Towson tailback Yeedee Thaenrat’s most important run occurred 16 years ago.
That’s when a 5-year-old Thaenrat and his family arrived in the United States after escaping their native Liberia in the throes of a Second Liberian Civil War. He immigrated without his parents and spoke what he said was “broken English.”
Now, the 21-year-old Thaenrat is a father of two, a senior poised to graduate this coming spring with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and the starting tailback for the No. 10 Tigers.
But Towson coach Rob Ambrose said what he appreciates about Thaenrat can’t be defined by numbers on a stat sheet.
“I wish I had 20 of him because it’s contagious — all of that positivity and perspective and how everything he does is an opportunity to get better, for his life to get better, for a better experience,” Ambrose said. “There’s not a lot of people that see the world that way, and he does, and it’s contagious. I’m going to hate when he graduates because I don’t have anybody like him to replace him, and it’s not about what he can do on the field. It’s about who he is as a person.”
One of four children born to Phaitoon Thaenrat and Charlsetta Biyoyouwei, Yeedee Thaenrat recalls little of his childhood after being born in Monrovia, Liberia, except for playing soccer with neighborhood friends and eating some of his favorite dishes such as rice with cassava leaves and Liberian potato greens.
The Second Liberian Civil War — between two rebel groups and government forces organized by President Charles Taylor — broke out in 1999. Casualties as high as 300,000 people were reported, and children were pressured into serving as soldiers on two sides.
The violence forced Yeedee, his three siblings, his grandmother Cathrine Balla, his aunt Theresa Biyoyouwei, his uncle Jones Biyoyouwei and a several cousins to leave their home for a refugee camp in Liberia, and then the Ivory Coast.
Phaitoon Thaenrat returned to his native Thailand, but Charlsetta Biyoyouwei disappeared. There has been no word of her whereabouts, but Yeedee Thaenrat continues to hold out hope that his mother is alive.
“I know my mom is out there somewhere,” he said. “So I just don’t try to think of it in a way to make it negative. We just hope one day we find her.”
In 2003, Yeedee, his siblings, four cousins, his grandmother and his uncle immigrated to San Antonio, while his aunt went to Buffalo, New York, before rejoining the family two years later. In Texas, Yeedee was introduced to school, birthday cake and presents, and a University of Texas football game.
In 2007, Theresa Biyoyouwei — whom Yeedee Thaenrat calls “Mom” — took the children to Philadelphia. Football helped him bond with his classmates and avoid the kind of bullying that chases kids who take English as a Second Language classes until the seventh grade.
“I started playing football at recess, and it was called ‘Kill the man with the ball,’ ” he recalled. “It was kind of fun because that was my way to make friends. I was really fast, and I just had an aggression to me that I could take it out onto the field and take it out on other people legally. I was like, ‘Yo, I like getting hit, and I like hitting people.’ ”
Somcan Thaenrat, Yeedee’s older sister by four years, said a childhood without parents was difficult for her younger brother, who doesn’t talk much about his upbringing.
“Yeedee is the kind of person where he just keeps pushing forward,” she said. “He doesn’t speak a lot or express himself and what he’s feeling. But when he plays, it’s a whole different person you see, someone without the world on his shoulders.”
As a sophomore at the all-boys academy Father Judge High in Philadelphia, Thaenrat rushed for 1,246 yards and 13 touchdowns and added 74 tackles, six forced fumbles and three interceptions as a safety. The following season, he had 1,545 rushing yards and 25 scores, while adding 98 tackles, 12 forced fumbles and two interceptions, earning a scholarship offer from Rutgers and attention from other Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
But a broken ankle scared recruiters away. Even after rushing for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns with 43 tackles as a senior, his best offer came from Tennessee Tech, a Football Championship Subdivision school that plays in the Ohio Valley Conference.
After racking up 1,108 rushing yards and 304 receiving yards in two years for the Golden Eagles, Thaenrat transferred to Towson. Tigers senior defensive back Terrill Gillette-Rodgers, who has known Thaenrat since they played high school football in Philadelphia, said his decision to transfer from Riverside City College in California to the Tigers was influenced by Thaenrat’s move.
He said teammates have been thrilled by Thaenrat’s success this fall.
“It means everything because he’s not just scoring touchdowns,” Gillette-Rodgers said. "He’s a playmaker on special teams. He was [an All-Colonial Athletic Association third-team selection] last year. So he’s not giving you just one dimension of his game. He’s running the ball and blocking, he’s tackling whenever he’s on special teams. Whatever he can do, I know that’s what he does.”
Thaenrat and his girlfriend, Shindrea Reeder, are parents to 5-year-old Malaya Reeder and 8-month-old Yeedee Thaenrat Jr. Thaenrat is poised to become the first member of his family to graduate with a college degree.
He has his sights set on playing in the NFL, and Ambrose said several scouts have expressed interest in Thaenrat as a contributor on offense and special teams.
“My dream was to play on TV on Sundays, and I’ll do whatever I can to get on there,” Thaenrat said. “If special teams is going to take me there, I’m going to do that as hard as I can. If third-down runs are going to take me there, I’m going to do that as hard as I can. If just being me is going to take me there, I’m going to do that as hard as I can.
“I can’t control that, whether I go or not. The only thing I can control is what I do today and tomorrow, how I attack today and how hard I do it. After I’m done with this year, I’m just going to put my head down and grind as hard as I can and see whatever happens.”
Asked how the family feels about Yeedee’s path, Somcan Thaenrat began by saying, “I don’t want to cry.”
“We’re happy,” she continued. “To have a kid that comes from Africa and had never played the sport and had never seen it and had no idea what his American dream was until he came here and picked up a football, we’re really proud. We’re like, ‘Yeedee, you’re living our dream.’ I can’t explain it in words. We’re really proud.”