Bulldogs linebacker journeys from Nigeria to Houston to Citadel
Tolu Akindele speaks with a curious accent, a fetching mix of west Africa and south Texas.
In his voice, you can hear the lilting tones of Yoruba, the dialect of more than 25 million people in his native Nigeria and other parts of west Africa.
You can also hear the Texas drawl of someone who grew up in Houston.
"People say I sound country," says Akindele, a freshman linebacker for The Citadel's football team. "I just call it 'African-made, Texas-raised.' "
Akindele's journey from Nigeria to Houston to The Citadel, including the loss of his father and sister along the way, is a remarkable one.
Here it is, in his own words:
Born in Nigeria
"We lived in Lagos until I was nine, and growing up there was a privilege. I learned a lot there as a kid, and the structure I have now at The Citadel, that's what I grew up with. I had great loving parents who let me know that I had to work hard and could never get in trouble. If I got in trouble, I knew I had to go in to my parents, and they raised me up right.
"My dad was the business manager of a company. My uncle was a very successful man, and he and my dad worked together. My mom was a housewife, and she was basically at home with my three sisters, my younger brother and me. My dad went to school in the United States. He was a pilot when he was younger. He went to school in Miami, and he always said he wanted to come back with his family. In 1999, he said the time was right for us to move.
"We had to enter a lottery to get a visa to move to the United States. It was like it was meant to be. My mom and dad both entered the lottery, and my mom won for the whole family. We had to pay our own way, though, so we basically had to sell everything to come to the U.S."
Moving to Houston
"The Nigerian culture is very big in Houston. One of my dad's friends, we call him our uncle, he lived in Houston and told us it would be a nice place to start our journey in America. It wasn't the same as home, but it was close.
"About six or seven months after we moved to the United States, my youngest sister passed away. She drowned in an accident in a pool. My dad passed away when I was in ninth grade, in 2004, Nov. 18. He had a malignant tumor in his brain. It's been bittersweet. I lost two people in my family, but the chances we have here, the chance to grow up and be successful, is great.
"My mom works as a nutritionist and as a caterer. She's the only part of home I'm really missing. They call me a momma's boy back home. She's the No. 1 person in my life and she's the reason I do what I do.
"The first day I went to school in Houston, a kid asked me if I wanted to play football. I said sure, I'll kick it around. When he threw me the ball, I asked him why the ball is shaped funny. I kicked it to him, and he said, no, you throw it. So that's how I started playing the game.
"A coach stopped me in the hall in ninth grade and asked me if I had ever played football. I had seen football games on TV and said I wanted to play running back, but he said I looked more like a linebacker. He told me, whoever has the ball, go get him, and that was the first thing I learned.
"My dad didn't want me to play football. In eighth grade, they sent a paper home he had to sign for me to play. He signed it, because he didn't know what it was. He thought it was for my grades, and my mom didn't tell him when I had my games. But as I went on, before he died he got into football a little bit and saw me play."
At The Citadel
"I had never heard of The Citadel, but when I got here I saw it is a unique school, a different opportunity. The structure is not much different than what I grew up with, except it is people your own age telling you want to do. I think the school is great.
"In training camp, I dislocated my kneecap. It was the first serious football injury I've had. That made it tough and kind of slowed me down a little bit. I know every now and then I look lost out there, but I'm still learning and I hope the future is bright."