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Former Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu using his platform to give back to Sierra Leone

The former Bengals wide receiver and his mother have partnered with Develop Africa to build a new community center in Sierra Leone.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There have been a lot of wide receivers that have worn orange and black stripes over the years. Some of their names will live on, like Chad Johnson, A.J. Green, and, hopefully, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Others will fade as time passes.

One name that is sure to live on is Mohamed Sanu, who played for the Bengals from 2012 through the 2015 season. He didn’t put up the biggest numbers, but he played an important role in rebuilding the team’s culture through the early 2010s and helped the Bengals reach the playoffs all four years he was on the team.

A renaissance man out of Rutgers University, where he began his career as a safety before switching to wide receiver, Sanu was selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Bengals. He actually received a prank call during the second round, informing him that he would be selected by a team, but fell to the third where he received a real call, this time from former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.

Sanu left the Bengals in free agency after the 2015 season and went on to play the next few years for the Atlanta Falcons, helping them reach Super Bowl LI. He also played for the Patriots, Lions, 49ers, and Dolphins.

It’s the work he’s doing now, though, that is most important to him.

Sanu, along with his mother, Aminata Koroma, a native of Sierra Leone, have partnered with Develop Africa, a non-profit aimed at empowering the people of Africa by “breaking the cycle of poverty.” They’re doing this by building a three-story community center in the capital of the country, Freetown.

“There are a lot of talented people that are intelligent people as well that live in Sierra Leone,” Sanu said over the phone on Wednesday. “They don’t have the means to study or have access to the internet or even a computer. Building this computer lab and community center will be big for the area and the town. It’s just going to help those youths tremendously.”

The first floor will be individual workspaces where people can run their businesses. The second floor will be a banquet hall for big events like graduations, weddings, and educational and leadership events. The third, and possibly most important floor, is a state-of-the-art computer lab to provide training for children and adults.

According to Develop Africa’s Go Fund Me page for the project, one-third of the educated workforce in the country is unqualified. That coupled with a shortage of textbooks, the literacy rate among those aged 15 to 24 fell below 60%. For those older than 24 years old, it’s actually lower. Many of the issues stem from a devastating civil war that raged from 1991 to 2002, and the West African nation is still struggling to rebuild from the destruction it caused.

Sanu was born in New Jersey but lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone as a young child, and has spent time there as an adult. Despite the obvious difference between the two countries, Sanu says the people in Sierra Leone are similar to those living in the United States.

“All humans are the same,” he said. “We just speak different languages, and we think some different things, but we all care for the people we love. We want to protect them and provide for them.”

The goal of the community center will be to help the underprivileged people of Sierra Leone educate themselves and pull themselves out of poverty with the help of tools they haven’t had access to.

He said the country is in need of educated professionals, which hasn’t always been possible in the past due to the lack of an educational infrastructure.

“They need educated people to help their own,” he said. “Doctors and lawyers. They need those higher-learning tools to get the education you need to be a doctor or a lawyer. Those are needed there.”

Sanu credits his mother with his drive to help others. He said she had the ambition and willpower to get him and his siblings to America, where she worked two jobs to provide for her children.

“This is something I wanted to do with my mom to help her,” he said. “I know she’s been working her tail off. She’s always been one to give back and this is something she felt like would be one of the most impactful ways to give back....... She’s a big part of the reason why I’m successful in my career as a football player. She defied a lot of odds and changed our lives. She found a way to come to America and get her green card and get citizenship and having us here to give us the ability to chase dreams we wouldn’t be able to have in Sierra Leone.”

Sanu and I were also able to talk about football and the Bengals specifically. When I asked him about what the major difference he sees between the Bengals team he played on versus the team he watches now, he said it all comes down to being under control.

“I would definitely consider myself a Bengals fan,” he said. “I always pull for the teams I played on, and I have a special place for Cincinnati in my heart. The Bengals took a chance on me in the draft, and I’ll be grateful for that forever.”

“The team plays with more controlled swagger than what we played with. I feel like we played with a lot of swagger, but sometimes we couldn’t control it. We had a lot of different personalities on the team and I love each and every one of those guys and that’s what made them great, but today it’s like these younger kids, they gel differently than we did. Joe Burrow is a great leader, and they got a great skill group on offense and defense. It’s like they have a great synergy there.”

He may be referring to the home playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers when he said his team couldn’t always control their swagger. Late personal foul penalties from Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict infamously led to a meltdown that handed the team their fourth-straight Wild Card weekend loss.

When asked where he enjoyed playing more between the Bengals and Atlanta Falcons, the two teams he spent the majority of his career on, he said the Falcons. Sanu clarified this was just because much of his time with the Bengals was learning to play in the NFL and how to fine-tune himself as a professional wide receiver. He was able to loosen up, have more fun with the Falcons and “play how he wanted to play.”

Sanu, now a father of two, caught his last pass in the NFL while playing for the 49ers in 2021. He finished his career with 435 receptions for 4,871 yards, 27 receiving touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, and four touchdowns as a passer.

While playing for the Bengals, he had 1,793 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, and actually threw his first touchdown pass, a 73-yard bomb to fellow wide receiver A.J. Green, before he ever caught a single pass from quarterback Andy Dalton. He has a career passer rating of 158.3, having completed seven of eight passes and tossed for four touchdowns. His passer rating is a franchise high.

Sanu will be remembered for what he did for the Bengals in the early 2010s, as the team tried to shed their image as an afterthought franchise, something they have successfully accomplished today. But Sanu hopes his philanthropic efforts out of uniform are what stad the test of time. Helping the people of Sierra Leone through the construction of the new community center is truly a legacy beyond football.

You can donate to the project here, and Sanu stated donators' names will be etched in brick on the outside of the building in Freetown.

You can find more information in the video below.

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