Kennedy's Johnson Mator escapes with family from Liberia, finds success in football

Too young to remember the civil war, his parents share stories of frightful times

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Child soldiers.

That’s the thing that is so striking when you talk to Johnson Mator about his native country.

The Cedar Rapids Kennedy senior linebacker was born in the West African nation of Liberia. He was 2 years old when his parents, James and Edna, brought him and his older brother and sisters to America.

They wanted to escape a brutal civil war and the dictatorship of Charles Taylor. The now-deposed Liberian president was convicted by an international tribunal in 2012 to 50 years in a British prison for 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for aiding and abetting forces in a bloody civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Some of those guerilla forces consisted of child soldiers. Boys and girls younger than Mator is now fought in Sierra Leone and in the early 2000s when Taylor began losing control of Liberia.

“My brother and sisters don’t like to talk about it too much, but my parents tell me stories all the time,” Mator said. “I’m too young to remember that stuff.”

James Mator has told his son about the time he was standing outside near a residence and saw planes fly above. James Mator ran as quickly as he could to a nearby shed for cover, as the area was bombed.

“My dad told me they were kind of after him. He said some stuff that the government didn’t like,” Johnson said. “He didn’t believe in what the government was saying, so he would say things to the child soldiers about how they needed to stop. They didn’t like what he was telling them. It wasn’t a good time.”

In the United States, the Mators lived in York, Pa., until moving to Cedar Rapids when Johnson was 5. He found football in seventh grade, the first time his mother and father allowed him to play.

They thought it was too dangerous.

“I went to boarding school in seventh grade and needed a sport to play, so I just decided to play football,” he said. “My parents decided to finally let me do it, and I’ve liked it from then on.”

He spent his eighth-grade year at McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids and his freshman and sophomore years back in York. The family came back to Cedar Rapids, and Johnson was the leading tackler last season on a Kennedy team that advanced to the Class 4A state championship game.

This season, it has been much of the same. Mator has 18 more tackles than the next-best Cougar.

Kennedy (4-2) hosts Iowa City West (4-2) in a huge game Friday night at Kingston Stadium.

“We have to just stop their offense, stop Oliver Martin, of course,” Mator said, referring to the highly touted West wide receiver. “That’s our main concern: Oliver Martin and Devontae Lane. Martin catches the ball well, is a good route runner, is fast.”

Kennedy’s first game this season was against Muscatine, and the Cougars lost in large part because of the outstanding play of one Muskies player. Running back Alphonso Soko almost single-handedly did in Kennedy.

He and his family also are from Liberia and emigrated to the United States for a better life. What a small world.

“I feel fortunate, really fortunate that my parents were able to get me out of there,” Mator said. “I’ve heard it’s a lot better now. My mom has been there. I want to go there some day, too. I think that’d be great.”

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