By JOHN KEKIS
AP Sports Writer
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — One is a wiry 6-foot-10 and swoops down the court, manning the middle of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s famed zone defense.
The other is a foot shorter but has been just as intimidating at middle linebacker for Orange football coach Doug Marrone.
Meet Baye (BYE) Moussa Keita (KEY’-tah) and Siriki (suh-RIK’-ee) Diabate (dee-ah-BAHT’-ee), Africans who have cleared big obstacles and taken different paths at Syracuse. Soccer, once the mainstay of their lives, is now an afterthought.
“Growing up, all I did was play soccer,” said Diabate, who grew up in the Ivory Coast. “That’s all we do, and when I came here I pretty much was playing soccer.”
“I played all the time,” said Keita, a native of Senegal who keeps in touch with family by phone and over the Internet. “I loved soccer.”
At 14, Keita stood 6-foot-6 and excelled at soccer when the coach of his youth team encouraged him to attend a small clinic so officials from SEEDS — Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal — could see him. They liked what they saw and Keita left home the next year to attend an academy that would prepare him for the next step — the chance to go to the United States and, through basketball, have a chance at college.
After graduating from the academy, Keita headed for the U.S. and earned a basketball scholarship at Syracuse. Keita grew up speaking French and Wolof, the native language of Senegal. When he arrived in the U.S. it took a few months at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., to feel comfortable with English.
“Everything was just different, but that really helped me,” Keita said. “I feel like I’ve assimilated well.”
Keita, a junior, is a backup center and has become a Carrier Dome favorite with a work ethic his coaches would love to clone.
“Baye is a coach’s dream,” said Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, who played for the Orange in the 1990s. “He’s just disruptive. He plays so hard. It’s all about team. He brings an energy and an excitement to the game. He makes things happen. It’s like he has a shot of adrenaline on every possession, how hard he plays. His energy level is unparalleled.”
Diabate’s journey has been more arduous. He was born right before his father, Souleymane, left for the U.S. to forge a better life for his family. He never saw him again until he left home to join him in 2003 in the Bronx.
“It was crazy,” Diabate said. “All I knew was from pictures and hearing his voice on the phone. The first time I saw him it was an emotional moment.”
Diabate continued to play soccer, dabbled in basketball and tried mightily to figure out his place in a new culture.
“Growing up back home, most kids have their family at home,” Diabate said. “At first, adjusting to life here was a struggle because I didn’t speak no English at all. I didn’t understand nothing in school. I had no friends. It was kind of hard.”
His life changed after he became a regular at Roberto Clemente State Park, a waterfront park along the Harlem River in a tough part of the Bronx. Recreation supervisor Bob Morris introduced Diabate to football, and he started playing two-hand touch on Thursday nights.
That, too, was a struggle at first.
“He was horrible at basketball and he wasn’t very good at football,” Morris said. “But you could see that he was very athletic. He was raw.”
Morris also coached a Pop Warner travel team of 13- and 14-year-olds and persuaded Diabate to give it a try.
“I convinced him to come out, but he wasn’t very good, so he got cut,” Morris said. “He didn’t know the nuances. He really didn’t get football. He was a soccer kid from Africa. That’s all he did was play soccer.”
The following year Morris got Diabate to try again, and at the end of the year he was MVP of the all-star game.
“He played defensive end and had four sacks,” Morris said.
Diabate then attended Herbert H. Lehman High School, Marrone’s alma mater, and was team captain his senior year. After graduation, he sent letters to different schools, including Syracuse.
“My message to coach Marrone was that this is a character kid,” Morris said. “This is a kid that every coach would love to have on their team. He’ll never do anything to embarrass you. He’s a good person, he’s got a good heart, he works hard. He’s the kind of kid that, even if he didn’t start or didn’t play, having a kid like that on your squad would be a plus.”
Morris said the only response Diabate received from Syracuse was that it was too late in the process. So Diabate enrolled at Nassau Community College on Long Island. He was a football walk-on but was co-defensive player of the year in 2010 in the Northeast Football Conference. He accepted an offer from Syracuse, enrolling in January 2011.
“I just kept working on it every single day, going out there and getting better,” said Diabate, who chose the Orange over offers from Akron, Eastern Kentucky, Rhode Island, Maine and Central Connecticut. “I gave it all I got.”
Diabate started two games at outside linebacker in 2011, was moved to the middle this season and was named a captain. He finished the regular season tied for second on the team with 67 tackles.
“The thing that jumped out at me from the very first moment was he’s very, very coachable,” Orange linebackers coach Steve Morrison said. “He’s a guy that wants to please. He wants to do well. He studies. It’s so important to him, and he’s got very good ability. When you couple those things together and the importance of football and how much he’s placed on it, he’s been able to do a lot of great things.
“Maybe more important, though, he’s a great leader,” Morrison added. “He’s a guy that really gets along with everybody, a guy that really can rally the kids. He’s a different kid — in a good way. Obviously, his background is a pretty special thing where he’s come to. He’s a unique guy.”
Especially to his teammates.
“Sometimes you don’t understand everything he says, but you try to make the best of it any way you can,” defensive tackle Jay Bromley said. “It’s amazing to speak as good as he does and to be really in tune with society and our coaches. It’s just amazing. He’s a great leader. That’s one thing. We follow his lead.”
Keita and Diabate met in a dorm last year and asked each other about classes. Diabate attended a few basketball games to watch Keita in action. Diabate said they “started clicking from there.”
“I’m making the best out of the opportunity,” said Diabate, an economics major. “I’m thankful I was able to get a scholarship.”
None of this surprises Syracuse’s Daryl Gross, one of the few black athletic directors in Division I that don’t work at historically black schools.
“I think it’s terrific,” said Gross, who was an assistant athletic director at Southern California before coming to Syracuse eight years ago. “At USC what we found was that African athletes were some of the best athletes, and they had a tremendous work ethic. They really appreciate the country, the opportunities and take full advantage. And they’ve always been incredible role models.”
On Saturday, Diabate will suit up for the final time at Syracuse when he trots into Yankee Stadium to play in the Pinstripe Bowl. Hours later, Keita will be ready to spark the Orange when they play Alcorn State in the Carrier Dome.
Someday, both hope to return to Africa to help youngsters in their countries. Diabate wants to build schools in the Ivory Coast. More immediately, he has his eyes on the NFL. After the season, he’ll be showing off his 4.57-second speed in the 40-yard dash to teams in the spring.
“It’s crazy,” Diabate said. “We’re blessed.”