Lion’s Pride

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Immanuel Iyke, Defensive Tackle / Penn State - The Players' Tribune

Two years ago, I woke up inside my room early one morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. I was stationed in Iwakuni, Japan, at the time, with just a few more months left in my Marine enlistment.

I was still half asleep, but my TV was on. I had a 40-incher in my small barracks room, so my bed was pretty much right next to the screen. I used to keep it on all night because I liked having background noise while I slept. This time, when I cracked my eyes open a bit, I saw that a football game was on. Ohio State was playing Penn State in Happy Valley. Cool. I rolled over on my side and started to watch.

I’ll admit, in the first quarter, I was thinking, Maaaan, Penn State is about to lose.

It wasn’t that I had any allegiance to either team or anything, Ohio State was just ranked pretty high and I didn’t know much about Penn State.

But as the game unfolded, something interesting happened. I found myself gradually pulling for the Nittany Lions. I think what started it was the crowd at Beaver Stadium. It was the first time I’d ever seen a White Out before, and it looked nuts. It was like a gigantic party. You could almost feel the stadium shaking through the TV.

I found myself quietly cheering with them. I wanted Penn State to score so I could see that stadium go crazy. By the time the fourth quarter came around, I was jumping up and down and pumping my fist every time Penn State made a play. The team clearly had a lot of heart. They were easy to root for.

I watched until the very last play in double overtime, and even though the Nittany Lions lost, they gained a new fan. Up until that point, I had known that I wanted to go to college, but I wasn’t sure where.

I started filling out my application to Penn State that same day.

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My family emigrated from Nigeria to New Jersey when I was 13 years old.

Both my parents are computer engineers, and they came here because of the opportunity for a better life for all of us.

In Nigeria, even though I was raised in larger, more modern places like Benin City and Lagos, coming to America was still a pretty big adjustment. Moving across the world is a scary thing in general, but it’s even more so when you’re entering your awkward teenage years.

Early on, I mostly stayed inside my shell and didn’t talk to many people. I think because of that, other kids I encountered at school didn’t know what to make of “the new kid from Africa.” When a lot of people met me for the first time, they would speak really slowly.

“Heeeeeey, hooooow’s iiiiiiiit gooooin’?”

“Niiiiiiiiiiice tooooo meeeeet yooooou!”

I’d stare at them for a bit and then respond.

“Uh, I speak English.”

It took a little time to dispel the usual stuff that people sometimes get wrong about Africa. I’d get asked if I hunted with lions and ate antelope, that kind of stuff. I had to tell them that, No, I wasn’t raised in the Lion King.

Growing up, my parents were very strict in pretty much every way, which is common in Nigeria. So that proved to be another challenge, because I wasn’t allowed to hang out with friends or anything after school was over. I had to go straight home.

It took a while before I finally was able to find common ground with some of the kids around me: sports. When everything else was pretty unsettled in my new life, I found some normalcy in sports.

I had played soccer in Nigeria, so that was the sport I started playing when I came to the U.S. I was a defender and was usually good for at least one yellow card per game, as well as my fair share of reds. So when I saw that a lot of my new friends were playing American football, I started paying more attention to the sport. It looked like all of the stuff that got me kicked out of soccer games was actually encouraged in this other sport. That didn’t seem too bad.

I went out for the football team my freshman year of high school just to try it out, and I loved it immediately. I loved the hitting, I loved the running and I loved the identity I found out on the field. Now I wasn’t just the kid from Africa. I was a teammate. The coaches stuck me at cornerback that first year, and I immediately started knocking guys around (mostly when I was supposed to).

Over the next four years, football became who I was. My parents wanted me to go to college so that I could get a degree, but I wanted to go to college so I could play more football.

The only problem was that nobody offered me a scholarship. I was admitted into a few schools, but my mom, who had always been very education-oriented, felt like none of them were good enough. I think she was right to an extent, but there was another, even bigger, problem: me.

I wasn’t ready for college, even if I thought I was at the time. I didn’t have the drive or the focus to really succeed. But beyond that, I also didn’t have any way to pay for it.

Fortunately there was a solution to that.

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I first heard about the Marines from those badass commercials on TV.

You know the ones I’m talking about: the 30-second mini action movies. They always have guys jumping out of helicopters and kicking through doors in slow motion — and of course that cool sword.

That was what I knew about the Marines when I enlisted.

So, basically, I knew nothing about the Marines when I enlisted.

I was just hanging out with my best friend one day near the end of my senior year of high school and he mentioned that he had to meet with his recruiter. I figured I’d go along with him because I had nothing better to do.

I was sitting there in the office as my friend spoke with the guy. The recruiter was super animated, talking about all of the great things a life in the military can lead to, and I was sort of half listening. But then I heard him say something that caught my attention.

“And we’ll pay for you to go to college.”

I perked up.

“Wait, what?”

I was a decent-sized kid — a pretty solid 180 pounds — so the recruiter told me that I would make an amazing Marine. He started selling me — hard. So I did end up getting recruited pretty hard out of high school. It just wasn’t to play football.

It wasn’t like I had a better plan otherwise. So I signed on the dotted line and enlisted in the Marines.

Two weeks later, I was at Parris Island to start basic training.

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The first day of boot camp I remember being outside lined up next to a bunch of guys I didn’t know and waiting for instructions. That’s when our drill instructor came out and yelled at us to start marching.

I was kind of confused.

Wait, why do we have to march? It’s just … walking.

At that point my head was still kind of spinning because I’d signed up for the Marines without any clear idea of what I was actually getting into. You have to keep in mind that I was raised in Nigeria. I wasn’t brought up with any sort of working knowledge of what being in the U.S. military was all about.

As it turns out, there were a lot of specific marching maneuvers that we had to do. Everything we did was based on tradition and we were expected to perform it with precision … or else you’d get yelled at. A lot. My recruiter hadn’t really touched on that before I signed up.

Honestly, it took me a little while to adjust to the military because the yelling didn’t really get to me the way it was supposed to. I grew up with Nigerian parents. No drill instructor could yell at me louder than them.

But over time, I started to get it. I think that when I finally realized the Marines were actually about a lot more than the marching and the discipline, I had a better idea of what they really wanted out of me. By doing things the right way, I could better myself in a meaningful way. But what I really discovered over time is that even though I had joined the Marines for myself, I grew to love it because of the people around me. That’s really what made it all worth it.

I had just turned 19 when I deployed for the first time.

When I first found out about it, I definitely had a moment where I freaked out. I really had no idea what to expect. But I felt really lucky that, if I had to go, it was with the guys in my unit. They were the best. I think we all had the same sort of anxiety, but that sort of bonded us together even more. We knew that we needed to lean on each other for support.

I grew up with Nigerian parents. No drill instructor could yell at me louder than them.

Immanuel Iyke

It’s difficult to describe the sound of a mortar going off above you to someone who has never experienced it.

It’s just … loud. Everything around you is filled with noise.

I was asleep in our barracks the first time I ever heard a mortar shell explode. It was chaos.

That was my, “This is really happening,” moment.

I rushed to the shelter near our base, and then just waited. Once the noise was gone, I slowly got out of the shelter and looked around, then went back to bed.

That was how I reacted the first time I heard a mortar shell. By the 10th or 11th time, though, I was so tired of it that I just stayed asleep. You learn that there’s a balance between exhaustion and adrenaline, and sometimes exhaustion wins.

I made it through my first deployment by focusing entirely on the job at hand. That made it easier. I worked on the aircrafts and helped load bombs. Other than that, I ate and I lifted weights. That was about it.

My final year of my enlistment, I lived on Iwakuni except for the times when I was on a minideployment to a different base.

By the time I was discharged in 2014, I was a very different person than the 18-year-old with very little direction in life who had initially enlisted. Back then I really didn’t have any of my priorities in order. And I know now that I didn’t actually want to go to school. I wanted to go to a party. I probably wouldn’t have lasted one semester.

The Marines gave me perspective. They offered me a view of what my life could potentially be if I focused and worked toward a goal.

And after my time was up, I did have a focused goal: I wanted a degree in advertising, I wanted to play football and I wanted to do both of those things at Penn State.

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When I enlisted the Marines, I weighed 185 pounds.

When I was discharged, I was 300 pounds.

So, naturally, a lot of people were pretty taken aback when I got home, which is understandable because there was about 40% more of me.

My friend Dan, who used to be a trainer at Maryland, offered to train me to help me get back into football shape. The first day we worked out together, we went over to my old high school football field and started doing the usual testing drills — the 40, the shuttle and so on. I noticed Dan started getting pretty excited because all of my times were pretty solid. By the end of the session, he said that if the Nittany Lions didn’t take me they were dumb.

Dan met Michael Hazel, the director of football operations at Penn State, at a coaching conference. Hazel gave Dan his email to pass on to me. When I got in touch, he asked me to send along some highlight tapes so that he could see what I could do. The only problem with that was that while I did have a highlight tape from high school, all of the plays on it had occurred several waist sizes ago.

If I wanted to show what I could do, it would have to be in person.

So not long after I enrolled, I showed up at an open tryout for the football team, where I was one of 150 guys looking to get a walk-on spot. The other guys didn’t look like scrubs either — they were former high school players like me just looking for another shot. We did bench presses, and that’s when I think I raised a few eyebrows. Like I said, there hadn’t been much to do in the military beyond eat and lift so I got pretty good at both. After I ran my 40-yard dash is when I got pulled aside by one of the coaches.

He introduced me to a bunch of people and they started asking me questions about my background. My only thought was, Damn, I must have run a good 40.

As I left, they told me that I’d get an email if I made the team. Honestly, I felt like I had a pretty good shot.

So I went back to my apartment and waited. A day went by … then another. … then another.

I checked my inbox first thing every morning. Nothing. After a week, I figured I must not have made the cut.

And then, one day when I was sitting in class, I felt my phone buzz. It was from the football operations staff.

I basically ran to the athletics building. I was excited to see what other walk-ons had made the team. But when I got there, it was just me.

Hazel and the strength coach congratulated me on making the team, but I interrupted them before they could even finish. “Alright! Let’s do it! Where are my pads? When can I start?”

They laughed. I still had more to do before I could really consider myself a full-fledged Penn State football player. What I had just completed was the easy part.

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My first day in pads was both exciting and terrifying.

Honestly, it had been a minute since I had attended a football practice, so everything was like my first day of boot camp, where I was just trying to figure out things on the fly. During stretches, everybody seemed to know what to do whenever the whistle blew, and I was just kind of winging it, hoping not to stick out too badly.

There was this one drill called Lion’s Pride, where two guys lined up across from each other while surrounded in a circle by the rest of the team. When the whistle blew, whoever pushed the other guy out of the circle won. It was about as intense as it sounds.

I was standing near the back trying to blend in when I heard coach James Franklin yell, “Welcome to Penn State Football … Iyke!”

Iyke?

Hey, that’s my last name.

Oh s*** … that’s my last name!

I walked into the middle of the circle and was matched up against Sterling Jenkins, a 6′ 8″, 330-pound offensive tackle. Just a mountain of a human being.

Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t made meaningful football contact with another player in five years. I’d been a defensive tackle at Penn State for all of 45 minutes. And now the entire team was watching me.

There were no heroics once the whistle blew. I got absolutely crushed.

Welcome to D-I ball.

The coaches brought me along gradually. The other players helped out me out a lot, too. Everyone on the defensive line was really good about telling me when I was out of position or helping me understand the little nuances you need to know in order to play at this level. There’s a big difference between being a good athlete and being a good college football player. That was basically the transition I had to make, but football wasn’t the only thing they helped me with.

When I first arrived at Penn State, I struggled a bit to relate to my fellow students. They were all perfectly nice and smart, but when I was their age, I was fixing planes in Afghanistan. It was difficult to find people I could identify with simply because I was so much older than the other people in my intro classes. Luckily being part of the football team helped fill in the gaps. I needed someplace where I could feel the camaraderie of being part of a unit — with people who were all going through the same things and who all had similar goals. Once again, sports helped me find a sense of normalcy.

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This season has been a pretty special one for anybody who cares about Penn State football, but it’s been particularly meaningful to me.

Before we played Iowa, a few of my teammates asked if I would be interested in leading the team onto the field on Military Appreciation Night. I couldn’t have been more honored.

While we were waiting in the tunnel, I tried to stay in the zone, but then I started hearing the cheers from the crowd. I gripped the flag a little harder. And once we ran out of the tunnel … it was just insane to see how wild the stadium went. I’d never experienced that sort of rush before.

This year has been filled with surreal moments like that, when afterward I just have to sort of pinch myself to make sure that it was real. That’s how it felt when I got to play in my first game against Michigan State, the team we defeated to lock up the East Division title. It was pretty crazy to take meaningful snaps against meaningful competition.

But the best things about this season are the goals that my teammates and I have accomplished together. What I think makes us special is that each of my teammates individually plays like they have something to prove. You know my story, but there are so many other examples of players and coaches here who have dealt with setbacks of their own and ultimately gotten stronger because of it.

After we lost to Pitt and Michigan early in the season, a lot of people wrote us off as a mediocre team, but that’s never how we viewed ourselves. We all know how we practice. If you go anything less than 100%, Coach Franklin will have you do up-downs until you’re numb (had to learn that one the hard way). We win because there’s nobody else that holds us to higher standard than we do.

You know, it wasn’t until after the final whistle blew against Ohio State this year that I let myself get out of game mode and really reflect on the journey I’d taken.

Two years earlier, I had been lying in my bed watching the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes play and thinking, Hey, that looks pretty cool. Now I was looking into the stands at Beaver Stadium as fans were hugging each other, some of them in tears. For most them, that victory marked the end of a long journey for a program trying to find itself.

I understood the feeling.

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