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PREP FOOTBALL 2000 / SUNSET LEAGUE

By Any Name, He's Brains of This Outfit

Temitope Sonuyi is Esperanza's No. 1 running back and also the No. 1 student in his class, on track to be valedictorian as a senior.

September 01, 2000|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can call Temitope Sonuyi simply Tim, or Timmy, just not in front of his parents, please. Abayomi and Labake Sonuyi, who emigrated from Nigeria to the United States in the late 1970s, prefer to call their son by his given name, which means, roughly, "All mine is worth to give to God."

In June, though, the Esperanza running back's parents might have to relent in their steadfast ways. After all, it's every parent's dream to call his or her son "valedictorian," right?

Sonuyi, No. 1 in his class of about 700 heading into his senior year, is poised to become not only a top-flight rusher for the Aztecs but also the first valedictorian to play for Gary Meek in his 25 years as a coach.

"For him to accomplish and do the things he does in the classroom," said Meek, who is entering his 15th year at Esperanza, "that says a lot for the kid. It shows how dedicated he is and how hard he works."

Sonuyi's progress in the classroom should come as no surprise. He has been one step ahead of his classmates since elementary school, when his academic-minded father made him and his older brother Tolu study workbooks for the upcoming grade during summer vacations.

"We always joked that school was our summer vacation," Tolu Sonuyi said.

But the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Temitope's progress on the football field is truly amazing, considering he has only played for the last couple of seasons. Last year, the bruising rusher missed five games with a wrist injury but still had 451 yards and seven touchdowns, including a 126-yard performance in a victory over Marina.

"I feel like a lot of people haven't seen what I can do," he said.

Sonuyi had begged his parents to let him play football as early as age 7, but he was met with considerable resistance. It wasn't "We'll see" or "Maybe later." It was simply "No."

Abayomi and Labake didn't have an aversion to sports; they just didn't see a need for them. Academics came first, and sports such as football were the great unknown to parents who came from a nation where political strife was the primary pastime.

Finally, in the eighth grade, Sonuyi caught a break. One of his friend's dads, who was president of a local Pop Warner association, convinced Sonuyi's parents to let their son play. Given the opportunity, Sonuyi excelled as he had in all other aspects of life.

But when Sonuyi entered high school, his parents toughened their stance once again before he brokered a deal: straight A's, or he didn't play.

Not a single B has found its way onto Sonuyi's report card since.

"Grades are the one criteria he has to stay in sports," said Abayomi Sonuyi, Temitope's father.

Said Temitope of his parents' decree: "That made me even more motivated. As a kid I resented [the intense focus on academics] so much at first. But I thank them so much now because I see how it's paid off for me."

Sonuyi, whose room is littered with letters from college coaches, is "looking real closely" at Stanford and California, schools with strong computer programs. He has expressed a desire to go into computer engineering after college.

He particularly enjoys math and physics because "everything is so straightforward and factual," he said. "The teacher can't really interpret it different. Like in language arts, people are like, 'Well, I think this poem means this or that.' In math, it's universal. It is what it is--you can't really argue."

Though well-spoken, Sonuyi isn't one of those kids who goes around showing off his intellect. "He's just like everyone else," Esperanza senior defensive lineman Rick Fry said.

Added senior linebacker Travis Jones: "Yeah, he's not too boastful about his 5.0 GPA."

Sonuyi gets his modesty from his hard-working parents, who arrived in the United States without any family or job connections.

Abayomi first worked as an ice cream truck salesman and later became a chemical engineer. Labake, Temitope's mother, eventually found work as an X-ray technician at a local hospital. Together, they provide a comfortable home in Yorba Linda for Sonuyi and his four siblings.

They also provide an environment in which academics are the priority.

"Academics are always going to be bigger than football for me because it's something you can't take away," Sonuyi said. "In football, you can be the best player, but you can get an ankle injury and they'll find someone to replace you.

"If you have your brain, they can't really take that away. You can always use that."

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