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The Grizzlies' Kenyan connection

Long before Michael Pruitt’s breakout game two weeks ago against Bend, before his first-ever touchdown, and even before teammate and friend Kyle Weinberg convince him to trade futbol for football, Ashland’s destructive defensive end was an orphan in Kenya.

Pruitt has no memory of what his life looked like before he was plucked out of a garbage dump. Nor does he remember what happened shortly thereafter. But his adoptive parents do.

One day, they say, he was sitting on the floor alongside about 30 other babies at a rescue center in Nairobi called New Life Home when a stranger walked up to him. At that moment the toddler — he was 6 months old at the time — who was discovered alone in the slums only months before, inexplicably reached up his hands, as if he was ready to be picked up. The man’s name was Lee Pruitt, and his wife, Anne Marie, noticed the gesture from across the room.

“That’s the one,” she said.

When the Pruitt’s first got to know Michael, he was standoffish and seemed overwhelmed by the controlled chaos of New Life Home.

“He was the kid who had a downward countenance,” Anne Marie said. “They used to call him Mr. President, which was their joke because he always had his eyebrows scrunched and he always looked down. He was just a timid kiddo.”

“We had a great time with him at home and he played with the older kids,” Lee Pruitt said. “He wasn’t just an angry little guy, but he didn’t like a lot of people and a lot of noise.”

But he quickly bonded with the Pruitts, particularly Anne Marie. When he felt insecure or surrounded, he would cling to her body and bury his face in her chest.

The adoption took about two years to complete, but Michael lived with his new family for most of that time. It was the third adoption for the Pruitts and first of three in Kenya, where the family of seven spent the next 14 years together. During part of that time, Lee and Anne Marie worked as New Life Home’s associate directors.

Life in a densely packed city — in Nairobi, 3.1 million people are crammed into 268 square miles, compared to Oregon’s 4 million in 100,000 square miles, — had its pros and cons. The cityscape was decorated with wrought-iron gates, broken glass and barbed wire. But you couldn’t complain about the weather, the Pruitts had access to most modern conveniences and the children, like most of their American-raised counterparts, went to school and played sports.

“While they were born Kenyan, they weren’t raised Kenyan,” Anne Marie Pruitt said. “They’re very American.”

Growing up, Michael Pruitt’s athletic pursuits were limited to the popular choices of the region — basketball, soccer and rugby — and he excelled.

“He has been a coordinated muscle from the beginning,” Lee Pruitt said. “He is such a specimen. He never lifted weights, never did anything like that until we came here to the states. He was always big.”

When the Pruitts decided to move back to the U.S. to be closer to family, the question was where. Both Lee and Anne Marie had roots in the Rogue Valley — Lee is a Crater High School graduate and Anne Marie went to Grants Pass High. Still, they targeted the entire West Coast and would have moved to Seattle had an opportunity presented itself. But one day, as Lee Pruitt was scanning through Craigslist want ads, one caught his eye. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival needed an accounting manager.

Lee Pruitt was hired, and a decade-and-a-half after they left the U.S. from Hillsboro the Pruitts returned to the states permanently, a big change for the family. Forty-three countries were represented in the school the kids attended in Nairobi, Rosslyn Academy, while Ashland, like the rest of Oregon, is predominantly white. But the Pruitts had a good feeling about the town.

“There was such diversity in Ashland,” Lee Pruitt said, “just total diversity — not color. Ashland is pretty open. … and there have never been any questions or issues here for them.”

In fact, the Pruitt’s felt embraced by the Ashland community from the moment they arrived. One of the first things they wanted to do was check out Ashland Middle School, which Michael and his brother Paul, who’s the same age, would be attending. The school was closed for the summer, but student advocate Abdi Guled, who was born and raised in Somalia, met them there for a private tour.

“He was one of the first people they met and that was the best thing that could have happened,” Anne Marie Pruitt said. “He just embraced them.”

“The only place we would have lived in southern Oregon is Ashland,” Anne Marie Pruitt said. “While there’s not a lot of racial diversity, there is a lot of great grace and tolerance in this community. They’re so great about that. … The day we backed up our U-haul the neighbors came over to help us unload and we didn’t even know them.”

At first, Michael Pruitt stuck to his first love, soccer. But that changed after he became fast friends with Weinberg and a few other football players. Weinberg noticed the size of Pruitt’s hands and told him, “You gotta play football.”

Pruitt promised to give it a try. He started hanging out more with Weinberg, Mason Dow, Shashi Penn and a few other future teammates, lifting weights at the YMCA and running routes in Weinberg’s back yard. It was during these pickup sessions that Weinberg taught Pruitt the proper way to catch a football.

Pruitt’s first crack at organized football didn’t come until his freshman year at Ashland High, and he loved it. But it took him a while to adjust to the brutality of the sport. He would pulverize opponents at the line of scrimmage, then back off as the play developed. He wanted to do his job, but not at the risk of demoralizing another player. Watching game film, coaches encouraged Pruitt to play to the whistle, pointing out how those opponents could potentially scramble back to their feet and still make a tackle downfield.

“I’m not saying I’m not a nice guy,” he said, “but I never wanted to hurt anyone or bully anyone because I’ve always been bigger and stronger than most of my friends in Kenya.”

Now, he’s still a nice guy off the field, but he no longer gives those unfortunate enough to line up against him second chances.

One of the best athletes on the team, the 6-foot, 200-pound Pruitt has been one of the Grizzlies’ most valuable defensive players all season and has also showed flashes of explosiveness on offense. During a regular-season game against Marist, he had eight tackles, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. In a playoff game against Bend two weeks ago, he had three catches for 96 yards.

Those performances speak to Pruitt’s natural gifts, as well as his dedication to the weight room. According to Ashland head coach Charlie Hall, Pruitt can bench press more than 300 pounds, run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds and has a 35-inch vertical leap.

Now, he’s hoping to continue what has turned out to be a special senior season by beating Wilsonville in the Class 5A state semifinals Saturday in Grants Pass, and hopefully turn the heads of some college scouts in the process. Pruitt hasn’t received any scholarship offers yet, but he desperately wants to play football at the next level and believes he can be a difference-maker wherever he goes.

“I really, really want to play college football,” he said. “I love the game a lot and would have a very hard time believing that it’s over after high school. But I know that I can do something about it.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.