By Jeff Greenberg
Think back to where you were on Monday, September 10th of this year. Odds are you, like many others across the United States, were paying attention to the weather reports coming in from every station on your television. Dramatic warnings and predictions of catastrophic damage dominated every one of those reports. Destruction rarely seen in history was headed towards the coasts of North and South Carolina in the form of Hurricane Florence.
Hurricane Florence had grown into a massive and powerful storm and it wasn’t a matter of if it would cause destruction, but more about how much destruction it would bring. We heard some of the most dire warnings some of us have heard in our lifetimes. The clock was ticking and the only thing the people in its path could do was get out of its path and leave their homes. Miles and miles of highways had cars going in one direction…away from the coast.
Imagine if you were one of those people fleeing your home. Imagine if a few days later, it was you or your family that ended being right in the middle of that storm. How scary would that be? How devastating would it be to see the destruction left behind by the storm? Your family is stripped down to its core and struggling to just find the basic necessities to live. Food, water and power. What would be going through your mind as you tried to hold yourself and your family together through this tragedy?
Now, imagine your family was going through this, but you weren’t there to help. You couldn’t be there to comfort them. You couldn’t be there to give your mom a hug and tell her everything would be alright. You just felt helpless. If you can imagine that pain, then you might be able to imagine what Ronheem Bingham has gone through over the last couple of months.
Ronheem is a senior defensive end for the Arkansas State Red Wolves in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He grew up in Bennettsville, South Carolina, where most of his family still lives now. He, like many others watched every day and night as the weather reports were coming in on his phone and on his television. He was in constant contact with his family. When the storm took a turn more towards South Carolina, he knew his family would be in harm’s way. He didn’t know what to do. Would he drop everything and leave Jonesboro to go help his family? Or would he stay with his team and try to focus on the season at hand?
Before focusing on the week of the hurricane and where he is today, it’s important to know where Ronheem came from, the role his family plays in his life and how he got to where he is today. Ronheem is the youngest of ten kids. He grew up in a tight-knit family, one that stayed together through the ups and the downs that life may throw your way.
“My family is everything to me. We’re close and always doing things together. Laughing together, playing together. My mom is always cooking up big dinners so that we can just come together and be together. When I do get to go home I feel like she’s feeding me like she’s never going to see me again. I love my family.”
One thing that the family would always rally around was supporting Ronheem’s football career and his dream to play in college. “My mom has always encouraged me from day one. My whole life she and my family just kept motivating me to stay focused and go out and achieve my dreams. When I would get homesick they would just pick me up and tell me everything is going to work out. Everybody back home was pulling for me and praying for me. I have six sisters and three brothers. They wanted to see me succeed and would do anything to help me do that.”
Nothing was given to Ronheem, and he had to take an unconventional path to where he is today. He came to Arkansas State after spending two years playing JuCo ball at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, where he was All-Conference in his last season there. Ronheem was a 2-star recruit out of Marlboro High School before choosing to enroll at Hutchinson, a respected junior college program.
Just deciding to go to Hutchinson was a big deal to a kid who had never lived anywhere but South Carolina. For a kid, like many others he played football with, that had never been on an airplane before college. Now he was up and moving halfway across the country in pursuit of his dream, and he was leaving his family and their support behind in South Carolina. That can be a daunting endeavor for anybody, let alone an eighteen year old kid.
Ronheem explained, “I had to find a way to reach my dream of playing college football. I wanted to able to be a role model for my nieces, nephews and cousins. I wanted to show them you could go out and achieve great things, even if that meant leaving home. That way for me was going to Kansas to play at Hutchinson. I was grateful for that opportunity. I got to play with guys like Alvin Kamara and just watch everything they did to get better and take that next step. It was hard, but it was what I needed to do.”
While at Hutchinson, Ronheem quickly made a name for himself with his relentless play on the field. Schools from all over the country, including Power-5 schools, came calling to try and get him to come play for them. So how did he end up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, when his original plan was to move back closer to home in South Carolina and play for Coastal Carolina University?
“I knew I wanted to be a Red Wolf after my official visit there. It was just the energy in the program and the fact it just felt like family when you were there. I felt like everybody there cared about you, but not just as a player. They want you to get your degree and be successful and have a life outside of football. And then I loved Coach Early and the way he coached his guys and made them better players in the end.”
Coach Early would be Brian Early, the Red Wolves’ defensive line coach. Coach Early has recruited Kansas and the strong JuCo programs in that region for years. He had great success with players he brought to Arkansas State from Hutchinson in the past, and he went there looking for the next success story. It didn’t take long to know who that next guy would be.
“When I went there I knew Ro was somebody I had to keep on the radar because you could just see it in his effort, skill and what the coaches there said about him. He’s a hybrid type player because of his size, so I think some teams didn’t know where to put him. I knew you couldn’t put him in a box because he’s so versatile. He had committed to Coastal Carolina, but we were able to flip him and the rest is history. He’s been fantastic for us here.”
Considering he grew up in a close family, it’s no surprise that “family” is what drew him to Arkansas State. According to Coach Early, that family atmosphere is one of the foundational aspects of everything they do in the Red Wolves’ program.
“It all starts at the top with Coach Anderson. Since the day we got here family has been a top priority for us. But it’s just about our own families. It’s about everybody involved in our program being part of one big family here inside these walls. It’s the basis for everything we do as a team.”
Once they got Ronheem onto campus and integrated into the program, Coach Early knew they had found a star that could lead the defense. He explained, “Ro is special because of how he influences those around him. We found ourselves in a situation coming into this season where we didn’t really have a leader in our room due to losing guys that had just left through graduation. So this was an opportunity for somebody to step up and be the guy. And Ro seized on that opportunity. But it’s not just talking the talk. Ro walks the walk. When your best player is also the guy that works the hardest in practice and in the meeting rooms, it just elevates everybody around you.”
Fast forward to this season, which is Ronheem’s senior season. Coming into the season there were high expectations, not just for his team, but for Ronheem and what he is capable of doing on the field. This season was a chance to prove himself and take that next step towards reaching his dream of having a chance to play at the next level. As expected, Ronheem had jumped out to a great start to his senior campaign. Everything was going well for him. Then Hurricane Florence hit South Carolina, and his family.
“I was watching like everybody else. I was really worried. I felt like I needed to get home and help out in any way possible. I didn’t know what to do to be honest.”
Ronheem was deeply conflicted and not exactly sure what to do. A big part of him wanted to get right back to South Carolina and do whatever he could to help his family recover. However, that’s not what his mother’s wishes were for him. She had to talk him out of leaving Jonesboro.
“My mom is praying woman. She wouldn’t have let me go home if I tried. She made sure to tell me that everything was going to be alright. They were going to be ok. She wanted me to stay focused on what I was doing. She didn’t want me to stop chasing my dream. She was actually more worried about the team than the storm(laughing).”
Coach Early said he and the coaching staff were concerned for Ronheem and the other players from that area. They could see the pain they were in and they were in limbo in terms of what they should do.
“I called him and pulled him into my office and said, ‘Look, we will help you do whatever it is you think you need to do to be there for your family. If that means getting you back to South Carolina, then we will get you home.’ We were ready to do whatever he needed. But he said he was going to stay here and keep playing because that is what his mom wanted him to do.”
In the end, Ronheem did what his Mom asked him to do. He stayed in Jonesboro. He focused on school and football as his Mom instructed. His family rallied around supporting him and they rallied around each other as they faced the long road back in recovering from the storm.
“Like I said before, my family is close. My mom was stranded with no power. But they were able to get to my mom and then they all stayed together in one place. They didn’t have any power but somehow they managed to cook for each other and be together. I knew they would find a way to find the positive and take care of each other. That’s just what we do.”
When you hear stories like this one, you hope for a happy ending. You don’t always get one, but you hope for one for all involved. Well, last weekend, two months after Ronheem was watching the weather reports as the storm approached his home, the Bingham family got their happy ending.
Arkansas State travelled to Conway, South Carolina to play Coastal Carolina, the school that Ronheem had originally planned on enrolling at after Hutchinson. He was excited to go home and excited to be able to bring all of his teammates to his home state of South Carolina.
“It was so fun man. Some of the guys had never even seen a beach. They didn’t know what to expect. I loved being able to show them where I was from and see them act like little kids on that sand. I understand what it’s like to be far from home in a place that’s new to you. When I moved to Kansas, I had never been to the Midwest before. Everybody was different and sounded different. And I sounded really different to them.”
While sharing the experience of playing in his home state with his friends was exciting; that feeling didn’t to compare to what was waiting for Ronheem Saturday night when he took the field. Prior to the game his mother had let him know that she and a few other family members were planning on coming to the game to see him play. Well, when Ronheem left the locker room, he had quite a surprise waiting for him.
“My Mom had told me a few people were coming. She didn’t tell me that basically everybody I knew in my life would be there. There were around 60 people there to see me play. I just couldn’t believe it. It meant everything to me to see them all there.”
Before the ball kicked off to start the game, I asked Ronheem what was going through his mind after seeing all those family members and friends in the stands to watch him play.
“I can’t describe what I’m feeling right now. I just want to go out and play my best and give them something to be excited about. Give them something to take their minds off of recovering from the storm. I just want to go out here and make them proud.”
It’s safe to say Ronheem did exactly that. He had the quarterback running for his life all night long as helped lead his team to a dominant 44-16 victory. After the game all of his family and friends were waiting to see him and hug him one more time before he left to go back to Jonesboro. The other person they were eager to meet, for the first time in person, was Coach Early. They had not yet met the man who’s been mentoring and coaching their son for the past two years. It was a special and unique moment to witness a mother meet the man who had been looking after her son half way across the country.
Coach Early explained, “I’ll tell you what, it was special man. I talk with my wife all the time about how the best part of this job is how it allows us to get to know so many great kids and have the opportunity to change their lives for the better. I’m a parent myself, so when I finally got to meet Ro’s parents and then hear them thanking me for being there for their son, man that’s what matters most to me. It was great to meet his family and hug his mom. After seeing all of the people that showed up for Ro, you just know he has a special family. Which is no surprise because he’s a special kid.”
Special kid indeed. And that special kid was able to give his family and friends the joy they needed after experiencing the setbacks they had with Hurricane Florence. In the end, Ronheem was able to go home after all and help his family smile once again.