Perseverance is an attribute that is engrained in defensive end Leyon Azubuike’s family.
Forty years ago, Azubuike’s father, Ifeanyi, was a soldier for the Bianfran Army during the Nigerian Civil War, which lasted from July 6, 1967 to Jan. 13, 1970. He was only a teenager at the time.
“Every time I get down on my self, I just think about what he went through and the sacrifices that he made for me and my family,” said Azubuike, 21, who is one of five captains on the football team.
By the early 1980s, Ifeanyi, who went to school in Lagos, continued his quest for higher education in America, becoming the only one of his nine siblings to leave Nigeria. He managed to obtain his undergraduate degree at East Stroudsburg University, his masters degree from Kutztown University and his doctorate in psychology from Indiana University, while supporting his wife, Ijeoma – also a native of Nigeria – and their five children.
“My family’s really proud of him because the circumstances [in which he obtained his degrees] were not optimal at all,” said Azubuike, the third of the five children.
Ifeanyi’s struggles have put life in perspective for Leyon, a red-shirt junior.
“What I do right now – I love it and it’s hard sometimes,” Azubuike said about his football career. “But ‘hard’ isn’t the word for what he went through.”
On a much smaller scale, the younger Azubuike has gone through his own journey on the football field.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound East Stroudsburg High graduate played tight end as a freshman and linebacker as a sophomore before landing at defensive end this season. After finishing the 2006 season with 24 tackles, Azubuike has already collected 22 tackles (11 solo), including 4.5 tackles for losses and a sack in the Owls’ first five games. He is second among defensive linemen in tackles behind sophomore Andre Neblett, who has 23.
“He always leads by example,” junior defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “He has a hard job at defensive end but he does it and that helps us along.”
Coach Al Golden said Azubuike is one of the hardest workers and wants to win “so bad.”
“He’s one of the poster boys for our program,” Golden said. “He’s had adversity and he’s really progressed as a man both on and off the field – and in the community.”
Azubuike, who practiced at defensive end as a true freshman in 2004, said he has adjusted to the position. He cited the third game of the season against Connecticut, where he had a career-high seven tackles and all four starters along the defensive line collected a sack, as a turning point.
“When you have a lot of energy out there from you and the rest of the three down lineman, it kind of elevates your play,” Azubuike said. “In that game, the transition was as smooth as can be.”
The transition into athletics has been a smooth one for Azubuike.
As a youth, Azubuike was trained in boxing by his father and former welterweight fighter Vince Shomo. He stopped boxing after high school but picked up the habit again this summer when he added it to his football training regiment. He trained at Champ’s Gym on 22nd and Huntington streets.
“Your hands are very key, you have to have a quick strike and you have to engage the offensive lineman before he engages you,” he said. “It helped my conditioning out so much.”
Athletics appear to run in the family. Azubuike’s older brother, Leroy, is a senior defensive end at Kutztown, his cousin, Ifeanyi Ohalete, played in the NFL and another cousin, Kelenna Azubuike, is a member of the Golden State Warriors.
But athletics isn’t the only thing on Azubuike’s mind.
He said his parents always preached the value of education to their children.
“If I got a bad grade on a test and my dad didn’t like it, he would pull me from practice,” said Azubuike, who also played basketball at East Stroudsburg. “He would do the same thing with my brother. At the time you would think, ‘Why can’t dad just let me practice?’ You don’t understand it then, but when you reflect on it, you understand why he did it – because obviously education is the most important thing.”
Azubuike, an African-American studies major, expects to attend graduate school next year. He said he wants to help black people who are living in “trying situations” across the nation.
“I just want to do whatever I can with my major and with my degree to aid and fix the situation that we’ve been living in,” he said. “It’s really sad when you walk 10 blocks down and you see some of the situations that our people are living in. You just want to devote yourself to the struggle and make sure that we get what we deserve living here in America.
“I feel that every person should have the opportunity to be the best that they can be in life,” he added. “I just want to help in that situation, whether it’s through motivational speaking or social work or teaming up with a psychologist like my brother or creating a firm with my dad.”
Furthermore, Azubuike said he also wants to reach out to black people in Africa.
“There are a lot of places in Africa that are making great strides,” Azubuike said. “But on a large scale, there a still a lot of places that are extremely impoverished.
“I just want to go over there one day and spread the word about education being the key to getting out of whatever situation you’re in at that time.”
With his father attending school full time while he and his siblings were younger, Azubuike said his family relied on the word of God to help them get through the tough times.
“We had faith the whole time through,” Azubuike said. “We developed a strong bond with the Lord and I just keep that [with me] everyday. Whether it’s Temple football or I have a hard test that I’m about to take, everyday I keep it and I try to spread the word to my teammates. There’s a lot of spiritual guys on this team, too.
“Just like I’m building my resume with Temple football right now, I’m just going to keep on trying to build my resume with the Lord,” he added.
Despite the Owls’ 0-5 record, Azubuike said he sees brighter days for Temple in the future.
“We’re struggling right now but one day I want to see this program on top – on top of the world,” Azubuike said.
He related the growth of the program, which has received a breath of fresh air from Golden, to the journey his father experienced going from Nigeria to the United States.
“Right now, it doesn’t look too good right here in the present, but it’s getting better everyday, just like him,” he said. “He had five kids, we were very poor, he was in school and working. It didn’t look too good at the time but now obviously it’s paid off tremendously.
“I just hope I can follow the same path to success.”
Tyson McCloud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.