Life's losses mold a leader

'I always tell people, don’t call me a boy, call me a young man. Because I think I’ve been through enough to establish myself. But just because you go through tough times doesn’t make you tough. It’s how you handle it.' Tolu Akindele

When Tolu Akindele was about 10 years old, he lost his younger sister. She drowned in a swimming accident.

When he was in ninth grade, his father died of brain cancer.

And just before Akindele's senior year in high school, his football teammate and good friend was shot and killed in a Houston parking lot.

Toluwalase Akindele (the first name means "God's will be done") knows loss.

"I always tell people, don't call me a boy, call me a young man," said Akindele, a 20-year-old junior linebacker at The Citadel. "Because I think I've been through enough to establish myself. But just because you go through tough times doesn't make you tough. It's how you handle it."

Akindele, a native of Lagos, Nigeria, who moved with his family to Houston when he was 9, showed that he knows how to handle adversity when teammate and classmate Miguel Starks found himself in deep trouble.

Starks, part of the Bulldogs' 2008 recruiting class along with Akindele, was arrested in February on kidnapping and burglary charges, and remains in jail.

On the morning of Starks' bond hearing Feb. 28, Akindele was the lone representative of The Citadel -- coaches, players, administrators -- to show up in support of Starks' parents.

Tolu walked Starks' mother, Sharon, around the parking lot before the hearing, and comforted his distraught father, Michael, afterward. When reporters and TV cameras approached, Akindele shielded the Starkses and drove them away.

"That's family," Akindele said this week in explanation. "Miguel's parents and my mom (Abigail) are really good friends, since we started this journey together. Since I've been here, I've tried to bond with my teammates, and Miguel was one guy I felt my presence would be needed around.

"He was a great guy, he even came out to Houston to hang out with me that first year. I would have done the same for any of my teammates. He was my teammate and my brother."

Coach Kevin Higgins was not surprised.

"That's Tolu," he said. "He would do that for anybody on our team. If you need him, he will be there. He takes that as part of his responsibility."

In the wake of the Starks' case -- which also involved former Citadel player Reggie Rice and former assistant coach Josh Harpe, the alleged victim -- the Bulldogs need leaders such as Akindele.

He was voted one of the Bulldogs' team captains this season, joining former All-American receiver Andre Roberts as the only juniors so chosen in Higgins' six seasons.

"An honor," Akindele said. "It's a position not of command, but a position to serve your teammates. I feel like they think their voice is heard by me. You have to watch what you do, make sure you are doing the right things on and off the field."

This summer, Akindele helped organize trips to the Eagle Harbor Ranch, a boys' home in Summerville, and was one of the top motivators in summer workouts.

"In all my years of coaching, Tolu is in the top 3 percent of leaders I've been around," Higgins said. "The kid is very special, and he's embraced his role as leader more than ever."

Akindele holds close the memory of his sister and father and of Herman Mitchell, his teammate at Houston's Westfield High School. Mitchell, a fellow linebacker, was 17 and had committed to play at Oklahoma when he was gunned down on Aug. 24, 2007. In Westfield's season opener that year, a TV camera captured a picture of Akindele holding up Mitchell's No. 11 jersey.

"I want to graduate in 2011, because that was Herman's number," Akindele said. "To honor my father, I just try to come out and go hard on every play. And my sister, she was one of my best friends. It's been hard, but I think it all helped me mature faster than most young men."

Akindele's had his own struggles. When he was a junior in high school, an intestinal blockage forced doctors to remove part of his intestines. He went into the hospital at 205 pounds and came out at 160, and still deals with the after-effects, though now he's 5-10 and a rock-solid 213 pounds.

"It was a struggle to come back from that, and sometimes it still creeps up," he said. "But it also was a great journey, because it taught me you can be close to death, but you still have to fight."

Akindele uses the word "journey" a lot, and recently someone asked him about the different paths he and Starks now have taken.

"Everything happens for a reason, and we will find out in the future what the reason was," he said. "He was like a brother to me, and maybe I should have been able to influence him more.

"But as time goes on, you live and learn and you will be able to help the next man."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at jhartsell@postandcourier.com.