Although Akaninyene Umoh’s college career wasn’t easy, he persevered and aims to play professional football after graduation.
Jefferson P. Nolan
In his freshman year, Akaninyene Umoh’s coach took away the Cal Poly football player’s PlayStation 3.
Umoh was enrolled in summer school, but back then, he wasn’t making the grade. Umoh needed to do well in his classes to be eligible to play football, but running backs coach Aristotle Thompson wasn’t about to let his player flunk.
“I told him, ‘Until I see your grades where they need to be, I’m keeping this,’” Thompson said. “‘And if they don’t get any better, the next thing I’m going to take is your car.’”
Before Cal Poly, Akaninyene Gabriel Umoh graduated high school with a 4.1 GPA, but five years ago, he was struggling to pass his college classes. Thompson had vowed to Umoh’s mother that he would act as a parent for him in San Luis Obispo.
“Anything I needed to do, I would do,” Thompson said. “He had a PlayStation, and I took it from him. I took it from him for the entire season.”
Without his video games and the imminent loss of his car, it was time for Umoh to buckle down.
“It was a little embarrassing because all the fellas were laughing at me, but I appreciate what Coach Thompson did,” Umoh said grinning. “I probably wouldn’t be here at this moment if he hadn’t been there to discipline me.”
In January 2009, Thompson began recruiting Umoh out of Morningside high school in Inglewood, Calif.
He talked with the coaches, met Umoh and sat down with his family.
“It was funny because as soon as I walked out of the school after meeting him, I called our offensive coordinator at the time and told him that I’d found our future fullback,” Thompson said.
After five years of Cal Poly football, Umoh has demonstrated his various skill sets as an athlete; on the roster he’s a fullback, but for head coach Tim Walsh, he embodies a full offensive weapon.
“His contributions on the field have been at multiple positions,” Walsh said. “He’s played fullback and both of our slot positions, he’s caught balls and he’s played special teams. Not only is he a good runner and good with the ball, he’s a really good blocker. We’re losing quite a bit because of his multiplicity.”
In 2013, Umoh led the team with 60 points scored on 10 touchdowns. The fullback rushed for 451 yards and seven scores on the ground, and caught 12 passes for 199 yards and recorded three receiving touchdowns for the Mustangs.
After Cal Poly’s season ending 42-14 victory over Northern Colorado, Umoh was named to the first team All-Big Sky along with offensive lineman Lefi Letuligasenoa.
The award is no surprise to Walsh and the coaching staff. At the beginning of the season, the multifaceted athlete told Thompson he never wanted to come off the field. He wanted to do whatever it took to be on the field with his teammates.
“Growing up, I was always kind of a close-mouthed kid,” Umoh said. “But I always settled. I let people dictate what I did. But this year was my last year playing football (at Cal Poly), and I wanted to speak up. I wanted people to know what I wanted and of my ambitions to continue to play football. The only way to do that is to always be on the field and stand out. That was a decision I made myself, and I believe it worked out this year.”
Though he had tumultuous start to college life, Umoh has finally reached the finish line. After the fall quarter, he will have completed all his classes. After the winter quarter, he will have finished his internship and his senior project.
And though football has always been Umoh’s passion, walking to the podium and receiving his diploma will mean something special for him.
“To see him mature and go through ups and downs in life and become the man that he is, it’s a pretty special feeling to see him have the opportunity to walk across the stage and get a diploma from an institution like Cal Poly,” Thompson said. “It’s pretty exciting for me in many ways — not just as a football coach.”
Still, Umoh hopes to continue his football career in the pros.
Umoh will travel to Los Angeles to compete in the NFL Regional Combine, a professional football camp in which players across the country will display their skills in front NFL scouts.
“I need to keep my fingers crossed and keep my faith in God,” Umoh said. “I feel like I have an opportunity, but I have to show what I can do. I have to post good times and attend a few regional combines to show what I have.”
And though Walsh knows how competitive it is to play professional football, he does whatever he can to help his players advance to the next level.
“There are very few graduating seniors who played as much as (Umoh) played who don’t want to continue to play (in the NFL),” Walsh said. “Finality is going to happen at some point and time … it’s just a matter of when. We will help him and assist him and do everything we can to help him continue to play, but the reality is, it’s in other people’s hands.”
But whether the soon-to-be graduate plays professional football or not, Umoh will never forget his time playing for the Mustangs. For him, it was more than just football. Between the rolling hills of San Luis Obispo and amongst the crowd in Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Umoh has found a home.
“Cal Poly has taught me so much about myself and about life,” Umoh said. “I’m so honored to have had the opportunity to meet these guys and be a part of the Cal Poly family. I definitely want my kids to come to Cal Poly in the future. For me, Cal Poly has taught me what it means to be a good person.”