After two years of working and saving, hoping and dreaming about life in the “land of opportunity,” 17-year-old Joseph Udoh spent his first night in America abandoned and alone, too “freaked out” to leave the terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“I mean, I heard about New York. I felt like it was scary,” said Udoh, now 19 and a preferred walk-on with the WVU football team, from his lawyer’s office in Charleston.
A Nigerian orphan with enough academic and athletic ability to attract a scholarship offer from a boarding school in the United States, he and an older sister managed to save $2,000 in U.S. funds for the one-way ticket he needed to accept the offer.
It took them two years.
It wasn’t until after he’d loaded his belongings into a couple of backpacks, said goodbye to his family and friends, boarded a plane and then landed in Europe for a layover, that he realized there was catch.
It came in the form of an email from the school. They needed him to sign a contract.
“I didn’t know what that means. I didn’t know anything about contracts,” said Udoh.
“I talked to my sister and she was like, ‘Uh, let me check it out.’ She showed it to someone else and they were like, ‘This is not a good idea.’”
The contract claimed 15% of anything he earned professionally or athletically, and 25% of any future earnings from athletic endorsements.
“They wanted it all. They wanted just a blanket on him. … That’s illegal,” said immigration lawyer Paul Saluja.
“They offered him a scholarship. They didn’t say ‘You have to promise us wages for the rest of your life.’”
Had he signed it, those terms would have been in place unless and until the contract was severed. Which was complicated.
“One of the things that they had, which is just really shocking, arbitration was under the laws of the Republic of Serbia. … You’d have to have an attorney go to Serbia. Or you’d have to get a Serbian attorney,” said Saluja.
After talking with his sister, Udoh called the school.
“And then when I spoke to them, the people from the school, they were like, ‘Oh, well, if you can’t sign it there is nothing we can do for you. You are, like, by yourself,’” he said.
They never came to pick him up at the airport. He wandered through stores in the terminal, got some food and started making phone calls, including one to a pastor and basketball coach in Huntington, West Virginia.
It was a call that changed his life — and his luck.