Little-known Amos Zereoue just might be the most dazzling runner, A to Z, in college football. Zereoue, a 5'10", 200-pound sophomore tailback, is the nation's fourth-leading rusher, averaging 162 yards per game, and has scored eight touchdowns while leading West Virginia to a 3-1 record, including last Saturday's 28-17 victory at Miami. His darting style of running has even earned him favorable comparisons with Detroit Lions star Barry Sanders.
Zereoue (rhymes with tear away) has been thrilling Mountaineers fans since the first play from scrimmage of his first college game, against Pittsburgh last year. He took the opening handoff and raced 69 yards for a touchdown. He went on to gain 1,035 yards in 1996, despite battling turf toe for nearly half the season, and was named Big East rookie of the year.
This season Famous Amos has been an even tougher cookie. He rushed for 174 yards plus three touchdowns in West Virginia's season-opening 42-31 win over Marshall and then eclipsed that a week later with 199 yards and two scores in a 24-17 defeat of East Carolina. He was held to 52 yards in a loss to Boston College, but against Miami he rushed for 206 yards, including touchdown runs of 54 and 31 yards.
Zereoue's ability to change direction extends far beyond the football field. Born in Ivory Coast, he came to the U.S. at age seven with his father, Bonde, and younger sister, Regina. (His mother, Theresa, a high school teacher who had never married Bonde, remained in Ivory Coast.) His dad was a commercial photographer who settled with his kids in the New York City suburb of Hempstead, Long Island.
By the time Amos reached junior high, however, he was running with a bad crowd. He cut classes, stayed out late and got into fights until Bonde sent him to live at Hope for Youth, a home for troubled boys, 15 minutes away in North Bellmore. "I had to do something to save him," Bonde says. "He hated me for it, but I told him, 'I'm doing it for your own good.' "
At Hope for Youth, Amos straightened out in a hurry. "The things I did in Hempstead, I really wasn't that kind of person," he says. "That's why the transition [to Mepham High] was so smooth." At Mepham High, located in a middle-class neighborhood in North Bellmore, Zereoue quickly found his way to the football field. Although he primarily had played soccer as a child, he became an instant star on the gridiron, eventually becoming one of the most celebrated Long Island schoolboy football players since Jim Brown. He surpassed Brown's high school career records for rushing yards (5,360) and touchdowns (59), while earning the nickname Long Island Express.
Schools like Ohio State and Penn State recruited Zereoue, but they backed off when his first SAT scores didn't meet the NCAA standards for a scholarship. West Virginia stayed interested, and when his scores improved, the Mountaineers signed him. Even before that, Zereoue had come to understand why his father had shipped him to Hope for Youth. In fact, when Amos turned 16, he had agreed to stay at the home rather than move back in with Bonde, who had fathered two more children. "I wanted to see it through," Amos says. "I knew my father was right."
Mountaineers fans are reaping the benefits.