Justin Adekoya carries 308 pounds on the agile, 6-foot-5 frame of a former defensive end. The combination of size and athleticism helped make the Eastern Kentucky University football standout a preseason All-OVC offensive tackle.
Yet it is a drive to better himself created during a childhood in which he did not always have food to eat that is most responsible for Adekoya’s unlikely story of success.
Adekoya grew up, the youngest of three brothers, on the north side of Chicago. His parents were divorced. Money was scarce.
“Some days, I went without eating,” Adekoya says. “Other days, I would have to go hustle on my own.”
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For a 7-year-old boy on the streets of Chicago, “hustling” came to mean showing up outside convenience stores and offering to pump gas for strangers.
Adekoya did it hoping people would tip an enterprising child for his efforts. Those tips, $2, $3, could be the difference between eating or not.
With whatever money he earned, Adekoya would go to McDonald’s and order a double cheeseburger for 99 cents. Yet he would never buy french fries.
Says Adekoya: “I would think, ‘You know, a bag of (potato) chips are 50 cents at the corner store, so I’ll just buy me a double-cheeseburger (at McDonald’s) for a dollar, and that’s $1.50 instead of having to pay another dollar to get fries.’”
In Chicago, Adekoya and his family lived on the 13th floor of a building some 15 minutes from Wrigley Field. At nights, he would sometimes stare out the window, entranced, by the glow from the ballpark lights. On the Fourth of July, he could see the Chicago Cubs’ fireworks. “It kind of looked like it outlined the globe,” he says.
Other times, the sights and sounds of Adekoya’s childhood were less inspiring.
“You would hear gun shots all the time,” he says. “There was a lot of gang violence. You’d see gangs just walk in flocks to different places. Each block was sectioned off by a different gang — Vice Lords, GDNs (Gangster Disciple Nation), Bloods, Crips, all that stuff.”
Eventually, the street gangs penetrated Adekoya’s family. “My two older brothers, both of them were gang-affiliated,” Adekoya said. “That brought a lot of tension to our family. ... It brought a lot of unwanted activities, friends would come over that my mother really wasn’t fond of.”
To remove her boys from a dangerous environment, Dwan Adekoya came up with a radical plan: She would move her family somewhere that, figuratively, was as far from Chicago as one could get.
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Ringgold, Ga., is a village of some 3,679 residents located just south of Chattanooga, Tenn.
Dwan Adekoya had no prior tie to the area. “She had a friend she knew that was from Georgia,” Justin Adekoya says. “The friend said, ‘Hey, move your kids here. There’s a better school system. … Small town. It’s a lot slower here, lot less trouble to get into.’”
For a 9-year-old who had known nothing but Chicago, Ringgold may as well have been a different planet.
Adekoya’s mom is white. His late father, Ayodele, was Nigerian. Being multiracial, Adekoya felt alienated in a town where some 89.16 percent (2010 U.S. Census) of the residents were white.
“The names that I got called, racial slurs and stuff like that, in elementary school by kids (were) pretty bizarre for me,” Adekoya says. “That was something I hadn’t experienced in Chicago.”
Internally, Adekoya already felt an anger over having been uprooted from the life he knew. Being insulted in this new town based on the way he looked lit his fuse.
“When these kids would say something, we’d fight,” he says. “Usually, that would end up with someone getting hurt and, typically, it wasn’t me. I got in trouble a lot. I was in the (school) office a lot. People would try to help me, but I would always push them away.”
Dwan Adekoya was working the overnight shift at Wal-Mart. “She wasn’t making much money, and with the money she did make, she had to pay the bills and do all these different things,” Justin Adekoya says. “Sometimes, there wasn’t food in the house.”
When these kids would say something, we’d fight. Usually, that would end up with someone getting hurt and, typically, it wasn’t me. I got in trouble a lot. I was in the (school) office a lot. People would try to help me, but I would always push them away.
At the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, there was lots of food. There would be pizza on Friday night after youth group meetings and often potluck dinners after other services. “I started going to church because, every time I went, I was being fed,” Adekoya says. “I was like, ‘This is great.’”
They weren’t sure at the church what to make of the big kid who started showing up for youth group. “Justin was a little rambunctious,” says Miles Teems, a Ringgold businessman, who was then serving as interim youth minister at Mt. Pisgah.
Nevertheless, Teems and his wife, Donna, took an interest in Adekoya. When he tried to push them away, they refused to be pushed.
In the seventh grade, Adekoya went out for the middle school basketball team. He was thrilled when he made it, then crushed when he realized he had no way to get to practices.
Teems found time in his days to drive him.
“He was showing up to my games. His wife Donna was showing up to games, taking pictures, giving me (pictures),” Adekoya says. “As a kid, I didn’t have any pictures. They were taking me out to eat after (games). They just showed this unconditional love I had never seen before. That was a turning point in my life. I was like, ‘I want to be able to care for someone the way they do for me.’”
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By the time Adekoya reached Heritage High School, the angry kid who had spent so much time in the principal’s office was no more.
“I heard some of the stories (about Adekoya getting in trouble), but that was not the kid I taught,” says Mike Carter, a former Heritage teacher. “Justin’s a little loud, and because he’s big, people sometimes misjudge who he is. Once you got to know him, he was as respectful a kid as I ever taught. I’d tell other kids, ‘Justin Adekoya shows respect to his elders and respect to his peers, and that’s how people ought to treat people.’”
As high school passed, Adekoya desperately wanted the chance at a better life he believed would only be possible with a college education. He knew his family lacked the money to send him to school. He did not feel right about asking Miles and Donna Teems nor Deena and Corey Lamb — another Ringgold couple who treat him like a son — for financial help.
His hope was an athletics scholarship.
Basketball had always been his sport. Yet as his junior year approached, he realized he was not getting the recruiting interest in hoops that suggested a scholarship was certain. Says Adekoya: “I was thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got to get a scholarship. I might as well go out for the football team.’”
So Adekoya put on the pads, became a defensive end. Soon after, then-Heritage football coach Tim James asked former Georgia Bulldog Eric Coney for help coaching the defensive line — and its new end.
“I just saw a big kid out there running around,” Coney says of Adekoya. “I tried to teach him technique and the discipline it takes to play football right.”
John Revere, then an Eastern Kentucky football assistant, was on a recruiting swing through north Georgia when a coach from a rival high school asked if he’d heard about “the big kid over at Heritage.’”
“I said, ‘No, but I can go take a look,’” Revere recalls.
When he viewed game video, Revere liked how Adekoya moved. Yet, it was when Revere first visited Heritage and saw Adekoya that “I realized, in person, how big he was. I started to get pretty excited,” the ex-EKU assistant said.
The college scholarship Adekoya coveted had become a reality.
After starting out in Richmond on defense, Adekoya switched to offensive tackle in 2014. Last year, he became Eastern’s starting left tackle, a position he holds this season for the Colonels (2-3) and new head man Mark Elder.
It’s not impossible Adekoya will get a shot in the NFL. Yet whenever football ends, the social work major envisions a life spent helping children who grow up like he did.
“I love working with the youth, that population that is at risk,” Adekoya says. “That’s who I was. I had troubles in my childhood, and I understand what a lot of these guys have (gone) through. … I want to help people overcome obstacles in their life like I did.”
The hunger Justin Adekoya knew as a child drives him still.
Eastern Kentucky at Tennessee State
7 p.m. Saturday (WatchESPN.com)