GRAND FORKS — UND senior running back Teddy Sherva wasn’t supposed to be in America.
Born in a Ghana refugee camp in 1998, Teddy was living in Liberia in 2005 when his grandmother applied for her son — not her grandson — to flee civil war in Africa to join her in the United States.
At the embassy in Liberia, Teddy’s father begged to bring his 7-year-old son with him.
“She didn’t have enough money to send for me,” Teddy said. “By the grace of God, my dad said he had a son and somehow I was able to come. I was not supposed to be here. I got lucky.”
That’s only the beginning of trying times for Teddy, who’s met adversity at every turn.
His story, however, is about resilience and hope, and how one young man overcame a mountain of challenges to become a respected leader of a Division I football program.
Born Teddy Dweh to Patricia and Tarley Dweh, Teddy is an only child, and when he and his dad fled Liberia, his mother stayed behind. He hasn’t seen her since.
“I think about her every day,” Teddy said. “Everything I do is for her. My goal is to bring her to America once I’m done with school. Africa isn’t the place you want your mom to be. She lives by herself. It’s sad because she’s struggling to this day.”
Teddy talks to his mom about once a month through the international messaging app WhatsApp, although it’s difficult to sync schedules. She lives in Monrovia, the capital city and most populous of Liberia.
Liberia has had two major civil wars since 1989, the first of which is said to have killed about 250,000 people.
“It’s not a stable government,” Teddy said. “It’s really sad because Liberia is never going to get better because everyone is thinking about themself.”
After flying with his dad to Minnesota in February of 2005, Teddy didn’t know what he was getting into.
“Imagine, I was in shorts and a T-shirt,” Teddy said. “I had pizza for the first time and didn’t like it.”
Once in Minnesota, more challenges awaited. Teddy’s father slipped into alcoholism.
“Since he brought me to America, he hasn’t really been in my life,” Teddy said, “which is sad, but I’m happy he brought me here. If not, I would still be in Liberia struggling.
“I was the male of the house at 8 years old. I had to take care of my grandma and my own father who was drinking every day. It was tough growing up.”
When Teddy was graduating from Anoka High School in 2015, he called his dad who agreed to come to his graduation. He bragged up his father and told his friends his dad was coming.
“I thought it was a big deal; he promised he’d be there,” Teddy said.
Instead, his dad got drunk and didn’t show up.
“He let me down; he let my friends down,” Teddy said. “He had his demons, but I made him seem like a good guy. That really broke my heart. I don’t like talking about him. It brings back emotion and pain.”
The two haven’t spoke in about a year.
“I still love him and respect him; he brought me into this world,” Teddy said. “I want him to be in a sober house. I want him to change his life, but you can’t want something for someone who doesn’t want to be saved.”
Now, Teddy wants to help people like his father. He’s going to school to become a substance abuse counselor.
“I’m trying to make a difference,” he said.
With his mother in Liberia and his father out of his life, Teddy was adopted by a fifth grade teacher.
Bryan Sherva, now 51, was 38 and had three kids of his own. He worked with English Language Learners at Oxbow Creek Elementary School and learned from a coworker Teddy needed a place to live.
“I brought up the prospect of adoption and all three of my kids said yes,” Bryan said. “My oldest son (Bryan Jr.) always had a room to himself and he was ready to put up bunkbeds.
“When Teddy moved in, toward the end of the school year, my daughter had a birthday party and he joined right in and wanted to be part of something bigger. That meant a lot to him.
“He was a calming presence and a great listener. He’s the most humble kid you’ll ever meet. He’s always been a kind-hearted, sweet kid. He’s one of the nicest young men. I’ve heard that for years from anyone who has met him.”
After two weeks with Bryan, Teddy’s grandmother called Bryan to tell him “he’s your son now.”
Bryan kept Teddy’s adoption out of the court system. For health insurance, he and Teddy’s grandmother would go to the bank once a year and sign a document to say he was the acting guardian.
Teddy said Bryan taught him the relationship a father and a son should have.
“He showed me love,” Teddy said. “I never had that love from a male father figure. He was reading to me on the couch. You’re supposed to do that by first and second grade. They had to teach me how to spell things correctly.
“The first time I heard ‘I love you’ from a male father was Bryan. My (birth) father never said that to me to this day. Bryan is my best friend. He took a chance on a kid from Liberia. To this day, I’m so grateful to have him in my life.”
Adjusting to America was tough. He spoke English in Liberia but not the same dialect.
“I had a tutor,” he said. “I was so far behind the learning curve of kids my age. I was always embarrassed. I got made fun of because I needed a para. People didn’t know my background. They called me a dumb football player.”
When Teddy arrived in Brooklyn Park, Minn., he started playing soccer. By seventh grade, he wanted to play football because he thought that would aid his social life.
“One day in middle school, my best friend was talking about football and the attention he was getting from girls,” Teddy said. “I was jealous.”
So Bryan taught Teddy how to catch a football. Teddy started as a defensive end in seventh grade but grew about four inches by the time he was in eighth grade and was moved to running back.
By high school, Teddy ran for 495 yards and two touchdowns in two varsity seasons.
In junior college, at Central Lakes in Brainerd, Minn., he excelled. As a sophomore, he carried the ball 172 times for 1,055 yards and 11 touchdowns. He ran for more than 100 yards five times in 2016.
Soon after, he decided to change his name from Teddy Dweh to Teddy Sherva. He had always signed his school papers Teddy Sherva but he wanted official documents to reflect how he felt and because “my parents did so much for me.”
He called his birth parents and grandmother to get their blessing.
“That was super humbling,” Bryan said. “This little boy, born in some distant country, ends up part of the family. It’s still an overwhelming feeling to know what transpired.”
At the end of his juco days, Teddy came with Central Lakes teammate Tykeise Johnson to a UND Elite Camp. UND was recruiting Johnson, who convinced Teddy to tag along at the last minute. He ran 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, catching the eye of UND special teams coach Shawn Kostich.
Teddy still didn’t have a spot on the team, however. When UND opened fall camp in 2017, Teddy wasn’t on the roster.
Only an injury to a reserve defensive back, mixed with a hamstring injury to running back James Johannesson, allowed Teddy to receive an invite to walk-on to the team.
However, he was buried on the depth chart behind stars John Santiago and Brady Oliveira.
“John and Brady did amazing things, but I wanted to play right away,” Teddy said. “I had to sit back and let them do their thing.
“I went through some depression because I wanted to show the coaches … they took a chance on me. I didn’t want coach Kostich to think he brought me here and I can’t make plays. I put a lot of pressure on myself.”
Fast forward to 2019 and Sherva is still working for more opportunities, but he’s found a niche he can appreciate.
“I’m having a good time,” he said. “Spring ball was huge. It made me fall back in love with football. I showed the coaches I can still be valuable to this team. John and Brady taught me new things every day. I’m thankful to those guys. They’re some of my best friends to this day. I know UND fans don’t know much about me, but I’m looking forward to getting my name out there.”
With two weeks to the 2019 season opener against Drake, Teddy is hopeful to get his shot to prove he can play for the Hawks. Regardless, UND's coaches know his value is beyond Saturday statistics.
“Teddy Sherva has been the leader of the running back room the last two years,” UND running backs coach Malcolm Agnew said. “Teddy has always held that room together. He holds guys accountable by being a smart guy, a great listener and a sounding board. If he wants to, I think he’ll be a really good coach some day.
“I think Teddy is a guy we can trust. He’ll be assignment-sound and decisive with his cuts. He’ll know his assignments well and compete hard.”
Whether Teddy gets an opportunity to play in 2019 or not, his life path remains remarkable.
“He showed up to my house and came with a duffle bag, 1 foot by 6 inches, that had his life possessions,” Bryan said. “Not much clothes and no toys. To where he is today, it’s pretty amazing.”