UNION CITY -- The tragedy and heartache Rufus Wollo has experienced the last nine months could have broken almost anyone.
His father, Robert, died in a car accident in September when his vehicle was broadsided in East Oakland by an SUV occupied by two 17-year-olds who were fleeing the scene of a shooting. Less than two months ago, Wollo found out through an early morning phone call that his mother, Rose Togba -- whom he had never met -- had died in Liberia.
But Wollo has persevered. The 17-year-old senior at James Logan High School stayed focused on academics this school year and has excelled at athletics, to the point where he has signed a letter of intent to attend UC Santa Barbara on a full track scholarship. He qualified in his specialty, the 400 meters, for this weekend's CIF state track and field championships in Clovis.
"I just take it one day at a time," Wollo said. "Keeping busy has always been a way of getting over things with me. It will get back to me when I'm alone, but keeping busy gets your mind off of it a little and makes you stronger.
"Quitting never ran through my mind through all my struggles. I never quit."
Perhaps Wollo derives some of his inner strength from the other adversities he endured in his youth. He was born in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast and later moved to another refugee camp in Ghana, where he stayed until he was 11. Then he immigrated to the United States with his father and four of his seven siblings, settling in Hayward.
"Life in a refugee camp is crazy. It is something I wouldn't want to wish on anybody," Wollo said. "You have to pay to use the bathroom, you have to pay to buy drinking water."
Right after he moved to Hayward, he was attracted to athletics.
"I kept on doing every sport I could," said Wollo, who lives with his half-sisters Tarloh Walters and Hannah Wollo. "I did every (track) event."
His soccer abilities received enough notice that he was accepted into the San Jose Earthquakes U.S. Soccer Development Academy in 2012, and the 5-foot-3, 130-pounder played football as a kicker and soccer as a striker this school year for James Logan.
But track is his first love, and it has helped him through the past trying months.
"Track has been a lot of help to me, getting away from the family struggles," Wollo said. "Track is a way to escape from everything and focus on winning a race to feel good. You feel like you accomplished something."
He also gives a lot of credit to the James Logan High community, including track and field coach Lee Webb and principal Amy McNamara.
"I feel like this is my second home," Wollo said. "I feel like I have another family here."
"It's amazing, really," said Webb about how Wollo has persevered this year. "It's incredible what somebody can do if they want to ... make negatives into positives."
His overall grade-point average has also steadily improved, from 2.7 his junior year to more than 3.0 in the first semester this school year. Wollo said he's on pace for a 3.4 GPA this semester.
His push for greater academic heights is motivated by the wishes of his father, who was a 75-year-old pastor and caregiver for the severely developmentally disabled, and a refugee of civil war in his native Liberia.
"I had to find a way to accomplish what he wanted me to accomplish -- go to college," Wollo said of his father. "It was time to put up or shut up. My classes got more serious, my work ethic got more serious, my practices got more serious."
The loss of his father only increased his determination, and he is grateful for the time they had together. But like his father's passing, his mother's deathcame out of the blue.
"I was sleeping and I heard my sister on the phone," said Wollo. "... I heard the line, 'We will have somebody pick up the body from the hospital.' Right away my heart started pumping fast and I got scared.
"She said, 'It's your mom. She's gone.' I remember sitting there, saying nothing."
But he rebounded.
"He's just a kid with the most sparkling personality and an indomitable spirit. He is a kind, kind person," McNamara said. "I've been in education for 20 years, and I've never had a student like Rufus."
At a signing party Wednesday, Rufus Wollo's smile lit up the room at James Logan, where he was surrounded by a number of friends, coaches, teachers and family.
"I'm just so happy to have this opportunity to go out (to Santa Barbara) and better my life," he said.
Name: Rufus Wollo
Recent accomplishment: Qualified to participate in the state high school track and field championships this weekend in Clovis in the 400 meters.
Quote: "Track is a way to escape from everything and focus on winning a race to feel good. You feel like you accomplished something."