Seventh of an 11-part series ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft. Coming tomorrow: linebackers.
Based on his unique background and the powerful values derived from it — not to mention his God-given athleticism and skill sets — it’s difficult to imagine Kwity Paye as anything but a NFL star for the next decade.
The 22-year-old edge rusher out of Michigan is expected to be the first at his position off the board when the April 29 draft begins with the first round, and he appears to be touched with something special.
Let’s start at the beginning.
If not for the remarkable foresight — along with desperation and survival skills — of his mother, Agnes Paye, this NFL dream of the younger of her two sons never makes it to the big draft stage in Cleveland.
Amid civil war in West Africa, Agnes Paye first fled from Liberia to Sierra Leone, where she gave birth to Kwity’s older brother, Komotay Koffie (now a defensive back at New Mexico State). When the unrest reached Sierra Leone, she fled to Guinea, where she gave birth to Kwity — whom she named after her father, who was killed in the civil war — in November 1998.
Eventually, when it became unsafe in Guinea, Agnes Paye brought her boys to the United States, specifically Rhode Island, where they arrived in 1999 before Kwity was a year old.
Kwity, who’s never has met his father (who remains in Liberia), said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my mother and her sacrifice. I owe it all to her.”
Now, one of the most powerful motivations churning inside of him is to pay back his mother, take care of her the way she did him — not only by saving his life by taking him to America, but by working multiple jobs to make ends meet one they got to the States.
“Since I was young, I saw how hard she worked and how much she struggled to get us through,” Kwity said.
In a recent video call with reporters, Paye showed a wallet he’s had since he was in sixth grade and took out two pieces of paper with phrases he’d jotted down back then.
One of the notes reads: “Nothing worth having comes easy … Nothing will get in the way of me achieving my dreams … Work hard to take care of my family … God gives his toughest battles to its strongest soldiers … Remember when you wanted what you currently have.”
He said he keeps those notes in his wallet because “it keeps me grounded.”
“It keeps me humble,’’ he said. “It reminds me of where I came from. I don’t want to forget who I am and where I come from. Those keep me true to who I am. I am a really hard worker. I know at times when guys go into the [NFL] and have all this different stuff around them and they get caught up in outside noise. I’m a guy that just focuses on football. That’s what I do for a living. I’m not going to let anything distract me from my goals and aspirations.”
This is Paye’s strength as he embarks on his NFL career. His work ethic, focus, determination and character are unquestioned. What he must overcome at the next level is how raw he is as a football talent.
Paye’s production at Michigan — 11.5 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss and one forced fumble in what amounted to just more than 1,300 defensive snaps and 20 starts — don’t scream first-round pick. But his character, work ethic and potential push him over the top.
“Paye is raw, but there could be a huge payoff when he puts it all together,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He has the ideal frame and explosiveness for an NFL edge rusher. He’s at his best playing on the outside, but Michigan had him moving all around their front, including playing head-up over the center. As a pass rusher, he is explosive out of his stance, but it looks different because of his short/choppy steps.
“I’d like to see him cover more ground, but that is easily correctable. He has violent hands to create a knock-back, but he still needs to develop a better plan to consistently escape and finish. I love his effort and determination.’’
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. called Paye “a gifted athlete’’ with “potential and traits” to be great.
Paye burns to realize that potential.
“At times when I start thinking about it, my heart starts to beat faster,” Paye told the Detroit News recently. “When I was in middle school, I always dreamt I get the chance to go play in the NFL even though those chances were very small. Coming from Rhode Island, you don’t see anybody get drafted first round or playing college football at a high level.’’
Nor do you see anyone from Guinea do that, either.
“For me, it was all a dream up until I’m here now looking back,’’ he said. “It’s wild.”