From Polish orphan to Alabamas kicker: Adam Griffiths wild ride
CALHOUN, Ga. | Three near-strangers anxiously waited in Warsaw Chopin Airport for a flight and a new life together.
They knew only where the first would land.
Andrzej Debowski, a 13-year-old Polish orphan, was on the way to a new home with parents he met just two months prior. Home had been a combination of four orphanages in Stargard Szczecinski, Poland, a dreary town near the German border in one of the nation's poorest provinces. Debowski and six siblings - four brothers, two sisters - all lived in an orphanage at some point. A generation before, their father did too.
He had a new name, Adam, to symbolize the fresh start. The judges in a stuffy Polish family court, powdered wigs and all, chuckled when the boy said he picked Adam because it was short and easy to spell.
His last name was Griffith because of Tom and Michelle Griffith, two math teachers from Calhoun, Ga., ready for their next chapter. They fell in love with Andrzej through a feature on an adoption agency's website, a last-ditch effort to do the impossible - find a teenage Polish orphan a home. The Griffiths, who had no children, made two trips to Poland spanning a month and ditched their plan to adopt a toddler even when they realized the only pure truth in the ad was Andrzej's innocent face.
"I don't know what it was," Michelle said. "Just looking at him."
All the while, Adam, toting all his possessions in one small carry-on bag, wasn't sure he wanted any of this. He gave up everything familiar, as dire as it was, to improve his future. He didn't speak English, though the ad said he did, and he already felt how tough communication would be. Tom and Michelle didn't speak Polish.
"He may have known 'hello,' that's it," Tom said.
The Griffiths worked to adopt Andrzej for more than a year, but the moment it finally happened was still immense. They never owned passports until this process began. Now they returned responsible for a teenager who would be inevitably lost in his new world.
"You could feel a little bit of anxiety from him, worried about language, worried about food, worried about everything," Tom said. "Being that far away from anything he's ever known, but it kind of hit us the same way. Now it's about to get very different for him.
"We were all a little nervous."
Through a rough childhood, a turbulent transition, a language barrier and the discovery of his unique talent, Adam Griffith's American dream is in full swing. Exactly eight years from the day he left Poland, Alabama's promising sophomore kicker takes the field against Ole Miss on Saturday.
"Coming from Poland and kicking for Alabama? I didn't see this coming," Adam said. "It's pretty crazy."
There is one plan for every teenage orphan in Poland: Turn 18, leave the orphanage, known as a Dom Dzieka, and make it on their own.
By 12, Andrzej was counting the days.
"That's all I was thinking. Turning 18 and being out of there," he said.
No one waits on adoption. From a nation with 450 orphanages and as many as 80,000 orphans, U.S. citizens adopted 41 Polish teenagers from 1999-2013 according to U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs data. None of his four older brothers were adopted.
He didn't know he was on an adoption list most of his life, and he didn't want to be, either.
Andrzej knew the future in his province, West Pomerania, where the average salary is $875 U.S. dollars a month, was non-existent. But it was familiar. He had friends there. He had two brothers who already aged out of the Dom Dzieka. He could latch on with them or do his own thing.
"Over there, you have to grow up a lot faster," Adam said. "It was a lot tougher there, school was tougher. Here, you get all the help you can in high school or college, Over there, you don't get any help. Nobody helps you. Nobody cares about you. You fail, you fail. You pass, you pass, you know? It was different."
Andrzej didn't fear the future. If his first 12 years taught him anything, it was how to survive alone.
Andrzej had already survived without the love of birth parents whose substance abuse forced the Polish courts to take all seven Debowski children away. He could visit them on weekends before another run-in with the court system ended that.
His parents used to visit him on his birthday. A couple years of no-shows made him realize that had ended, too.
He survived without knowing what new clothes or new shoes felt like. He lived most of his life with eight children to a room in an archaic building with a military bunker in the yard.
"You could see World War II written all over it," Tom said.
Andrzej survived on Zupa (soup) and the same breakfast every day - two slices of ham that couldn't pass USDA inspection, a little bread, a smudge of butter.
Sometimes, there would be cereal. "That was a special day," he said.
Could he make it on his own at 18? By 12 Andrzej was trying.
He skipped school every day he could. He'd run away whenever he was in the mood. The game was to see how long he could disappear before the police found him.
"I think the longest I ran away was two days," Adam said matter-of-factly, clearly unaware of the enormity of his plight as he swiveled in a chair at Alabama's football facility and discussed his upbringing. "So I had to go two days without food, I had to steal. The police always brought us back. I would just run around, sleep outside in the street.
"It was all right."
It was a relief for Andrzej when a French family's attempt to adopt him and his brother was thwarted by his brother's arrest. It was the only time in 12 years someone had seriously inquired.
The Griffiths came into the picture a few months later. Tom, Michelle and Andrzej bonded in Poland for three weeks, a requirement for adoption, getting to know each other through one-word sentences and a Prospect X8 electronic translator.
Andrzej liked the Griffiths, but during the court-mandated 30-day waiting period, he still wasn't interested in leaving.
His father, who had just been released from prison, and a volunteer at the orphanage, Beata Pszemek, the closest thing to a mother he ever had, talked him into going.
"(My father and Pszemek) told me I should go because it would be better, I would turn out better," Adam said. "So after that, I decided sure, I guess I'll try it. If I didn't like it, when I turned 18 I could come back. That was an option."
With that, Adam became the only Polish teenager adopted by a U.S. citizen in 2006.
A new world
Adam figured he had America pegged from the movies he used to watch in Poland.
"Rich. That's what I thought about Americans," he said. "Watching the movies, everybody is rich. I'm thinking man, I'm going to be rich, I'm going to have whatever I want."
Gordon County, Ga. - Polish population approximately one - wasn't anything like the movies ,of course, but was more a slice of rural Americana. He grew up on a picturesque 65-acre plot just outside Calhoun with a long, meandering driveway, a barn and a creek out back that flows south toward the Coosa River. Their street, Pine Chapel Road, offered the same ambience as so many of the county's 600 miles of asphalt: Two lanes, no cell phone signal, plenty of cows and a lone grain silo in front of a clean blue horizon.
But before he arrived, the world had already hit Adam. He couldn't communicate. The food in America was odd. He had loving parents, but in some respects, he was still alone.
"When I finally got here, that's when it hit me, it's going to be different," Adam said. "I couldn't talk to anybody. I couldn't speak English, I couldn't understand anybody so it was kind of hard. It felt like I was by myself. After a few weeks, a few months, I kind of learned English a little bit and it was a lot easier."
His adoptive parents' teaching background assured the patience and acumen to get Adam on his feet. Both were former small-college athletes: Michelle played basketball at Berry College, and Tom won a Division I-AA national championship as an offensive lineman at Furman. They had been exposed to people from different backgrounds.
Their, dry, sarcastic sense of humor matched, too, an invaluable refuge for a tumultuous month in Poland navigating the idiosyncratic adoption process.
"I think his Mom and Dad deserve a lot of credit, I really do," former Calhoun High defensive coordinator Ricky Ross said. "I think Michelle and Tom deserve a lot of credit because for him to feel welcome, to be confident, they had great love for him. They deserve a lot of credit."
Tom and Michelle didn't wait long to integrate Adam, enrolling him midway through seventh grade after just a week in the U.S.
The learning was going to have to come from home with no one available at school who spoke Polish. Michelle made sure Adam was honing his English every day.
With help from all the study, movies and an assist from the show "Family Guy," he spoke fluently within a year.
"When I was in Poland, I hated school, I hated studying, I hated homework. When I got here (Michelle) made me read," Adam said. "I hated that, I didn't want to be here anymore, I hated it that much. Then, after a few months, it helped me a lot. I was so thankful that she did that. If she wouldn't have never made me do that, I wouldn't have learned it fast."
Eating was another hurdle. For months, Adam would just eat lettuce - not salad, no dressing, just lettuce on a plate - one thing that tasted the same here as it did in Poland.
He came around eventually - Adam clinged to fast food like Krystal and Wendy's. He ate breakfast at Bojangles daily. Tom still calls Adam a "trend eater" - once Adam finds something he likes, he eats it constantly.
"That's all he would want," Tom said.
So it wasn't exactly Hollywood, but it was a start.
Learning to kick
Adam kicked a soccer ball at the orphanage all the time. He figured a football would be about the same. When his seventh grade physical education teacher talked about football, Adam kept saying how easy it would be.
Turns out it was easy.
"I knew there was a kicker in football, and I knew I could do that," Griffith said. "The teacher said 'OK, we'll see.' He came and got me, I had tennis shoes on. We got a holder and a football."
He drilled the first kick from 35 yards out.
So Griffith played in the first first American football game he ever saw.
He didn't know when to the go in the game. He knew no rules. His Calhoun Middle School coaches shooed him in when it was time to kick, having zero idea what Adam would do if a snap went awry or an attempt was blocked.
It was worth their trouble.
"He had a gift, even at a young age," said Marc Feuerbach, a local kicking coach who met Adam as an eighth grader, his first year in organized football. "He was just so far beyond his age in terms of raw talent. I don't think he realized how good he was or how good he could become because it came so natural to him."
By ninth grade, Adam took over the Calhoun High kicking job from Scott Blair, who was on scholarship at Georgia Tech.
"I had heard that Adam was good and he was talented and all this," Ricky Ross recalled from Griffith's high school tryout. "And I just heard the kick, I didn't see it, and I said he's better than the guy who just left. You could hear the thump. It was absolutely amazing."
As Griffith progressed, Blair would come back home to kick with him. As Blair, a major college kicker, would drive kickoffs to the goal line, Griffith, at 15, was booming them through the end zone.
"That's when I knew he was special," Blair said. "I knew he could go to a big school and play and possibly something beyond."
Griffith's career at Calhoun High was decorated, and he proved his mettle. He kicked in four state championship games, and, as a senior, made the game-winner in overtime of the Georgia AA title game, giving Calhoun its first state crown in 59 years.
When the defense forced a turnover in overtime, Calhoun didn't risk running a play to inch closer. The coaches sent Griffith in to kick a 32-yarder to win.
"I told (Calhoun coach Hal Lamb), you've got the best kicker in the state of Georgia, let's not even run a play," Ross said. "There was really no debate."
New sweet home
The buzz at Alabama's 2010 summer kicking camp sounded like leather on steel.
Griffith, a high school sophomore on no one's recruiting radar, was relegated outside with the rest of the underclassmen. Since Alabama isn't in the business of offering scholarships to kickers not coming to college the next season, the invited rising seniors were in Alabama's 97,000-square-foot indoor practice facility, where UA's coaching staff was evaluating.
Problem was, the best was outside.
The first handful of Griffith's kicks wowed the camp staff, so he was brought indoors. There, Griffith boomed field goals so high and hard they hit the ceiling and support beams.
Kick, clang. Kick, clang.
Adam was shuttled into Alabama coach Nick Saban's office.
"We're sitting on the couch with the rings out there and Coach Saban said, 'I won't keep you here long but I wanted to tell you we're interested in you. You have a heck of a leg, probably about your senior year we're going to be offering somebody,'" Tom said.
Griffith returned to the field to finish the field-goal competition. Saban was out there now, hands on knees, watching every kick. Saban wanted Adam to feel some pressure, he would tell Tom later.
This tactic would have been more effective if Adam had known who Saban was, or perhaps if he knew anything about the history of Alabama football. All Adam knew was what his father told him in a crash course on the ride to Tuscaloosa - Bear Bryant, national titles, Saban.
Griffith continued to pepper the ceiling. When the kicks had enough room, they were deeper than anyone else's.
Soon enough, Griffith was brought back to Saban.
"I've seen all that I need to see," Saban told the kicker. "I'm offering you a full scholarship to Alabama."
Adam didn't accept on the spot, but the ball was rolling. Adam showed up at LSU's camp the next week. Head coach Les Miles offered Griffith a scholarship without seeing him kick once. Adam was rated the No. 2 kicker in the nation the next year and committed to Alabama at its Junior Day camp in 2011. He liked the coaches, the winning and its proximity to home so his new family could come watch.
"When we recruited him he was a sophomore at our camp, he was as good a kicker as we had ever had at our camp in terms of his accuracy and a combination of explosion and the ball getting up quick and all those things," Saban said of Griffith after UA's win over West Virginia to open the season. "It's good to see him have this kind of success, and we're excited about what he can do in the future."
Griffith was introduced to the world in the 2013 Iron Bowl by way of the most notorious miss in Alabama history.
It wasn't realistic for the backup kicker to make a school record 57-yarder in that spot - "It was more a 'what if?,'" Tom said - but Alabama fans weren't brimming with hope that the program's kicking inconsistencies would change in 2014.
The miss didn't bother him.
The A-Day Game in April made the word on Griffith worse. He went 1-for-3 and botched an extra point, numbers that ignited questions about whether a walk-on could take his job come fall. Adam played the spring with bursitis in his right (kicking) hip, an unpublicized injury that required stem cell therapy from Dr. James Andrews and a month of recovery.
Saban heard the talk about his kicker, too, and addressed it head-on in fall camp. Not known for its kicking acumen, Alabama ranked ninth among 14 SEC teams in field goal percentage (72.1 percent) since Saban's arrival.
"As long as he doesn't have the whole world evaluating every kick that he misses and the guy has to read the Internet and, you know, go see the psychiatrist because he gets criticized for every kick that he misses I think he's got a chance," Saban said at the start of practice. "A really good chance."
No psychologist needed. None of it shook Adam's confidence.
"The only thing I worry about is how it's going to impact him. We want him to succeed for him," Michelle said. "But I think Adam deals with it, even with A-Day, he's more worried about getting everything right with the snapper and holder. He looked at it more as 'What do I need to do to get ready for the season?' instead of what everybody was saying."
"From the very beginning, he never let struggles drag him down. I think that's probably the thing Alabama appreciates now," Ross said. "You take the enormity of the situation of what happened against Auburn. I've had 1,000 people ask me before this year started, is that going to change him? Not if it's the Adam I know. He's going to learn from it and move on."
Griffith's unique upbringing helped hard-wire him for the job. He's not familiar enough with the game historically to grasp how a make or a miss can shift a culture. The kid was orphaned in a place where sleeping on the street was considered an upgrade, a background that produces a sliver of perspective on where one kick in one game stands.
"I don't think he fully realizes, because he hasn't grown up with it, how big American football is here and what it means to everybody," Blair said. "I think he's done a great job of not letting it get to him. It's something every kicker wishes they could have."
The loneliness kickers always talk about on the field - all the credit, all the blame - has never bothered Adam. One of the things he liked most about going to college was to have the freedom he used to dream about. He lives alone at UA now.
It all equals a mellow, even-keel approach. Griffith says he feels the nerves the day before a game, but when it's time to kick his mind is clear.
"You've got to think about, you've done this a million times, it's just another kick. Miss, make, whatever," he said.
Teammates and coaches see that his approach working nicely. In the season opener, his first career start, he went 4-for-4 against West Virginia. His first kick was drilled from 47 yards out.
"He's always a positive thinker," said long snapper Cole Mazza, one of Griffith's closest friends. "He misses a kick, it's all about the next kick. He's calm, cool and collected every game. He's not really getting overwhelmed by the crowd or the fans, the noise. He's just worried about his job and he goes out and fulfills his job to the best he can."
In his third year at UA, Griffith has stayed confident, starting a perfect 7-for-7 before missing his only attempt against Florida two weeks ago. The placid demeanor doesn't mean he doesn't care. First thing Sunday morning after the miss, Adam was out practicing.
"I don't think about it like that I suck, I missed a field goal, that was terrible," Griffith said. American pop blared through the earbuds in his pocket.
"You just go and figure out what to do on the next one."
"You know, Griff is really good in terms of being even-keel," Saban said Monday, comparing kicking the repetitiveness needed with a golf swing. "I think he has a pretty good disposition about ... these are my benchmarks, these are the important things. This is what I have to do to execute. When he gets out of that a little bit, he gets right back to trying to correct it and doesn't go haywire."
Exactly eight years since the anxiousness of the Warsaw airport terminal, it looks like Adam has found the American dream. Or maybe the American dream, against the odds, found Andrzej.
He learned English in a year and became one of the nation's most talented kickers in three.
He's dating his high school sweetheart, a Calhoun High homecoming queen who is a cheerleader at the University of Georgia.
Adam will graduate from Alabama early, three years and a summer term, with a degree in criminal justice. With two years of eligibility left, the kid who hated school plans to get his master's degree. He was named to the All-SEC Academic Honor Roll in 2013.
He will play football as long as he can.
"If football doesn't work out, I won't cry about it," he said.
He has not spoken with his original family since he left Stargard eight years ago. One of the most assuring messages he received through the years was from one of his brothers. He told Adam the family was happy for him. Adam carried guilt about being the only one to make it out, so the reassurance took weight off his shoulders.
He hopes to return to Stargard Szczecinski to see his family and friends someday.
"Not to stay, just to visit," he said.
To prepare for a return one day, Adam bought Rosetta Stone to re-learn Polish.
For now, the adventure continues here.
"It's just been a crazy ride. But that's just Adam, that's the way it's always been," Tom said. "To find out he could kick like he did, to being a four-year starter in high school and winning the state championship, then playing at Alabama?
-Reach D.C. Reeves at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org.