GROVE, Okla. — Before Friday night lights and before a new life in Grove, Emmanuel Crawford spent most of his days using a coffee can to bail water out of fishing canoes in Ghana, West Africa.
By age 3, Emmanuel was a victim of human trafficking. He was enslaved in the northern Ghana fishing industry after being sold by his birth parents, who — like many impoverished families in the nation — could hardly afford to feed themselves, let alone a child.
For nearly three years, Emmanuel spent upward of 16 hours each day working on his hands and knees inside cramped, leaky canoes on Lake Volta while living out of a hut with other enslaved children on one of the lake’s smaller islands.
“I don’t have a lot of recollection from that time,” Emmanuel said. “Some things are probably better not remembered.”
Life changed drastically for Emmanuel when he was discovered by Pam and Randy Cope during their child rescue efforts in Ghana in 2009. Emmanuel was among the youngest and sickest of those who were rescued, but proved to be most vibrant and energetic in the months that followed.
Audrey and Stan Crawford, both dentists in Grove, had five children but had always wanted to adopt. They knew the Copes from their dentistry work and expressed immediate interest in Emmanuel when they were told he was destined for a life outside of Ghana.
“They (the Copes) expressed the fact that normally they don’t want the kids adopted,” Stan said. “They prefer them to grow up over there and be educated with their school system they had there. But with Emmanuel, it was different. For whatever reason, they believed he was meant to have a different journey.”
The Crawfords made their first trip to meet Emmanuel in Ghana in January of 2010. After nine months of tedious paperwork and a combined six round-trip international flights between Audrey and Stan, they were able to bring Emmanuel to his new home in Grove.
“We fell in love immediately,” Audrey said. “It had to be God’s doing that I had a desire for another child. I just knew in my heart there was another child who we could love, and then a connection with Emmanuel was somehow made despite us being thousands of miles apart. Divine intervention is the only way I can explain it.”
Flash forward to today and life couldn’t be more different for Emmanuel. Other than two knees that remain partially callused from the extensive labor forced on him as a child, there’s no indication that the 16-year-old comes from such a complicated and tragic past.
Known in his Grove hometown as the lovable kid with a bright and contagious smile, Emmanuel is the epitome of an American teenage success story. His family and peers describe him in many ways: an intelligent student, a standout football player, a creative mind, a devout Christian and a caring son and sibling.
“He does not know a stranger, either,” Audrey said. “Stan and I have had a business for 26 years here in Grove, and Emmanuel knows more people in this town than we do. He’s always been a people person.
“Emmanuel has embraced the community and the community has embraced him. He has had amazing teachers, coaches, youth pastors and friends who have gotten to know him and formed unbreakable bonds.”
“This is home now,” Emmanuel said. “Really, it’s the only home I know. I have a great family who I thank the Lord for every day. … I have friends that I’ve known since kindergarten. I have teammates, coaches, teachers and so many great people I’m thankful for. So yeah, I wouldn’t trade what I have now for anything.”
Emmanuel’s ability on a football field has garnered the attention of many in Northeast Oklahoma in recent years. Now in his junior year with the Ridgerunners, the 5-foot-11, 165-pound running back is coming off a 2020 campaign that saw him rush for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“He has a 4.4 (forty-yard) time and he’s just an athlete,” Grove head coach Ron Culwell said. “He had like a 10-foot, 8-inch broad jump in our combine that we did in the preseason. The guy is just a great kid and a hard worker. He goes 100% and he’s fun to be around. He’s always happy and always smiling.”
In Grove’s season opener last Friday against Vinita, Emmanuel accounted for two touchdowns and 201 yards on 25 carries to aid the Ridgerunners in a 55-32 win.
“He’s special, and he’s obviously going to be a big part of our offense,” Culwell added. “There’s no doubt that his type of talent would translate at the next level. So we think he has a bright future. His best days are still ahead of him.”
Emmanuel aspires to play football at the college level.
“I love the sport of football and I love what it has taught me and will continue to teach me,” he said. “I’m hoping that it’s in the plans for my future. I’d love to go play college football at Oklahoma State or any school that is willing to take a chance on me.”
SWEETENING THE POT
It was around the fifth grade or so that Emmanuel first started to take an interest in football.
All it would take was a bit of convincing for his mother to allow it.
“It’s actually a funny story,” Stan said. “One of my neighbors (Shawn Anderson) coached a little league football team, and at the time, Audrey didn’t want any of our kids playing until middle school just because of how physical the sport is.
“So the neighbor had spotted Emmanuel’s talents when his son and Emmanuel became friends. He asked Emmanuel what it would take to talk his mom into letting him play football.”
“He told him that Audrey loved peanut M&M’s,” Stan said. “Sure enough, he came over that night with a barrel full of peanut M&M’s to convince Audrey to let him play.”
“To literally sweeten the pot,” Audrey added, laughing.
Audrey obliged, allowing Emmanuel to kickstart his football about two years before it was initially intended.
“He was pretty special from the first time he got to play football,” Stan said. “He’s always had a gift for it. Seeing just how far he’s come in his career is pretty incredible in itself.”