Addai and Ezra Lewellen, twin brothers who were adopted at age 5 from Liberia in West Africa by Ryan and Stephanie Lewellen, call their Pioneer Panthers community family.

Indianapolis Star

ROYAL CENTER, Ind. – Stephanie Lewellen was a brand-new mom when she watched her twin sons, Addai and Ezra, play their first sport as 5-year-olds in the Pioneer youth soccer league.

Stephanie had no expectations, other than to allow her sons to learn a new sport and an opportunity to make some new friends.

“One of the two — I can’t remember which one now — scored nine goals,” Stephanie said. “At that age, most kids just chase the ball around. Addai and Ezra would pursue where the ball was going to go, not just chase the crowd. I was like, ‘That’s interesting.’ They knew where the ball was going to go. There was something to that.”

The Lewellen twins, adopted by Ryan and Stephanie Lewellen from the West African country of Liberia just a few months before that soccer game, have been standing out in Royal Center ever since. The now-seniors at Pioneer High School are leaders for the Class 2A third-ranked Panthers, who host Delphi in the first round of Sectional 34 on Friday night.

The soft-spoken Ezra, as comfortable writing or reading as carrying a football, is Pioneer’s big-play running back, running for a team-leading 923 yards and 12 touchdowns. The outspoken Addai is more of a straight-ahead ball carrier. Two weeks ago against Culver, he carried the ball four times and was never tackled, rushing for 170 yards and four touchdowns.

Together, the Lewellens anchor the Pioneer secondary on defense. In a win over Knox earlier this month, Addai made 16 tackles. Ezra has nine interceptions in his four seasons at Pioneer; Addai has six.

“When I had them in P.E. class back when they were in second grade I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to have them on the high school team,’” Pioneer coach Adam Berry said. “Then watching them come up through the ranks in the youth league and in junior high, you could see they could possibly start for us as freshmen. They weren’t intimidated by the spotlight. Now as upperclassmen, they are showing what they can do being the leaders of the team.”

If Pioneer is going to make a deep tournament run, Ezra and Addai Lewellen will be two big reasons why. But playing football in Royal Center is just part of the story of where the Lewellens came from and where they plan to go.

‘There were some big differences’

Pioneer won its first state championship in 1997, a few months after Ryan Lewellen graduated. But he was part of a 5-4 team as a senior for coach Mike Johnson that helped lay the groundwork for what became one of the state’s most consistent small-school football powers.

Amazingly, the Panthers produced a winning season for a 25th consecutive year this fall.

“Mike Johnson had just moved here my eighth-grade year,” said Lewellen, a pastor at Pisgah Christian Church, a few miles west of Logansport. “I was on his first winning team. To see what the program became, I’m glad I got to be a part of it.”

Lewellen did not necessarily expect to be a part of the program again. He married Stephanie, a Logansport native, in 2000. The couple, unable to have biological children, looked into adoption.

“We were sitting in a church service one day and a missionary was speaking and he was talking about he had just been in Africa and the orphanages were overrun with children that had no parents,” Stephanie said. “Sitting there, I just kind of had that ‘lightbulb’ moment. We had tried for so long to have children. Yet God had kids out there that needed a home that were already here.”

The Lewellens were drawn to Liberia, where the adoption process at the time was a little more rapid than other countries. Four months after starting the process, Ryan and Stephanie were sent a list of 14 children. There were no photos, just names and ages. Stephanie picked two names. Later in the day, Ryan came home and picked the same two names off the list:

Bein and Lakpyee.

“It was heartbreaking every month to go through the infertility stuff and know that we weren’t going to be able to get pregnant,” Ryan said. “But when God gave us that calling for adoption, it was exciting. How would they fit into our family?”

The Lewellens were sent photos of the two boys after choosing the two names. Bein and Lakpyee had been in an orphanage for a year when the Lewellens were able to come to Liberia and pick them up. They were 5 ½ years old.

The Lewellens renamed them Ezra (Bein) and Addai (Lakpyee). Ezra was named after Ezra Lusk, a professional dirt bike racer (a passion of Ryan’s family) and Addai was named after former Colts’ running back Joseph Addai.

“Addai is like me in a lot of ways and Ezra is like Stephanie a lot of ways,” Ryan said. “We couldn’t have had biological kids who were more like us.”

The Lewellens were going to adopt a ninth-month old girl as well. But she contracted malaria and died before the Lewellens arrived in Liberia.

The twins were able to speak broken English when they arrived in Indiana. The temperature difference from departure in Liberia to arrival in Royal Center was nearly 100 degrees.

“There were some big differences,” Stephanie said.

Including the differences in how Ezra and Addai looked compared to the rest of the Royal Center community. According to the 2010 census, there were 861 people living in Royal Central. Of those, 97.4% were white.

“When I was growing up, there were no minorities anywhere in this town,” Ryan said.

The Lewellens had some concerns — and conversations — about how Ezra and Addai would adapt to living in a community where they looked so different than others. How would they feel?

“Probably in the end we were more concerned than we needed to be,” Stephanie said. “But we knew, being a small town where there is not a lot of diversity and not only are they dark-skinned boys, they are truly African. But what we experienced was the opposite. People in the community knew their story and they were just embraced from day one. They are joyful boys who get along well with other people so because of that, they fit in right away.”

Ryan said any fears he might have had on how the twins would be accepted were alleviated when they started kindergarten. He watched as fifth and sixth graders fist-bumped Ezra and Addai as they walked down the hallway. “They loved them from the start,” Ryan said.

“It’s just like family,” Addai said. “This is basically all we’ve ever known so it feels normal to us.”

What’s next?

As much as they have enjoyed and appreciated their time in Royal Center, both Addai and Ezra would like to see what else the world has to offer. Addai hopes to play football in college. Ezra said he is ready to pursue college as just a student. Both have grade-point averages above 3.5 and will be eligible to earn academic scholarships.

“I do think about the opportunity we’ve been given and try not to waste any of it,” Ezra said. “I’m thankful for the school and teachers we have. We try to do the best we can in school and learn as much as we can to better ourselves for the future.”

The Lewellens, who also have an adopted daughter, 11-year-old Ayla, are feeling emotions similar to most parents of soon-to-be-college students. “I’m not ready for it yet,” Stephanie said, “but I’m happy for them.”

For the first time in their lives, Addai and Ezra are also faced with the realization that their futures could take them in different directions — and they are OK with that.

“I have big dreams and ambitions,” Ezra said. “I don’t think the small town is going to fit for me. So I may go a little bit further to try to chase my dreams. Maybe somewhere a little bit warmer.”

Ezra and Addai are both creative. Ezra likes to write and draw. “Just the idea of creating something that can be yours,” he said. He has been working on a sci-fi story, creating characters and background stories for several years. Ezra said computer science could be a potential path for him to pursue in college.

“Ezra spends a lot of time making logos,” Ryan said. “He’s really into graphic design.”

Addai is a craftsman. He enjoys working with his hands and said he could see himself pursuing a career in engineering. He is talking to a number of schools about playing football in college, including Indiana Wesleyan, Marian, Valparaiso and UIndy.

“One’s strength is the other’s weakness in a lot of ways,” Stephanie said. “They sort of complete each other. So it will be hard to see them operate separately. But I know they can. If anything, it will make them flourish because they will have to do it on their own.”

But there are a few months before Addai and Ezra embark on their own in college. First they will attempt to lead Pioneer to a tournament run in Class 2A (the Panthers were bumped up a class due to the tournament success factor after the Jack Kiser-led Pioneer teams won Class A state titles in 2017 and ’18).

Ezra and Addai were starting wingbacks and cornerbacks as underclassmen, learning from Kiser. One of Addai’s favorite memories was riding with Kiser to the team’s pancake breakfasts on Friday mornings.

“He was more like our mentor,” Addai said. “He’s just a pretty great guy. It was great to be around him and see how he would show his leadership skills. He has a fun side and a serious side. It’s good to have both. It was good for us to see that.”

But the twins also had something special within them at an early age, Ryan said. One of their classmates was messing with them. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what my dad told me, punch them in the nose and he will leave you alone.’”

Ezra and Addai came up with another plan.

“They came home from school and Addai said, ‘We decided to make John our best friend instead,’” Ryan said. “I’ll never forget that. Here I was, the preacher guy. I’m supposed to have a better answer than that. They took John in and loved him. I’m thinking, ‘These are the kids I get the opportunity to call my sons.’ That’s pretty great.”

Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.