Bolu Akinyode is a defensive midfielder for Bethlehem Steel FC, a professional soccer team in the United Soccer League (USL). Before signing with Bethlehem, Akinyode had a productive 8-month stint with the New York Red Bulls II. Prior to his season with New York, he played Division I soccer for four years at Seton Hall University in New Jersey where he served as the team’s captain and graduated in 2015 with a degree in Public Relations and a minor in Business.
Bolu discusses his journey with soccer, including moving from Nigeria at age 10 and overcoming early adversity in the United States.
Q. When did you start playing soccer?
A. I’ve basically been playing my whole life. I don’t remember not playing soccer. Growing up in Nigeria, soccer is the biggest sport there. You go outside and everyone’s playing soccer. That was our way to enjoy life and be around friends and family. It’s such a big part of our culture and what we do. I was basically born into it.
Q. What was your childhood like?
A. My childhood was kind of split in half. It was a little rough. My first ten years of life I spent in Nigeria. I grew up without my dad. He passed away when I was two years old, so everything I learned was basically from my mom and older brother.
We moved here [United States] from Nigeria when I was ten. We lived in Irvington, New Jersey for 6 months and then we moved to Brooklyn, New York. It was a huge culture shock and I had to adapt as quickly as possible. Little things that I wouldn’t even think about now were new to me back then. The biggest thing was adapting to the weather. I remember we moved here in April. It was 60 degrees and my hands, fingers and toes were freezing.
Q. What challenges did you face in Nigeria and in Brooklyn?
A. In Nigeria, most of what I remember is being a kid, running around and just enjoying life. Things got a little bit tougher and more real when I moved to Brooklyn. My mom was almost never home because she was always working. Keeping my head straight was the biggest challenge for me, and trying not to get influenced by the different gangs around me. I had an end goal of coming here to achieve higher education and play soccer. I had to stay out of the streets and not get sidetracked by all this different stuff.
Q. Did you ever actually fall into the streets at any point?
A. Yea I did. Going into my freshman year of high school, I hung around the wrong crowd and got into trouble. I got into a couple of fights and stuff like that. My mom’s response was basically, “It’s your life and you need to figure it out. If you keep getting into trouble and getting suspended from school then I won’t allow you to play soccer. You can’t go to practice.”
That kind of screwed my head on straight because that was such a big part of me and it was what I loved to do. That was the best part of my day. Her taking that away from me actually motivated me to stay in school and stay away from certain kids because I didn’t want to not play soccer.
Also, I saw a lot of kids going to jail and getting killed. When you see that happening you’re like “Oh shoot…it’s real.” You have to kind of stay away from it or else it can easily be you. In the neighborhood I first moved into in Brooklyn, the main gang was the Crips. They would hang around outside of school and get into fights, rob people, etc.
If you go to school, you become friends with some of these kids. It’s not like they’re forcing you to do it, but you kind of just want to hang around them and you get sucked into that. They were looked at as cool. Even though it doesn’t make any sense now, that was the reality back then.
It helped me become the person I am today. I learned a lot of valuable lessons growing up in that kind of neighborhood.
Q. What was a turning point for you? When did things click?
A. I tried out for the New York Red Bulls Academy team right at the end of my eighth grade year, but when I made the team I kind of relaxed. It was pretty serious, but I didn’t take it as seriously as possible. A lot of the kids were already primed to be professionals and we were like 13 or 14 years old. My coach at the time pulled me aside because I wasn’t doing so well the first couple of months. He said, “Listen, you have like 2 or 3 more months to prove that you belong here or we’re going to cut you loose.”
I think right then was when it clicked for me. I said to myself, “You have the talent to be here, but you have to work hard and stay focused.” I was getting sidetracked, but that was when I realized that I could really do something. My attitude changed, I started playing well, and I was lucky enough to stay on the Academy. I traveled from Brooklyn to Jersey everyday for practice. I did really well there and by my junior year in high school, I started getting letters from Division I programs and I was going on visits.
Q. So you always knew you wanted to play collegiate (and eventually professional) soccer since you were a kid?
A. When I was younger it was just a passion. The older I got and the better I got at it, the more people told me, “You can play in college. You can do this, you can do that.” Soon it became a reality, and I just kept going and having fun with it.
I also knew that education was a big part of my family and the reason I came from Nigeria to America was for higher education. So I knew in order for me to play professionally, I had to graduate college first. With the academy, I had a little opportunity to skip college and maybe go pro, but that was something my mom just wasn’t about. So I never even gave it much thought.
Then once I got to college, I knew I wanted to play professionally. By being in the professional academy I got to train with the pros and play with players who I never thought I’d be in the presence of. So that already gave me the confidence I needed. As I got older, I set my goals and I knew what I wanted to accomplish. I’m thankful to be doing that now.
Q. What advice would you give kids who may be growing up in a tough environment?
A. My first advice would be to stay focused and always have a goal in mind. I think when you have a goal, that motivates you more than anything. Even when you have little goals that you might not want to do, you’ll always find a way to get them done because you want to eventually get to your big goal. You can put the blinders on and push the bad stuff aside and focus on that one thing.
Q. What motivates you?
A. Definitely my family, and what my mom has done for me up until this point. I always thank her and let her know how much I love her. To get me and my older brother and younger sister to come to America and have the opportunity to go to school, it just motivates me everyday to want to be successful and do the same for my family in the future.
Q. Moving forward, what are your goals as an athlete and as a person?
A. As a person, it’s always to just be humble, keep working hard, and keep learning from every little situation I’m put in. As an athlete, it’s to keep being successful, stay injury free, and keep moving up the ladder. Hopefully one day I can get to represent my national team [Nigeria].
Q. What’s your favorite part about playing soccer?
A. Everything. Waking up in the morning and going to training, walking out and smelling the grass, being around my teammates, and just being able to call this a job. This is what brings me joy. I’m just blessed to be able to embrace everything, even if it’s fitness, lifting weights, or doing the stuff that most guys don’t enjoy. I enjoy every single part of it because I know at one point this was everything that I wanted.