Akinniyi gets fresh start at N.C. State

Former Northeastern defensive end finds new home at N.C. State

Staff WriterJanuary 29, 2010 

Before many college students rolled out of bed last Friday, David Akinniyi was at N.C. State's Murphy Center football complex for his daily workout.

At 7 a.m., after doing some running drills, Akinniyi was starting his day in the weight room, where the Wolfpack strength coaches were explaining their lifting routines.

Akinniyi also was starting over in a larger sense, after football had been ripped away from him in a stunning decision at his former school.

A senior defensive end, Akinniyi played at Northeastern, which dropped football at the end of the 2009 season.

"I'm definitely excited for the opportunity to be able to play football again," Akinniyi said. "I'll never take it for granted."

Akinniyi is one of the lucky ones from the failed Northeastern program. He was a three-year starter who made 40 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks last season.

That, coupled with selections to the Colonial Athletic Association All-Academic team in 2007 and 2008, gave him opportunities to play somewhere else. Football Bowl Subdivision schools such as Buffalo and Central Michigan offered scholarships, and Maryland showed interest.

When N.C. State offered a scholarship, he jumped at the opportunity to join a program in a BCS conference.

"He's a very disciplined football player and an athletic kid," N.C. State recruiting coordinator Jerry Petercuskie said.

But he left his last team meeting at Northeastern uncertain if he would ever play football again.

Curses and tears

Northeastern's football players figured their coach, Rocky Hager, was going to get fired on Nov. 23.

The Huskies were 3-8 in 2009 and had gone 8-26 over the last three seasons. During a morning meeting, Hager told the players it would be the last time he would address them as a team.

Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby scheduled a 7 p.m. meeting with the team. Players thought he would be informing them about the start of a search for a new coach.

Then Roby delivered the shocking news. He had recommended that Northeastern drop football, and the university administration accepted that proposal.

Akinniyi buried his head in his hands. Other teammates screamed obscenities. Some were crying.

"It was just different emotions all across the board from the team," Akinniyi said. "And Peter Roby actually left with security that night because he was afraid of what people might do. So it was a crazy situation. Nobody expected that to happen, and it did."

Roby said telling the team what had been done was the most difficult thing he's had to do in his career. But he believed he didn't have much of a choice.

He thought it was time to change coaches because the team wasn't winning. In order to give Northeastern a chance to compete in the CAA, one of the top conferences in the Football Championship Subdivision, Roby believed an investment of $20 million to $25 million in facilities was necessary.

Roby was afraid he wouldn't be able to attract a high-quality coach without that investment, so he made the gut-wrenching decision to drop the program.

"It gets to the point where you have to decide, what's the fairest thing to do?" Roby said. "Do we keep running the teams out there knowing we don't really have what's in place to be competitive on an ongoing basis? Or do you say, if we can't be fair in that regard, maybe we should be fair in terms of not putting them out there every day?"

'Fools' paradise'

It's easy to see Northeastern as a casualty of the "arms race" the late Myles Brand crusaded against when he was NCAA president.

As schools invest millions in facilities to attract recruits and coaches' salaries escalate, some schools can't keep up.

Just 16 of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision athletics departments reported positive net revenue over the three-year aggregate of fiscal years 2004 through 2006, NCAA research has shown.

And for some students, the scholar-athlete experience is dying as a result. Ten days after Northeastern dropped football, Hofstra did the same.

Other, less prominent sports also have been hit hard. At least eight college wrestling programs were dropped after the 2008-09 season, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association's Web site.

Advocates of reform warn that the current college athletics fiscal model is unsustainable.

"A number of programs across the country have already begun to face these realities," said University of North Carolina professor Hodding Carter, a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate athletics.

"We've had programs that have to be abandoned. We've had programs suddenly waking up and saying, we can't pay the cost to keep up. It's a fools' paradise."

About half of the 40-some players on scholarship at Northeastern transferred to other schools to play football, according to school assistant sports information director Thomas Chen. Massachusetts, Delaware, Northern Iowa and Georgia State are among the programs that have added players from Northeastern.

The rest of the players either still are looking for opportunities to transfer or have given up football. After joining an ACC school, Akinniyi might be the most fortunate of all the members of his former team.

He's the son of Akin and Gloria Akinniyi, who came to the United States from Nigeria in 1982, six years before David was born. Akin studied at Purdue and is an engineer. Gloria attended Wisconsin and is a schoolteacher, and their children have been successful as athletes and students.

David's older brother, also named Akin, played linebacker at Arizona from 2002 to 2006. Their sister Deborah ran track at Stanford and is studying at George Washington medical school. Another sister, Dorcas, is a heptathlete at Wisconsin.

The youngest child, Tunde, is in high school and hopes to play college football. During a recent trip to Nigeria, David gained a greater understanding for the work ethic his parents instilled in their children.

"The roads aren't nice," Akinniyi said. "Your upbringing isn't as easy. So I see they made it to America and have been successful in America, so they don't take it for granted."

Growing up in Dallas rooting for the Cowboys, plus the influence of his older brother, got Akinniyi interested in football.

He spent his senior season of high school in Rocklin, Calif., and then went to Northeastern on a football scholarship.

One more season

Akinniyi showed his toughness and ability during a homecoming game against Massachusetts in his sophomore season.

He'd received stitches for a cut on his lip earlier in the game but crashed around the end and chased down tailback Tony Nelson for a 3-yard loss on a lead play on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

It was the most memorable of the 141 tackles, including 22 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, that he made in three seasons at Northeastern.

At N.C. State, Akinniyi will add much-needed experience to a defensive end position that will lose starters Willie Young and Shea McKeen from last year's team.

He'll have to pass 31 hours by the fall to get eligible, but he carries a 3.5 grade-point average in business, finance and marketing, so he doesn't expect any problems.

He hopes to attract the attention of NFL scouts this season, but if he doesn't he plans to pursue his MBA after graduation.

And he will be grateful for the chance to play one more season when he was afraid his career might be over.

"This," he said, "is a blessing."

Staff photographer Ethan Hyman contributed to this report.

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.com or 919-829-8942

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