Tunde Ayinla, known formally to his close family and friends as Sulaiman Olatunde Ayinla, is set to play defensive end for Mercer University this fall a long way from home. Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1994, Tunde lived in Africa for eight years before coming to the United States to live with his father.
In 2002, Tunde's parents made the decision for him to leave Nigeria for a better chance at a good education in the United States. Ayinla's journey took him on a direct flight from Lagos to New York City, stepping out of the airport to see snow for the very first time. That first sight of the white stuff was short-lived, however, as he and his father ultimately made their way to humid Georgia.
He has spent the last ten years in Canton, Georgia and recently graduated from Cherokee High School in 2013. His football career started back in the sixth grade as Ayinla joined his middle school team to spend more time with his friends. He started playing at right tackle, though he admits he initially wasn't one of the better players on the team.
The highlight of his sixth grade season came when he managed to jump on and recover a fumble in the end zone to score his one and only touchdown. The play won the playoff game and solidified his future playing football.
After the eighth grade, Ayinla nearly decided to give up playing football for good because he worried the time required to play the sport might affect his grades and the chance to attend a prestigious university. Coach Keith Manus, Ayinla's high school defensive coordinator at Cherokee High, believed in him, and assured him he had the ability to become a quality defensive player.
"I have a lot of respect for him because he believed in me at a time when I didn't believe in myself," Ayinla said of coach Manus. "His confidence in making a small fifteen year old freshman the starting varsity defensive end three games into the season helped me to decide to continue to play football. Sticking with the game is one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I have Coach Manus to thank for it."
Tunde now says the best decision he has ever made is enrolling at Mercer University – a university he considers to be quite prestigious. Initially, he wasn't sure he would end up at Mercer, but Mercer inside linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Grant Cain came to Cherokee along with head coach Bobby Lamb and defensive line coach Justin Brown. The three coaches ultimately convinced him to make an official visit to Mercer.
After that initial weekend visit, Ayinla fell in love with the campus and even more importantly, he says, felt a true connection with the coaching staff.
Ayinla admits that what also drew him to Mercer was both the chance to start a new tradition in football and participate in Mercer's high level of academic rigor. He believes the strong emphasis on academics at Mercer will allow him to get the top notch education that his mother, who still lives in Nigeria, wanted for him when she sent him to the United States.
In the next four years Ayinla says he expects to be a key contributor on the Bears defensive front, making the newly reformulated team a force to be reckoned with in FCS football and a yearly contender in the playoffs. He said he is excited about making memories and friendships with his teammates at Mercer that will last a lifetime.
It's unusual for a college student to think this far ahead, but Ayinla said that at his eulogy he wants people to describe him with one word – winner. According to Ayinla, his definition of a winner is someone who handles their business with a first class mentality, someone who finishes what they started, someone who is graceful and humble in victory and defeat, and someone who truly adds value to the lives of those around him.
That is the legacy that Ayinla wants to leave behind, and the legacy he wants to build as he helps Mercer University kick off its first football season for the first time in over 70 years.
Tunde Ayinla is a prime example of the student-athlete that competes at Mercer University, those who want to both devote their best to their sport but also excel academically. One day Ayinla might return to Nigeria. But even now, as a freshman, Tunde is a great example of the mission of Mercer University – to change lives and the world through excellence in education.