Driven to succeed, Chris Akporoghene would not be denied
Chris Akporoghene can still vividly remember his first football practice.
A little more than two years ago, the Nigerian native from the Warri province in the Delta State moved to the United States in search of an opportunity. Basketball was primed to be Akporoghene's catalyst for a new life, but when he enrolled at The King’s Academy in East Tennessee, the then 6-foot-4, 235-pound 15-year-old screamed football player.
Former TKA head coach Matt Lowe promptly handed Akporoghene a helmet, pads and a pair of cleats.Akporoghene had never stepped on a football field before, though.
He’d vaguely seen highlights on YouTube. The rules were foreign. They ball looked weird and the equipment was instantly a nuisance.
At his first practice, Akporoghene needed help just to strap on his helmet. Lowe lined him up at defensive end and tight end.
It didn’t go well.
“It all felt so strange,” Akporoghene recalled.
“At first I was pretty excited. I put on the helmet and it was all good. Then we started practice. I hated it. That whole thing was just so heavy. It was hot. I couldn’t run with it. I couldn’t move my neck. I couldn’t do nothing with it. I went to Coach Lowe and asked him, ‘Hey can I do this without helmets and shoulder pads?’”
Despite a wayward Day 1, Lowe encouraged Akporoghene and told him he’d get used to the equipment. Trust me, Lowe said, you can be great at this. The two quickly formed a close bond, with Lowe and the rest of his family acting as stateside surrogates for Akporoghene. Over time, Akporoghene did improve. He was a natural in the weight room and devoured game tape to learn the details of football and the techniques of playing offensive line. He'd routinely wake up at 6 or 7 a.m. just to work on pass sets.
“Chris can’t catch,” Lowe said chuckling, “But his hands are massive and he’s great at putting them on guys and running his feet. So really, we moved him to the OL and started at the very basics with him.”
It doesn't get much simpler than that.
“You got the guy in front of you, go from there," Lowe said.
As his skills continued to develop, he’s gotten so much better.”
In two years at TKA, Akporoghene emerged as a one of the top offensive lineman in the state. The offers quickly poured in, with West Virginia the first Power 5 school to extend a scholarship. Others followed suit, but Akporoghene wanted a scholarship from the hometown team.
Akporoghene didn’t know about the history of Peyton Manning and never dreamed of ‘Running through the T’ like other East Tennessee kids, but the atmosphere in Neyland Stadium one September afternoon never left him. Akporoghene's first college football game was Tennessee’s rousing comeback win over Florida back in 2016, and it was at that game he first believed he could one day join "the big guys" down on the field.
“It was electric,” Akporoghene said. “Matt told me, ‘That can be you down there. You just have to work for it.’
“I thought, ‘I can do that.’”
While it took longer than he hoped, Akporgohene finally earned his offer from the Vols last month after a dominating camp performance in front of the new staff. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt quickly turned up the heat on the former Knoxville native, swooping in at the last moment to poach Akporgohene away from Oregon or Texas.
On Monday, Akporoghene committed to Tennessee as a 4-star offensive line prospect in the 2019 class. Now a chiseled 6-foot-5, 290-pound Stonehenge lineman, he's slated to start his final season of high school football at famed IMG Academy and his dream of pursuing something more for himself has been fulfilled.
“It’s really an unbelievable story,” said Lowe, now the head coach at Powell High.
“It’s an unbelievable story about a family wanting more for Chris, and Chris taking opportunities that were given to him and making the most of them.”
It seems wild now since Akporoghene holds more than 30 football offers, but back in the spring of 2016, he left Nigeria with the serious intentions of playing basketball in the states. The youngest of four siblings, Akporoghene grew up in immense poverty. His father died when he was 9 or 10 and his mom worked multiple jobs and was rarely around. He was gifted an opportunity, a new life and he ran with it.
“I had to learn to take care of myself at a very, very early age,” Akporoghene said.
“People in my family have always been suffering. It’s a cycle. Nobody has actually said, ‘What’s wrong with finding a way to be successful? What’s wrong with going to school? Getting a great job? Getting a degree? What’s wrong with making something out of your life? God blessed me with a gift of being the biggest guy in my school. I wasn’t the best, but because I was the biggest I had a chance.”
Akporoghene enrolled in an international exchange program and at first thought he was going to a school in Missouri to play basketball. But he ended up at TKA, where nearly one-third of the school is comprised of international exchange students. The detour was a huge blessing in disguise, as he met the Lowe family and ultimately found a home in East Tennessee.
“The Vols are getting an unbelievably dedicated young man,” Lowe said.
“(Football) isn’t just something that he does. This is what he wants to be. He’s committed to making this work for him. He’s a young man who’s only played 17 or 18 football games his entire life. His ceiling is so high compared to where he was and where he’s been. The fact he’s getting the competition, especially this year at IMG vs. some of the ‘cats he gets to go against down there, he’s going to walk into Tennessee in January ready to compete.”