It is almost impossible for a 6-foot- 4, 300-pound young man to make himself disappear in a hallway filled with chattering, bustling students, but Kinjo Omar ’17 tried his best.
Feeling utterly alone and stunned by culture shock in his first year at Glendale High School in Springfield, Mo., Kinjo avoided eye contact, barely spoke, and pulled away from normal teenage life.
Then Austin Opfer ’16, ’18 found him.
“I was just standing out by myself, I didn’t have any friends and I’d just moved to Springfield,” Kinjo recalled. “He just walked up with one of his friends and was like, ‘Hey, me and some of the guys are going to go get some food, you want to join us?’”
Kinjo tried a few times to say no, then finally admitted he didn’t have any money to go to a restaurant. No problem, Austin told him, I’ll cover you.
“I saw Austin as a blessing,” Kinjo said.
“We all just noticed him because he’s a huge human being,” Austin said. “I tracked him down at school and talked to him; it was intimidating at first because he’s the most quiet kid I’ve ever met. As time went on it became a friendship, then we became best friends.”
Soon Kinjo began spending more and more time at the Opfer house. Scott Opfer ’85, Tracy Opfer ’86, both members of the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame, and children Austin, Lorin, Alix, and Kasey all saw something special in the big, shy newcomer who was struggling to adjust to life in the Midwest after growing up on Saipan, a Pacific island that is part of the Northern Marianas and a U.S. commonwealth.
Kinjo eventually became a part of the Opfer family, after he and his family made the difficult decision that he would stay on the mainland and pursue a college education while his parents and siblings returned to Saipan.
Austin and Kinjo both came to Winona State and joined the Warrior football team, and are in their senior seasons. Austin, a linebacker, is working toward a graduate degree in organizational leadership and Kinjo, a defensive tackle, plans on graduating in spring 2017 with a degree in graphic arts.
He is the first member of his family to attend college. Kinjo and his family, including father James, mother Mary Lou, brothers Mychal and Jeffrey, and sisters Jeffrian and Kimberly, left Saipan for the mainland U.S. when Kinjo was 14. They first went to Seattle for two years, where an extended family member lived; then to Springfield, where Mychal was stationed after joining the army.
Going from life on an island 14 miles long and five miles wide—“you can drive around it in an hour,” Kinjo said—to a major metropolis was not easy.
“People have a different pace and even a different vocabulary,” Kinjo said. “I was in my own world, I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. I was just upset that I couldn’t go back, we didn’t have enough money to go back.”
Kinjo wasn’t feeling any more comfortable in Springfield when Austin approached him that day in the halls of Glendale High. As their friendship developed, and Kinjo got to know the Opfer family, Scott outlined a plan that he hoped would help Kinjo carve a new life for himself.
“His family had come here looking for a better life, for education, for opportunity, and couldn’t stay and had to go back,” Scott said. “One of their goals was to have Kinjo go to college and football would be a way to do that.”
Scott and Tracy met Kinjo’s parents, took time to understand their situation and concerns, and eventually offered to take Kinjo into the Opfer family so he could continue high school in Springfield, play football, and get accepted into college.
“It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened not only to Kinjo but to our entire family,” Scott said. “Kinjo is a gentle, quiet person and he’s a man of great pride. He’s just a really great kid.”
Austin has helped Kinjo navigate the challenges of college academics and athletics since day one. He said he’s seen a change in Kinjo during their time at Winona State. While Kinjo is still not one to seek attention, his quiet strength and laid- back demeanor have earned him respect, and a lot of friends.
“You could pick any house around campus and send him into it and there’s always going to be someone who will say, ‘Kinjo!’” Austin said. “Everybody knows Kinjo and loves Kinjo. The first summer we stayed here for football camp, a lot of the older guys really took to him and were very accepting of him.”
Warriors football coach Tom Sawyer, who played football with Scott and is close to the Opfer family, knew he was getting a “work in progress” with Kinjo.
“You look at him now, getting a college degree, that is amazing,” Sawyer said. “It’s been just as fun for us to watch him grow into a young man and change the lives of the people around him. He got an opportunity and he made the most of it.”
Kinjo said that except for missing his family and enduring the Minnesota winters—“I honestly hate the snow and cold”—life at WSU couldn’t be much better. He’s looking forward to his final season of football with Austin, and starting to think about going out on his own next spring.
“It’s a really big deal,” Kinjo said. “People back home know about it and support me. It does create stress, because you start something and you want to finish it. There were multiple times I thought I would drop out of college but having Scott, Tracy, and Austin and the whole family being my guide and Scott as my mentor, I’ve been trying to do what they think is right and what I think is right.”