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Kentucky linebacker Jordan Wright (15) and defensive tackle Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald (94) sack UT Martin quarterback John Bachus III (18) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

It wasn't as if Steve and Teri Fitzgerald were getting low on mouths to feed and bodies to clothe and shelter that summer of 2013.

The former Chattanooga Christian School and Covenant College basketball standout and his wife were raising their six biological children on a small private high school basketball coach's salary when they first had befriended Nigeria natives Abule Abadi and Alaowei Talent two years earlier.

But now Abadi and Talent were going to be forced to return to Nigeria for good if someone didn't adopt them.

"Even though they weren't living with us, they were already part of our family," Fitzgerald recalled earlier this week from the family's current home in Lakeland, Florida. "But because they were playing basketball for us, Florida high school athletic association rules prohibit players from living with their coaches. They'd still go places with us almost every weekend, though.

"So we prayed about it, talked to our kids about it and they were all for it. We just felt like God was leading us in the direction of adoption."

If you've ever attempted to adopt someone from a foreign country, you might not be thankful for that process. It can be expensive, physically exhausting, emotionally stressful and occasionally heartbreaking. It can feel as if that country cares more about the money it makes off you than the child you're about to provide a better life.

But Fitzgerald insists that these particular adoptions "ended up being not too painful and not too costly."

One need only look at the positive impact the decision to adopt has made on the life of the 21-year-old University of Kentucky redshirt sophomore defensive lineman whose proper name is now Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, and his 22-year-old Nigerian brother through adoption, Alaowei Talent-Fitzgerald, to know that Steve and Teri made the right call.

"They're my family," Abadi-Fitzgerald said of his adopted family last weekend in Lexington, right after the 6-foot-6, 292-pounder made a tackle against UT-Martin that helped force a fumble in the Wildcats' 50-7 win. "I love them all. Steve's meant so much to me. Teacher. Coach. Father. Everything. He's always there for us. Always caring for us. And as Alaowei and me get older, he's becoming more of a friend than a dad."

Neither Abule nor Alaowei could make it home for Thanksgiving. UK wraps up its regular season Saturday against visiting Louisville. Alaowei, who plays basketball for Southeastern University in Lakeland, will be in a tournament in Kingsport, Tennessee, over the weekend.

"My father (Gene Fitzgerald, the former longtime Covenant basketball coach whom Abule and Alaowei call 'Grandpa') will be up in Kingsport to see Alaowei play," Steve said.

But Abule's story would be amazing with or without the adoption. When he first arrived in the U.S., he never had played football and was just learning about basketball.

"Even the helmet made him uncomfortable," Steve noted. "He just didn't like it."

Added Abule: "I didn't know the rules. I didn't know where to line up. I had no clue."

Partly because of that, after suiting up his freshman year at the small school where Steve coached in South Florida, Abule chose not to play his sophomore year, then was ineligble his junior year due to transfer rules when Steve took the head basketball job at Victory Christian in Lakeland.

Yet you also can't coach kids to be 6-6 and over 270, so when Abule did finally take the field his senior year, a recruiting video almost instantly drew the attention of several Sunshine State schools, including the University of Florida, and Kentucky.

"We visited Kentucky on the last weekend before signing day," Steve recalled. "While we were there, Florida called and asked if we could split the visit with them. Kentucky graciously said that was OK, and we flew to Florida early that Sunday morning.

"But we all felt like Kentucky was the right place. Coach (Mark) Stoops made it clear he needed Abule. There was just this feeling that character mattered there; there was a spirituality about the place. And in the three years he's been there, everything they laid out for us about Abule's career has come true."

Reached earlier this week, UK coach Mark Stoops mirrored Steve's impressions of the recruitment.

"First, Abule's attitude, his work ethic and his character _ overcoming all those things he did in his childhood _ made it a no-brainer," said Stoops. "And then he's always appreciative of this opportunity. He always has a smile on his face. He's rock-solid in his effort and attitude."

The Fitzgerald's 20-year-old son Jackson — a freshman shooting guard for Covenant — communicates with Abule and Alaowei almost daily.

"We face-time at least every other day," said Jackson, who joined his older brothers Austin and Liam, younger brother Aiden and sisters Dublin and MacKenzie for Thanksgiving in Lakeland. "I try to keep up with everything Abule's doing at Kentucky."

Abule also likes keeping up with his Chattanooga family whenever the opportunity arises.

"I've been there several times," he said. "I love the Tennessee Aquarium. I wish I could have one of those penguins for a pet."

On this weekend of reflection about all that's right in our lives rather than all that's wrong, Steve was asked how he now views the decision six years ago to officially add two more children to the Fitzgerald clan.

"We're more and more thankful every day," he said. "I can't imagine them not being a part of our family."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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