IN THE FIRST summer in our house in Connecticut we put up a basketball hoop whose bright orange rim shone like a beacon. Almost immediately the kid across the street appeared in our driveway and without a word began to shoot.

His jump shot was awkward, but his tank top on that July afternoon in 2005 revealed the body of a professional athlete: all rippling muscles, overlaid with scars.

In the days that followed, in halting English, he said his name was David Quenah, that he preferred soccer, and his favorite player was George Weah, who had played for AC Milan by way of Liberia. It was from Liberia that 16-year-old David had emigrated in 2004 to live with his aunt Bendu, and her husband, Michael, in the house across from ours.

As a small boy on his father's sugarcane plantation, David collected rubber-tree sap, dried it in the sun, "folded it like a croissant," sealed it with more rubber and inflated it with his lungs to make a misshapen soccer ball. "I was six years old," he later wrote in a journal, "and one bright day followed another."

On one such Saturday in 1994, while David played in a neighbor's hut, he heard a chilling thunder: Masked rebels with guns and machetes were overrunning his village. The Liberian civil war had arrived on his doorstep, and David fled through sugarcane fields, the razor-sharp leaves slicing him until his shirt was soaked crimson. Then, for five hours he quietly crawled back to the edge of his neighbor's hut.

There, from behind a log, he spied his "honorable, kind, powerful" father, Joseph, on the ground, stripped to his boxers, hands tied. "I felt a cold rifle pipe at the back of my neck," recalls David. The gunman forced the six-year-old boy to stand and watch as his father's throat was cut. Blood pooled around the boy's flip-flops.

His eldest brother, Lincoln, was also butchered. "I don't want to die like this," Lincoln had told his brother, who ran for help to their uncle's village two hours away. But it was also overtaken, and the boy fled into the woods. "This went on for weeks," David says, "then months, and it turned to years."

A native speaker of Kpelle, David eventually found himself living with a family friend in Monrovia, where he learned his first bits of English: "I'm hungry" and "Where is the food?"

"Playing soccer," he says of those years, "was the one time I could feel calm." From across our Connecticut street I'd see him juggling a soccer ball in his yard when he wasn't working countless jobs—pizza joint, grocery stores, apple orchard—to send money to family in Liberia.

David was a sophomore forward when his Granby Memorial High soccer team won the Class S state championship in 2005. When he appeared on the front page of The Hartford Courant in his graduation cap and gown a few years later, I saw him in the Stop & Shop parking lot clutching a copy. He liked to read—"I've read your articles and books," he told me—and had begun to write his life story.

He was finding, as his English improved, that writing imposed order on chaos. He had witnessed the relative might of pen and sword, and decided which would prevail. "The most powerful people on earth are not presidents," he says. "They are teachers and writers."

Ten years after his first appearance, David is back in my driveway, beneath a weathered hoop, laughing at my four screaming kids who greet him. David is 27 now, a junior at Western Connecticut State, and he hopes to become a soccer coach after graduate school. He has already started the nonprofit Liberian-American International Soccer Exchange Program, or FC LASEP (, on which he's spent $7,000 of his own money to buy the equipment and uniforms he shipped to Liberia. In July he will fly to his homeland to help train impoverished kids—"Kids like I was"—in the hope of getting them U.S. college scholarships in the sport that is his refuge.

"A test from God," he calls his unfathomable childhood, and all those Biblical trials are now fuel. "It's like a stone in a slingshot," he says of his life. "You get pulled back, but that's what moves you forward."

My neighbor looks back at his war-torn childhood in Liberia and says, "Playing soccer was the one time I could feel calm."

Do you know other stories of sports and survival?

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