coming out of high school. He bulked up at Miami and when he got to Rutgers, he started running downhill – with a purpose.

Once Edwards got to training camp, Hammock said he saw a very physical player who "wasn't going to waste time, wasn't going to lose yardage and was always going to fall forward." Hammock voiced that those traits were hard to find.

"I tried to give him every rep possible in the preseason to show what he can do because I thought he was good enough to make the team," Hammock said.

Indeed, Edwards led the Ravens with 53 carries for 174 yards during that five-game preseason, but it wasn't enough to make the 53-man squad and he was cut. The Ravens were fortunate to sign him back to the practice squad the next day.

It looked like Edwards might not have to wait long for his call-up, however, when Dixon suffered a knee injury in Week 1. But they didn't turn to Edwards. Instead, it was Turner who got the promotion.

"I can tell you this, very candidly," Hammock said. "I spoke up on Gus well before he got called up. I thought he had traits that he can make it in the NFL. But De'Lance, at the time, had more special teams value."

"When I think about all this now, it's like, 'Wow,'" Edwards said with a laugh. "I didn't know how to take that, honestly. I just felt like, man, maybe I have to get better."

Hammock stayed in Edwards's ear, trying to keep him sharp and ready to go if called upon.

"His son was the thing that motivated him during those times," Hammock said. "I would say, 'He's going to look up to you. Make sure that you're doing the things necessary to take advantage of the opportunity when it comes.'"

One month later, Turner went down with a hamstring injury and this time, Edwards got the call. On Oct. 13, 2018, Edwards joined the Ravens' 53-man roster. A day later, in his first NFL game, he rumbled 10 times for 42 yards in Tennessee and was more effective than Collins.

When the Ravens made the midseason switch to Lamar Jackson after Joe Flacco suffered a hip injury, Baltimore also made Edwards the lead running back ahead of Collins. The Ravens' run game had been stagnant, and with Jackson's ability to execute the run-pass option and threaten the edges, Edwards's downhill style was the perfect compliment.

In Jackson's first start, Edwards rushed 17 times for 115 yards and a touchdown versus the Bengals. The next week, in his first career start, Edwards racked up 118 yards on 23 carries against the Raiders. He became just the second rookie in Ravens history to have back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, following Jamal Lewis from 2000.

RB Gus Edwards receives a game ball after his first 100-yard game against the Cincinnati Bengals on November 18, 2018
RB Gus Edwards receives a game ball after his first 100-yard game against the Cincinnati Bengals on November 18, 2018

Over those final seven regular-season games that launched the Ravens into the playoffs, Edwards averaged 93 rushing yards per contest. Gus "The Bus" was back."

It was unreal how fast it happened. It usually doesn't happen that fast," Edwards said, looking back on it now. "I'm just glad I stayed ready. Coach Thomas told me if they activated me, he was going to give me the football. I knew I just had to get in uniform."

"I always thought he would be a great player," Hammock said. "Obviously, it takes time as an undrafted guy. He had to earn his stripes. But everything he did that first year didn't surprise me one bit."

'I ALWAYS WANTED TO DO IT FOR MY FAMILY'

Before the 2019 season, the Ravens signed veteran Mark Ingram II, a former Heisman Trophy winner and two-time Pro Bowler. He immediately stepped into a leading role and the starting job.

With Ingram's huge personality and Jackson's rising stardom in an MVP season, Edwards's quieter demeanor left him a bit in the shadows, but he was no less effective.

"The Bus" kept rolling to the tune of 711 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per carry – the second-best average among all NFL running backs. Edwards was the hammer in a history-making rushing attack, often punishing opponents in the second half after the Ravens had taken substantial leads.

"Football is an opportunity to let it all out. Some people take advantage of that. Some people, that's not their game," Edwards said. "It's just knowing that you have a purpose. When the man lines up across from you, they're in the way of that purpose."

Last season, the Ravens drafted J.K. Dobbins in the second round, adding another talented back to the room. "The Bus" still found his lane. By midseason, Ingram was a healthy scratch and Edwards and Dobbins shared the duties.

Gus runs past Jaguars defense on December 20, 2020.
Gus runs past Jaguars defense on December 20, 2020.

Edwards set career highs in rushing yards (723), attempts (144) and touchdowns (six). He also caught a career-high nine passes for 129 yards, showing another element to his game. As the season progressed, "The Bus" showed improved handling to go with his straight-line power.

"I watch the Ravens as much as possible," Hammock said. "Gus has really improved himself as a football player from the time he was with me to what you're seeing now. His feet, his athleticism, his vision, have all improved. He's really put the work in, and I think now people are starting to see it."

Edwards was a restricted free agent this offseason, but knew he wanted to stay in Baltimore. He's loyal to the team that first gave him the opportunity, values the relationships he's built, and loves the run-heavy offense. Plus, he said "I feel I have a lot of unfinished business here."

Every expectation is that Dobbins will have a larger role next season, but those who have slept on Edwards should have learned their lesson by now. The Ravens showed how much they value Edwards, and he'll continue to be a big part of their offense.

"Who's to say I can't be a No. 1 back here?" Edwards said last December.

Players get contract extensions all the time, but when Edwards inked his two-year extension on June 7, the cheers seemed especially loud. Head Coach John Harbaugh said Edwards is "really the most deserving guy."

"That's one person, for sure, when you're in the hole with [him], you've got to brace yourself and get ready, because Gus is 'Gus the Bus' for a reason," linebacker Patrick Queen said. "He earned that money."

As soon as he saw the news, Hammock texted Edwards to congratulate him.

"I'm so happy for him and his family because I know what it means to him," Hammock said. "This is why you coach, to see stories like this."

Edwards hasn't been back to Liberia since he left 20 years ago. He's wanted to go back for a couple years, but he wants to make sure he does it right. He wants to give back in some way when he returns.

Edwards is a first-generation immigrant who is living the American dream. He and his family have all become U.S. citizens. He is now a millionaire. Edwards said that part hasn't sunk in yet, and he doesn't plan to let it.

"I always wanted to do it for my family. My family has been great for me, a great support. When you can do for your family, it just makes you feel that much more of a man," Edwards said.

RB Gus Edwards poses at Ravens media day (Baltimore Ravens/Shawn Hubbard)
RB Gus Edwards poses at Ravens media day (Baltimore Ravens/Shawn Hubbard)

"I don't even want to think about that money. I just want to keep on doing what I'm doing and see how far I can go. I'm going to stack this year – 1,000 yards, win the Super Bowl. That would make the story much greater."

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