Nov. 17, 2010
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by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
The Huskies know him as Victor Aiyewa.
But they don't know all of him.
"It's Bamidele Victor Aiyewa," says the proud senior outside linebacker, who was born in suburban Houston of Nigerian decent.
In Nigerian, Bamidele roughly translates to "follow me home."
The path Aiyewa has created for himself in four, largely self-made years at Washington is worth following. "He is such a special kid," said Kim Durand, UW's associate athletic director for student development and one of those Aiyewa credits for steering him to become the first in his family to graduate from a U.S college this spring.
He arrived at UW an athletic and academic nomad, forced by family struggles to move around Houston to different high schools. He hung with the wrong crowd, until one day he decided he needed to change his life and future. He played just one year of high school football. His academic achievements were just as spotty.
An impressive game tape of his only varsity season practically fell out of the sky and landed on the UW campus. Years of injuries, position changes and uncertainty with the Huskies followed that.
Yet here he is, playing in his 39th career game for Washington in this final appearance at Husky Stadium against UCLA. As of last week, the 6-foot-1, 219-pound Aiyewa was leading the Pac-10 with 16 tackles for a loss this season. A tryout with an NFL team, if not a draft slot, next spring is not out of the question.
Asked how he deals with all the Pac-10's 300-pound linemen as one of the conference's smallest linebackers, the converted safety flashes a huge grin and says, "I'm so fast they can never catch up to me."
And that former kid who only saw academics as a necessary chore to stay eligible for football? He is now a two-time selection to the Pac-10's All-Academic team.
Last spring, UW chose him to speak to its Board of Regents as a personification of what college athletics, in its purest form, is supposed to produce.
"My story is about redemption," Aiyewa told the board.
"He had them absolutely entranced. It was awesome," Durand said. "Bill Gates Sr. was even impressed. "And to think, two years ago Victor was scared of his own shadow."
Now, he has a 3.2 grade-point average in sociology, and is already taking prepharmacy courses. He wants to keep going after his on-time graduation, in the highly competitive field of pharmacy.
"Pharmaceuticals are needed, and I know it's a lucrative business," he said. Plus, after all that moving as a teenager, Aiyewa has found a home.
"I have created a lot of networks and social ties here in Seattle," he said.
Then one of the hardest hitters on UW's defense the last four years turned and gazed nostalgically at the empty field inside Husky Stadium.
"It dawns on me pretty much every day. I can't believe my time is up on being at the university," Aiyewa said after a recent practice. "It's sad."
His growth at UW is anything but.
He is the son of immigrants, father Lanre Davis Aiyewa and Adenike Ogunfuye, his mother who has returned to live in Nigeria. Victor - Bamidele, that is - still beams talking about the trip Mom made to Seattle at the end of last season to watch her son play in the Apple Cup.
Football takes commitment, especially in pigskin-mad Texas. And Aiyewa couldn't commit to one high school program because of all the family's moving.
"I changed around to a lot of different schools," he said.
He played football through middle school, then not again until his senior year at Hightower High School in Missouri City, southwest of downtown Houston. He was playing junior-varsity basketball at Hightower before he joined the football team in his senior year.
He helped the Hurricanes go 9-4 and reach the third round of the Texas Class 5A state playoffs in 2006. He intercepted five passes as a raw safety. He was named All-District and Scout.com rated him among the nation's top 90 recruits at his position. All that, after just a few months of varsity football.
Rod Jones, a former Huskies tight end (1984-86) and current UW academic coordinator, then got a call in his UW office of student athlete academic services.
His wife's stepbrother in Texas, a firefighter and track coach who also helps train high school football players, told Jones about "this guy who hits like a mule."
Jones told the stepbrother to send the game tapes out. The stepbrother was scheduled to visit family in Seattle, so he delivered the tape. Jones walked the stepbrother over to then-Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham, who was conducting practice at the hour of the stepbrother's visit.
"Coach Willingham took the tapes and shook his hand. It was one of those things," Jones said last week. "I mean, how often does a guy tell a coach he's got a kid he should look at?"
Willingham and his defensive backs coach, J.D. Williams, were impressed by Aiyewa's apparent raw skill and knack for always being around the ball. Potential trumped experience.
"The next day, J.D. Williams walked into my office and said, `We took a look at the tape. We want to make him an offer,'" Jones recalled. "' I was like, `Really? He's that good?'"
Baylor, up the road from Houston in Waco, Texas, had also been pursuing this hidden prospect. But Aiyewa chose the unknown, to get away from his nomadic past in Texas.
"I'd never been west of Houston," Aiyewa said. "The first time I came here for a visit, it was kind of rainy. And I said, `Here I am.'
"Yeah, coach Willingham took a chance on me."
Aiyewa became one of seven true freshmen to play for the Huskies in 2007, on special teams in all 13 games. Even though he was far away, he says his most difficult time wasn't while being homesick that year. It was when he was limited to just four games while trying to play through a sports hernia and groin pull during the winless season in 2008.
He kept trying to come back, only to feel more pain.
"All the early injuries really can bring you down. It hurts you mentally," he said. "That was one of the lowest points."
Shoulder surgery, after getting hurt in last fall's Apple Cup, had him out this past spring. He missed the start of last month's game at Arizona because of a bad knee - and still had 31/2 tackles for loss and a sack against the Wildcats.
His best Husky memory remains the one that is the consensus high point of his senior class: The upset of then-No. 3 USC on Sept. 19, 2009, the day that hope and delirium returned to Husky Stadium.
"Just looking at the field now, I can still see all the fans running around, yelling and screaming," Aiyewa said, standing on the stadium's track. "That was the best day."
With all Aiyewa has overcome, with all he's done on and off the field the last four years, something says he will enjoy many more "best" days.
"We fall all over ourselves talking about what Victor has accomplished while he's been here," Durand, said. "In our business, what he's done is why we do what we do."