After playing his last home game at Bulldog Stadium, Alex Akingbulu said he didn’t want to get emotional until he saw his fellow seniors in tears, so he joined them in the bittersweet moment.
He looked into the Red Wave crowd for the last time, saw his mom cheering in pride and even cherished the physical pain he was enduring.
“If I got hurt or anything, people asked me, ‘Why are you smiling? Why are you smiling?’ I’m like, this is what we like. This is what we want,” Akingbulu said. “Even the pain was something that like brought me joy in a way because I don’t know if I’ll ever necessarily feel that again.”
He transferred into the program in 2019, Akingbulu said he is grateful for the opportunity Fresno State has offered. He explained how thankful he is for the organization believing in him and giving him the ability to be himself.
He walked into Saturday’s post-game press conference with a headband showing the letters “Y.D.N.”, meaning Young Determined Nigerians. It is an organization Akingbulu and his friends started to encourage the branching of Nigerian culture into different avenues like music and sports.
“Our parents kind of have this mindset of more like you should be a doctor, lawyer and stuff like that,” Akingbulu said. “We can get the same push to being, you know, athletes as well. I feel like that’s a place we can dominate.”
His parents, Samuel and Anna Akingbulu, left their home country of Nigeria and moved to the United States, where they built a family and settled in Carson, California, with their three children – Emmanuel, Josephine, and Alex.
Alex had a successful high-school career for football: winning two consecutive City Section Division 1 Championship, a top 100 recruit for California and a three-star prospect by ESPN. He then became an offensive lineman for UCLA.
But that’s when his career took a turn as an injury led him to not see any action for the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Akingbulu said it was tough because he didn’t know whether he would go the junior college route or wait for bigger offers.
Fresno State coaches Ryan Grubb and Roman Sapulo were key in contacting Akingbulu. When they invited him to see the campus and the team, everything fell into place to where Akingbulu would be in a Bulldog uniform.
“I’m happy I did it because it definitely changed my life,” Akingbulu said. “ It was definitely some relief, just knowing, you know, where my future was going, and then it was obviously just anticipation and excitement because… it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the field.”
He didn’t have that much film to send to other schools. Most of what he could show was from his high school tapes and spring ball. Although there wasn’t much recent film, Fresno State coaches saw potential in Akingbulu and really wanted him to join the team.
“His length and his athleticism at that size is hard to find,” said Coach Sapolu. “He was a basketball player in high school so that in itself was how we made the decision.”
Sapolu also mentioned that Akingbulu’s mind and character made the decision obvious. Although football is his passion with many obstacles, he remained diligent and consistent with his school work. The coaches saw that in the beginning when talking to him.
“He’s an impressive person as far [as] intellectually; the type of human being he is. That’s what stood off, first and foremost,” Sapolu said.
The past two seasons for Fresno State, Akingbulu has made the Fall Academic All-MW selection. This summer Akingbulu received his master’s in education and got accepted to the master of business administration program at Fresno State.
He said he wanted to leave a legacy for Fresno State on and off the field.
“Trying to be a role model to the younger guys… The younger guys [to] just let them know education matters as well. So you know, just having that balance of, you know, good education and playing physical on the field. I feel like that’s just something that I kind of pride myself in,” Akingbulu said.
He’s not the only one who’s proud. Sapolu said the football team supports Akingbulu’s achievement.
“We call him Dr. Akingbulu. He’s about to get his third degree” Sapolu said, jokingly. “We’re proud of him for that… He really has a good vision for what his life needs to look like, and he really wanted to put a cherry on top with this football thing.”
Utilizing the additional year of eligibility approved by the NCAA, Akingbulu is now in his third season of football at Fresno State. This year was also emotional for him because he went back home to his old college, UCLA, as an opponent.
This game was a memorable one for Akingbulu’s football career because he got to play in front of his friends and family. From never playing in the Rose Bowl due to injury, he helped Fresno State defeat the previously ranked No.13 UCLA.
He talked about the win being full circle in his career.
“Just talking about my journey really, you know, starting [in UCLA]. Everything that happened over there, finding a better opportunity over here and coming into an organization that values me… It’s just crazy how life can go around,” Akingbulu said.
Although he remained in California, Fresno was an area Alex was not used to – the heat being one major difference. It was an adjustment for him because UCLA, albeit a larger and more populated school, did not give him the experience to break out of his comfort zone since he was close to home.
Akingbulu said how Fresno State gave him that first experience to “get out of his shell.”
He took that four-hour drive on his own, killing the time by listening to Afrobeat artists like Burna Boy and Wizkid.
He was anxious to see how this new home would be. He talked about how his parents helped him during the transition.
“Having situations where, you know, you’re transferring stuff, you kind of have doubts… they’ve helped me carry my confidence over here,” Akingbulu said.
In a conversation with his mother about being on his own, she reminded Akingbulu about their family’s start, with his parents moving to a whole different continent on their own.
“If she can do that, and you know, build a family and support us, why can’t I just go four hours away and continue to do my best in education and football,” Akingbulu said.
When his parents reacted to his transfer to Fresno State, it wasn’t the football team they were proud of. Although their son was part of two iconic football schools, the sport remains foreign to them.
What they were proud of, especially for his mom, was Akingbulu’s continuing education. He said his journey was about keeping his faith and perseverance.
“Where there’s a will there’s a way, and if you put in the hard work, then everything will pay off. You know, for some guys it’s shorter than others. Some guys get to start, you know, as true freshmen. A guy like me, it took me six years but as long as you get to the goal. It doesn’t matter how long the race is,” Akingbulu said.