‘Climbing and Climbing’
How a Fiercely Competitive South African Transitioned From Rugby Pitch to Football Gridiron
By Adam Bronfin

Lying on his back, staring up at the sky, Baba Adejuyigbe got his first real taste of football.

In a 2014 scrimmage, thinking he was no longer involved in a play, Adejuyigbe casually jogged down the field, watching the action develop on the opposite side of the gridiron. Out of nowhere, he was hit and thrown to the turf by an opposing player.

“Oh damn, OK. So these guys can block me too,” he said.

It was just one of many learning experiences for the current senior throughout his time so far on the Cornell football team. Other freshmen had to just learn the playbook when they joined the team; Adejuyigbe had to learn the entire game of football.

Adejuyigbe, who was born in the United States to Nigerian parents but raised in South Africa, grew up playing just about every sport imaginable, but never football. Fast forward to his senior year in Ithaca, and the 6-foot, 223-pound linebacker earned playing time in front of 13,000 raucous fans in the team’s 34-7 victory over Brown.

It was a long time coming for the ever-confident, fiercely competitive South African.

Before attending college in Ithaca, Adejuyugbe starred in water polo in South Africa.

 

Unlike almost all college football players, Adejuyigbe’s path to the gridiron started across the globe in a country where football refers to a different sport.

Thanks to his successes on the field and in the classroom, Adejuyigbe earned scholarships to attend private schools in South Africa, elevating him above what he said is the country’s lackluster public education system.

And it was at boarding school where he excelled in four different sports, playing at the national or provincial level in each: water polo — “it’s basically wrestling underwater” — swimming, soccer and rugby.

After being accepted into Cornell, Adejuyigbe had a choice. He knew he wanted to continue his athletic career and play a sport in college, but he figured he had bulked up too much, so swimming and soccer were largely out of the question. That left water polo and rugby, both only offered by Cornell at the club level. Adejuyigbe, always one to seek out a challenge, knew playing at the club level would not satisfy him.

“I like to push myself, and I like to be pushed by people around me,” Adejuyigbe said.

So that left one option: football.

He put together a series of videos of him carrying the ball and tackling players in his high school rugby matches and sent it over to Cornell football head coach David Archer ’05. Archer told Adejuyigbe to see him when he got to campus. After Archer saw that Adejuyigbe was a real person and could go through some simple agility drills, “that was that,” and the South African was on the team.

The helmet felt weird. All the guys already knew each other. He didn’t understand the game. So ask Adejuyigbe how to play at the varsity level of a sport you know nothing about? For him, it was a lot of time taking extra reps on the field, a lot of time reading the playbook, a lot of time asking questions. And, oh yeah, a whole lot of time spent in the weight room.

“I can comfortably say I’m one of the strongest guys on the team,” Adejuyigbe said. “I was always out there lifting, making up for what I didn’t have in practice in the weight room. That kind of allowed me to gain a lot of respect among my teammates.”

Respect was always something Adejuyigbe had to work for. At football programs across the country, there is a general mentality that, compared with the well-established recruits, walk-ons have to prove their worth time and time again. As a freshman walk-on who didn’t know anything about football, Adejuyigbe was the “lowest of the lows” on the team, he said.

For a guy who spent the first 18 years of his life dominating every sport he ever participated in, that adjustment was a struggle, and one that he has tried to make up for by playing the hardest out of anyone — even in daily practice on the scout team, where he’s yelling like it’s game day and not afraid to go up against the team’s starters.

“He’s earned the respect of everybody in the organization,” Archer said. “He just brings it every day and is so positive and fun to be around.”

Raised by a single mother, Adejuyigbe attended boarding school in South Africa on athletic and academic scholarships.

 

Adejuyigbe started at running back; it seemed like a natural position after playing wing in rugby, a position that lines up on the outside edge and finishes off scoring attempts. Yet once he got the ball, Adejuyigbe found it difficult to adjust to the schemes of the completely new sport.

“I would never hit my gaps,” Adejuyigbe said. “I would always just run like a rugby player — just find what’s open and go.”

Since he rarely got reps in practice, Adejuyigbe would consistently watch film of other running backs during team meetings, always waiting to see himself on the big screen. Finally, later on in the season, the position group watched a clip of him getting a carry. As the coach started giving him advice, Adejuyigbe stood up and pointed at the screen.

“I shouted, ‘Oh coach, did you see that spin move?!’” Adejuyigbe said, sending the room into fits of laughter. “He just shook his head. He probably thought this guy is a joke, but I was just so happy to be on film.”

After switching to linebacker in the spring of his freshman year, Adejuyigbe began to find his stride and carve out a place on the team. Living with the outlook that you’re only as strong as your weakest link, Adejuyigbe’s defensive teammates stuck with him, helping him to understand the nuances of the game and pushing him to be his best.

“Being in a room with them for three to four years has been pivotal for my growth within the game,” Adejuyigbe said.

As the men who have to orchestrate the play and react to opposing teams’ offensive schemes, linebackers are widely considered to be the quarterback of the defense. Coming from rugby, where positions are much more fluid than the siloed nature of football, Adejuyigbe relished the opportunity to slot into the position that allowed him to make an impact on the field doing a variety of different things.

“It’s tough especially when you don't know anything but when you start to learn, [playing linebacker] is very instinctive,” Adejuyigbe said. “You’re reacting to the run or you’re reacting to the pass and you’re dropping. And so it’s like you get to do a bit of everything.”

Adejuyigbe started out as a running back on the Cornell football team — it seemed like the most obvious transition from rugby — before switching to linebacker in the spring of his freshman year.

 

Despite the hours training on the field, lifting in the weight room and studying with the playbook, Adejuyigbe watched underclassmen earn higher spots on the depth chart than he did. Each year, he would come out of the offseason with a renewed sense of optimism, feeling improved and ready to take on a bigger role on the team. Yet time and again, younger guys leapfrogged over him.

“You’re like, OK maybe next year I’ll get a shot,” Adejuyigbe said, “and then next year the youngsters leap you and you’re like, oh OK, maybe next year I’ll get a shot, and then the next year, other youngsters leap you, and you’re like, ‘Oh damn, maybe things aren't working out.’”

But despite the frustration, Adejuyigbe refused to give in and remained committed to learning the game and focusing on getting better one day at time. The coaching staff continued to guide him, always reminding him that he had just learned the sport a few years ago, while the guys who were playing above him had all played since elementary school.

Eventually, the hard work paid off.

On Adejuyigbe’s final Homecoming, the senior was called onto the field for the first time in his career during the team’s blowout win over Brown. It felt like a capstone on four years of dedication.

“At times it’s been tough,” Adejuyigbe said. “Not knowing what you’re doing is not always easy and because it’s such a fast-paced game. ... Everyone is just moving so quickly that there’s no one to stop and sit with you and so it’s like you’re trying your best not to fall behind and you’re already behind, because you’ve never played, I feel like I’m always just climbing and climbing and climbing.”

Adejuyigbe hopes to continue to climb after graduation. After taking a gap year — maybe playing rugby in Europe, maybe shadowing a doctor in the United States — the senior is looking to go to medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon.

But for now, when asked “rugby or football?” Adejuyigbe has to think for a second. In his head, you can see the memories of both sports flooding back: growing up across the globe as a rugby player, being part of a fast improving Cornell football team, playing semi-professional rugby after high school, finding a brotherhood of teammates in Ithaca.

“Football,” he answered at last with a laugh. “Football. I’ve just really fallen in love with the game. It’s just guys out there competing. Because each guy knows his role, it’s kind of like you all come together to make something beautiful.”

From mistakenly stepping on the Cornell “C” on the locker room floor his first day to playing in the Homecoming game as a senior, for Adejuyigbe, “The whole journey has been absolutely crazy. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

 

Adam Bronfin is a senior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. He is a senior editor on the 135th Editorial Board and can be reached at abronfin@cornellsun.com.