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Years after connecting with Kentucky punter in Ethiopia, onetime orphan begins his own college sports career

Josh Shropshire and then-Kentucky punter Landon Foster reunited at a 2015 Wildcats game more than a year after meeting each other and sharing a meal during Foster’s service trip to Ethiopia. University of Kentucky photo

The boy had no clue he would soon walk the same path as the man across the small table from him. They had grown up in vastly different worlds, after all — but, over burgers, intractable bonds began to form. In 2014, Dejene, a teenage Ethiopian orphan, latched onto Kentucky punter Landon Foster during a team service trip to Addis Ababa. Dejene helped Foster carry supplies to the needy and used surprisingly precise English to serve as the punter’s impromptu translator. The pair then sat and talked and ate, forging a relationship that has spanned five years — and one ocean.  

After he returned home, grateful for the privilege that surrounded him, Foster stayed in touch with Dejene and sought to send money so his new friend might have more warm meals like the one they had shared. “That’s my big brother,” Dejene, now named Josh Shropshire, says. “He was there for me at my lowest point.” Shropshire is no longer an orphan. An American family adopted him later the year Foster met him. And the boy who didn’t know what college sports were when the two met is now following in that kind stranger’s footsteps. This fall, Shropshire began his own student-athlete experience at Catawba, where he is a member of the soccer team. 

When he came to the United States, Shropshire spent nearly a year acclimating to his new home in Charlotte, North Carolina, before venturing to Lexington with his family to watch Foster play in Kentucky’s 2015 home opener. After 16 months apart, the two embraced in a hotel lobby. “It was like a dream,” Shropshire says. “It didn’t feel real.” 

After watching one of his heroes take the field in front of thousands, Shropshire set out to do the same. He had grown up playing pickup soccer in Addis Ababa, where he and his friends dodged cars as they kicked the ball on dusty streets. But they only played on days when they had found enough food. “I had bigger priorities,” Shropshire says, “like surviving.” 

Once in Charlotte, well-fed and well-loved by his adoptive parents, Patty and Todd, Shropshire learned to translate the free-flowing skills he honed in Ethiopia into organized team play. The effort paid off. A few colleges soon expressed interest. Shropshire leaned on his parents and traded texts with Foster as he determined where to land. The former college football player offered what advice he could, one young athlete to another. 

Foster has since embarked on a finance career in New York, but Shropshire hopes his friend might soon be able to make the trip to North Carolina. Foster, indeed, would relish a chance to watch the starving boy who sat across a table from him, the one who opened up a bit more with every bite, don a college jersey and take the field. “When you think back on it, it really is amazing that everything worked out for him, and he had this opportunity,” Foster says. “I want to be able to see that in person.”