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Jehuu Caulcrick has faced bigger challenges.

Caulcrick is mired on the 49ers' depth chart and finding the practice-field repetitions hard to come by. Technically still a first-year player, he has yet to crack the 53-man roster for an NFL team, although this is his third year out of Michigan State. He played tailback in college, but is now busy learning to play fullback, a position better suited to his thick, 250-pound frame.

Yet it's all child's play to a man who had his childhood brutally taken from him.

"When I was younger I didn't know if I'd have the opportunity to even be alive the next day," Caulcrick, 26, said recently while sitting in the media trailer at 49ers headquarters. "It's something I definitely keep in the back of my head, because I truly believe it makes me a stronger person."

Caulcrick was a 6-year-old in Liberia when Africa's oldest republic was torn apart by civil war. He spent two years on the move, dodging bullets and ducking rebel soldiers as he and his extended family marched from refugee camp to refugee camp. His father would be murdered, and his mother was thousands of miles away — stuck in the U.S. without her children and without the necessary paperwork to retrieve them.

Before December 1989, Caulcrick had what he calls a "great childhood." His grandfather owned a video production company and his grandmother ran sort of a home-economics school for girls, and the family lived together in a large compound in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Caulcrick remembers endless days of soccer at the big stadium down the street.

Then rumors began to spread about a looming conflict.

"You're a kid, you watch TV, you see these war movies and it looks cool," Caulcrick said. "So for a second, us kids, we were excited about it. We're like, 'Oh, yeah, I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do that.'"

The reality check arrived in the form of Caulcrick's uncle, who had been captured, tortured and released by rebel forces. He warned the family to stay inside the house. Soon the capital was under siege and the pop-pop-pop of automatic gunfire became Liberia's soundtrack.

Caulcrick's family, including his sister Mardea, stayed in Monrovia for a while, opening up the compound as an informal refugee camp. Eventually it felt too dangerous. They loaded backpacks and rolled up sleeping bags and took to the road, beginning an odyssey that would last more than two years.

"We found ourselves walking for 10 to 20 miles a day, to go from one refugee camp to the next," Caulcrick calmly recalled. "And en route to those refugee camps, you're literally stepping over dead bodies."

From 1989 to 1996, the First Liberian Civil War killed at least 200,000 people and displaced perhaps a million more. It was a gruesome, convoluted conflict that included child soldiers, tribal hatreds, civilian massacres and charges of cannibalism.

Caulcrick's days became a blur of violence and drudgery. It was all so random. The family would breeze through some checkpoints, get turned away at others. Sometimes a fraction got through while others didn't. He traveled with a shifting group of 15 to 20 relatives and friends, a troupe that would periodically return home to Monrovia.

Danger was everywhere. Caulcrick remembers the family unloading at the end of one march and finding spent bullets in the backpacks; their meager possessions had saved their lives. One cousin got into a potentially lethal struggle with a soldier — over a jar of jam. When his grandfather took a stray bullet in the shin, the grandmother removed it and tied the wound with a bandana.

The worst moment, Caulcrick said, occurred at home. His grandmother's school was alongside the living space, and he and some young relatives drifted there to get out of the heat one day when rebel soldiers opened fire on the building. A bullet pierced two doors and hit Caulcrick's adopted brother, 14, in the neck. The life-long friend died right in front of Caulcrick.

The boy saw other things too graphic to mention in a newspaper.

Meanwhile, his mother, Bonita, was marooned in upstate New York. Her notion of the modern immigrant's dream — establish residency, acquire green card, send for kids — was in tatters.

"I spent a lot of sleepless nights," Bonita Caulcrick said by phone from Westfield, N.Y. , where she manages production of sauces and syrups for the Carriage House Companies. "I had to work. I was going in every day and hoping and praying. It was the scariest time of my life."

When she finally got her children's paperwork in order, Bonita ventured straight into the war zone to find them. She took two suitcases, one carrying her clothes, and a bigger one stuffed with cigarettes to bribe checkpoint guards.

"She's my hero," Jehuu (it's pronounced JAY-yoo) said. "She pretty much put her life on the line to come and find us."

When Bonita got to Monrovia, however, her family wasn't there. She set off to find them, but was always a step behind. She'd bump into someone who had seen them a couple of days earlier, and off she would go, never able to confirm that Jehuu and Mardea were alive.

It took Bonita two months to catch up. She traveled full circle and stumbled into a tearful reunion back at the family home.

"My dad was so shocked to see me," Bonita Caulcrick recalled. "He kept saying my name: &‘Bonita. Bonita.' I thought he was gonna drop dead right in front of us. I was concentrating on him, and then everyone else came running. It was a good feeling. I can express it, but it doesn't come close to describing how it felt."

Soon after, Bonita and the children were in a doctor's office in Monrovia when they picked up a newspaper and read of a mass shooting. The list of casualties included Jehuu's father, Jerome Blamo, a security chief with ties to the ruling government. The family was left in shock. Jehuu still has the newspaper article.

The Caulcricks weren't out of harm's way yet, either. First they had another epic slog, this time across the eastern border to Ivory Coast. After several days of bureaucratic hangups, Bonita, Jehuu and Mardea were on their way to Findley Lake, N.Y., a bucolic community that welcomed them as family.

The war didn't leave the children immediately. They'd wake up in a panic when they heard thunder, and run under a tree every time an airplane flew overhead. They had nightmares for months. Eventually, however, they settled into normal American adolescence. Jehuu starred at nearby Clymer Central High School and got a football scholarship to Michigan State, where he rushed for 2,395 yards and 39 touchdowns, second in school history to Lorenzo White's 43.

Many people might have grown bitter, or at least wary, after living through such a devastating childhood. Caulcrick is just the opposite. He seems to smile about 20 hours a day. Rather than trying to forget his past, he wears a tattoo on his arm in the shape of Africa, Liberia's location marked with a star and the whole thing underscored with the message: "Always remember."

"The best way I can describe him is he never has a bad day," said Kaleb Thornhill, a teammate and roommate of Caulcrick's at Michigan State and now the Miami Dolphins' director of player development. "He's just excited to be alive. He's happy to be over here, happy to play football, happy to be alive."

"I can appreciate everything that I have now. Even the little things in life," said Jehuu, who plans to make his first return trip to Liberia next year. "Throughout life, people handle things differently. If something bad happens that you would think is the end of the world, to me it's like, it could be a lot worse."

For more on the 49ers, go to Instant 49ers at blog.pressdemocrat.com/49ers. You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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