Akol Arop, in white, competing last year in a game against the University of South Dakota. PHOTO COURTESY OF OMAHA ATHLETICS


Standout athlete puts faith before basketball

Ever since his middle school years at All Saints School in Omaha, University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) basketball player Akol Arop has been a talented and gifted athlete, but the former Creighton Preparatory School standout and current UNO Mavericks captain said the sport is secondary in his life to his faith and commitment to serve the Lord.

“Basketball’s been very important in my life and I’m very blessed to have the talent, but I give all my glory to God,” he said.”

Arop, 20, has taken a unique journey to his current place in life. He was born in an Egyptian refugee camp in 2001 after his parents, Arop and Aleuliny Arop, fled the Republic of Sudan during political unrest and civil war.

He was 3 years old when 10 members of his family immigrated to the United States, initially locating in Houston. The family later moved to Bellevue and then to Omaha, where more than 9,000 refugees from South Sudan now reside.

During his early years at All Saints, a special friendship developed between Arop and one of his classmates – Anthony Kowal. By the time the two boys had reached the sixth grade, Anthony and his parents, Thaddeus and Melissa Kowal, were becoming an integral part of Arop’s life.

“Anthony and I became close friends in the sixth grade, Arop said. “That was the first time I played on a basketball team. Thaddeus coached us for three years.


“It was truly another family to me, like God had put another family into my life. Anthony was a brother to me, his sister (Bernadette) was a sister to me, and his dad was always like another father figure to me.”

Arop credits the Kowal family, members of St. Frances Cabrini Parish, for strengthening his understanding and commitment to his Catholic faith.

“My biological family, we’d go to church every Sunday, not everyone, but I was very consistent, even at a young age, because I knew there was something there. I just didn’t quite understand at that age,” he said. “Thaddeus and his wife taught me so much about the Catholic faith.”

Thaddeus Kowal said as a young boy, Arop was unique.

“Akol was different. We would take the boys to Holy Week services or Advent dinners and different things throughout the year, and he was always the one who was interested in finding out why we’re doing this or why we’re going to church today,” he said.

As an eighth-grader, Arop relied on prayer and Thaddeus Kowal’s guidance in making a stressful decision about where to attend high school. Arop’s family adamantly wanted him to join two of his brothers at South High School, but he chose Creighton Prep after spending a day shadowing students at the private Jesuit school.

“I could enjoy my friends, play basketball and have my faith (at Prep),” he said.


Despite some academic struggles his freshman year, Arop thrived at Prep, particularly on the basketball court. He became a three-time all-state selection, a key component of the Junior Jays’ 2018 state championship team and the 2019 Nebraska High School Player of the Year.

Junior Jays coach Josh Luedtke said Arop was a special basketball player at Prep, but an even better person.

“He’s very much the same person today he was as an incoming freshman at Prep,” Luedtke said. “Honestly, I like Akol Arop the person who is the person of faith and caring individual a thousand times better than Akol Arop the basketball player. His beliefs have always been the same – family and faith comes before basketball, and education comes before basketball.

“He’s been raised the right way. He understands what’s important and what’s not. He knows at some point, basketball will come to an end, but what kind of person he is will live forever with the people he’s impacted as a young man.”

Arop was recruited by several college basketball programs during his final two years at Prep. During recruiting visits, Arop made sure coaches were aware that his No. 1 priority was his faith. He told recruiters he would only consider schools that would allow him to regularly attend Mass, even when the team was on road trips.

He accepted a scholarship from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and spent two years on the Cornhuskers’ roster, but a coaching change before Arop had even arrived on campus and injuries early in his college career left him feeling unfulfilled.

Although he was enjoying the time spent with people he was meeting at UNL’s Newman Center, where he attended daily Mass and took part in Bible studies, Arop eventually made the decision to return to Omaha and play for UNO. He’s become a key contributor to the Maverick basketball team.

Akol Arop, second from right, exhanges jokes with, from left, UNO sophomore Dominic Lesiak, UNO junior Lizbeth Marquez and FOCUS missionary Carolyn Dinkel at the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha. MIKE MAY/STAFF


Off the court, he spends much of his time at the St. John Paul II Newman Center near UNO. Arop said he feels at home at the Newman Center – taking part in social activities, participating in Bible studies or attending Mass with students who share his values and faith.

Bernadette Kowal, now a student at Omaha’s Creighton University, says she sees first-hand the inspiration her “brother” provides to others.

“He’s somebody I can look up to as a model for my faith and for school,” she said. “When he got to the Newman Center, being around people that have the same values and same thoughts really drove home this idea that God is everywhere, and God is important. I think a lot of it is his friends who he spends his time with because that’s what they believe, too.”

Two of those friends, Braydon Dreher and Dom Lesiak, both describe Arop as a “people person” who’s committed to following the example of Jesus Christ.

“He realizes that there’s nothing more important and you see that in how he interacts with every single person,” Dreher said. “He’s not a captain on the basketball team because of his athletic prowess. He’s a captain because he shows Christ to every single person he sees.”

At UNO, Arop has two years of eligibility left on the basketball court. He’s majoring in business management with a minor in real estate. Basketball after college may or may not be in Arop’s future. What’s certain, he said, is that he’ll continue to serve and follow the lead of his Lord in all aspects of life.

“People see me as Akol the basketball player,” he said, “but that’s not who I am. I’m Akol, the child of God.”

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