Two weeks in Guinea and two more in Mali led Badara Traore to a fuller view of his family.
And his place in the world.
"It wasn't what people think Africa is," the LSU offensive tackle said. His parents' native countries weren't just desert and jungle. Traore had learned that quickly during his month-long stay with relatives in the summer before seventh grade.
No, his parents had both grown up in capital cities: His father, Bakary Traore, was born in Bamako, a rapidly growing city in southwest Mali with more than 2 million people; and his mother, Rouguiatou Kaba, grew up in Conakry, Guinea, a coastal city with beaches lapped by the Atlantic Ocean.
"Go back and see where you're from," the parents told Badara and his younger brother, Mohammed. "Look at life a different way."
Dave Aranda said he noticed plenty improvement in LSU's offense during spring football, especially with returning starting quarterback Joe Burrow.
So the brothers left their home in south Boston for West Africa, where Badara and Mohammed saw the traffic-flooded streets and the humble homes of families fighting to make it day by day.
"I saw a lot of kids that didn't have enough or don't have anything," said Traore, 22. "I can't take life for granted. A lot of people are struggling over there."
Perhaps that's the perspective Bakary and Rouguiatou wanted for their son: something that would drive him beyond the all-too-visible crime and drug life that surrounded him in the Boston suburb of Hyde Park, where the parents moved to start a family after meeting as immigrants in the early 1990s.
Now, Traore is on his way to becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college, which he said was his parents' goal for him when they moved from Africa to pursue "the American Dream."
Football has paved the way toward higher education for the 6-foot-7, 323-pound senior. That path has twisted through a distant high school, two junior colleges and farther south in the United States than the New England native ever thought he'd go.
LSU landed its second defensive tackle commitment of the week, this time from the heart of Alabama.
In yet another unfamiliar place, Traore is again finding his place in the world, racking up class credits and fighting to regain the starting spot at right tackle — a position he lost after struggling in two starts in 2018.
He knows he's "a big part" of his parents' American dream, and they've been tracking his progress from more than 1,500 miles away.
"Football was never a focus for me," said Traore's father, Bakary, "but I have always wanted him to reach his goal, which has always been to play in the NFL. It's been very hard for me to have my son so far away from home, but I know that it will be worth it in the end."
The rest of the incoming recruiting class for LSU football arrived on campus last week, and on Monday, the school released the jersey numbers …
The morning train to Cambridge
The darkness of the underground train tunnel helped Traore catch up on lost sleep during his two-hour commutes to high school.
The 4 a.m. alarm blared every morning. Traore slogged down to the transit station to catch the first of two trains and two buses to Matignon High, about 12 miles north in Cambridge.
Joseph DiSarcina, Matignon's principal, said the private Catholic school has built an outreach connection with kids living in Boston's inner city, and it's common for as many as 20 students each year to take commutes like Traore did. Along with financial aid for tuition, the school also helps pay for portions of student travel.
That provided an opportunity for the Traores to free their son from the public schools near Hyde Park, where they said "bad influences such as drugs and violence" were common.
"I wanted Badara to go to Matignon so he could have a better opportunity to be something and make something out of himself," Bakary said. "Where we are from, kids seem to fall into the same trap because that is the only way of life that they know, and I wanted something better for him and I knew he was capable of better."
LSU walk-on quarterback Andre Sale has entered the NCAA transfer portal, the junior confirmed with The Advocate on Tuesday.
The hardest part of high school, Traore said, was waking up — especially once he joined Matignon's football and basketball teams. Practice ended after 6 p.m., and he'd go back through the two-hour commute, sometimes arriving back home well after nightfall.
"I think the biggest challenge (for such students) is time management," said DiSarcina, who is also Matignon's girls basketball coach. "They can't waste time. Whatever time they have available for academics, they have to use that time wisely."
Sometimes Traore didn't use his time wisely, he said. He got into a routine of just waking up, playing sports and thinking he was going to get by.
"It caught up to me," Traore said, and instead of qualifying academically for scholarship offers from big-time Division I schools, he enrolled at ASA College in Brooklyn, New York.
There, Traore played for Joe Osovet, one of the highest regarded junior-college head coaches at the time, who helped craft Traore into a highly sought-after offensive lineman.
"I don't think I would take (that experience) back," Traore said. "I think junior college made me who I am."
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'I still have a lot to prove'
There was usually no one but parents sitting in the bleachers at Lincoln High, where the ASA College Avengers played their home football games.
But it was at that high school stadium, three blocks from Coney Island, where Traore first learned the run-pass option offense he'd later connect with again at LSU.
ASA College averaged 41.9 points per game in 2017, going 9-1 with a Valley of the Sun Bowl victory under Osovet, who is now a quality control assistant at Tennessee.
Osovet was unavailable for interviews; it's Tennessee's policy that assistant coaches aren't available to media.
Traore soared in recruiting rankings — rising to the nation's No. 2 JC offensive tackle according to 247Sports — and when he transferred to LSU for the 2018 season, LSU coach Ed Orgeron believed Traore would offer much-needed depth to a young offensive line.
HOUSTON, Texas — Tommie Robinson mingled among the Texans. A handshake here. A group photo there.
Indeed, when starting right tackle Adrian Magee was injured in Week 1 against Miami, Traore stepped in — but after LSU surrendered two sacks and multiple quarterback pressures to Southeastern in Week 2, Traore was benched for sophomore Austin Deculus, who started for the rest of the season.
Traore started once more in a Week 4 game against Louisiana Tech, filling in at left tackle for an unavailable Saahdiq Charles. After that, Traore was withheld from LSU's more meaningful games, not playing any snaps in a five-game stretch that included games against Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
"The changes from JUCO to the SEC was basically like the NFL," Traore said. "It was tough. I came from playing every game in junior college. It was a big learning experience, so I had to sit back and take it in and see what was really going to happen."
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Going into his final season, Traore said he's "gotten a lot better," refining his technique with offensive line coach James Cregg and improving his flexibility and strength with head strength coach Tommy Moffitt.
By the fourth week of spring practice, Orgeron called Traore "one of the most improved players on the team." Part of the improvement, Traore said, has to do with the fact he was ahead of the curve when it came to the RPO scheme that new passing game coordinator Joe Brady is implementing.
"I knew what was going on," Traore said. "It was also a little different, because as far as pass protection (at LSU), it was a lot different than what we ran at ASA. But as far as the run game, everything was the same."
Traore and Deculus entered the spring game in a position battle, although Deculus received most of the first-team snaps. Toward the end of the third quarter in the scrimmage, Traore went down with an apparent leg injury, which Orgeron said "didn't look good on the field" at the time.
Perched on top of a weight rack, the automatic camera whirred downward, aiming directly at a man steadily pushing out bench-press repetitions.
Traore is expected to compete to start at right tackle in the fall, and he remains one of the foundational pieces of an offensive line that is seeking vast improvements. Last season, LSU was tied for 106th nationally with 35 sacks allowed and ranked 110th with 89 tackles for loss allowed — both program worsts since at least 2009.
If Traore can turn into the tackle he was expected to become, he could be one of the solutions for LSU's protection issues.
"I still have a lot to prove to people," Traore said.
They're all watching: LSU; his parents back in Hyde Park; the staff and students back at Matignon.
"He's a tremendous role model for us," DiSarcina said. "It just illustrates that it's not how you started, it's how you finished. If you have the drive and the consciousness to do your best, it can happen."
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