CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A frail professor with a yarmulke pinned to his white hair scribbled a complex series of numbers and symbols on the chalkboard and asked his students to find the maximum voltage that would not cause diffraction.
Temitope Sonuyi, his biceps bulging as he put pencil to paper, solved the problem with the same determination that a year ago helped him become one of Southern California's top football recruits, as a running back at Anaheim Esperanza High.
The freshman who chose solid state chemistry over Division I football is partway through his first semester at one of the most challenging universities in the world. And he's not at all disappointed that he chose the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over scholarships offers from Oregon State and California.
"School is way more important than football," said Sonuyi, a computer engineering major who scored a 1,490 on his SAT and dreams of developing new technologies. "Most of my time, I spend toward school."
He still has found a little time for football, although the Division III brand played by MIT is the closest thing to an underground operation.The Engineers--that's the football team's ever-so-appropriate nickname--share a garage-sized weight room with other students. Another nuance: Players are expected to skip the short practice sessions several times a week to attend early evening labs. This is, after all, a school that has produced 22 Nobel Prize winners.
Nonetheless, Sonuyi has found the level of competition tougher than expected, even though he capped his freshman season Oct. 27 with a season-high 144-yard, one-touchdown performance in the Engineers' 28-21 loss to Western New England College. It was the kind of breakthrough he was expecting earlier.
Sonuyi is MIT's most coveted newcomer since running back Jose DeLeon, a speedster from Texas who went on to break every school rushing record in the mid-1990s.
But Sonuyi reported to training camp out of shape after spending the summer baby-sitting his siblings and studying for a chemistry placement test. Then the 5-foot-9, 220-pounder sprained an ankle and missed the Engineers' opener. He returned to rush for 80 yards and two touchdowns in MIT's 29-12 victory over Massachusetts Maritime Academy--the Engineers' only victory of the season--but battled injuries the rest of the way and never regained the form that made him a high school standout. He averaged 71 yards.
"He never has looked like he did on film, in terms of his cutting ability," MIT Coach Dwight Smith said. "I know how natural he can look, and he hasn't looked like that this year. But he still could be as good a back as there is in the league."
Sonuyi would prefer to be one of the best students in his freshman class, a far more daunting challenge. Only 16% of the 10,671 students who applied to MIT this year were admitted, and 40% of the 1,012 who enrolled were high school valedictorians. Sonuyi, who had a 4.7 grade-point average in high school, finished tied for No. 1 in his class of 621 at Esperanza.
"Your first week, you're humbled that there's people that are way smarter than you are," Sonuyi said.
Sonuyi has been preparing for this year since elementary school, when his academic-minded parents, who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in the late 1970s, made him study workbooks during summer vacations. Sonuyi at first resented the pressure but now realizes how much it has helped him.
"Without them pushing me, it would be really tough," Sonuyi said of his parents. "I definitely wouldn't be anywhere near where I am today."
Sonuyi has worked tirelessly on his own since enrolling at MIT, often zipping back to his dormitory immediately after games to work on a problem set. And even though freshman classes are graded on a pass-fail basis, Sonuyi has been so engrossed in his studies that he didn't know Michael Jordan was making a second comeback until being told by a visitor.
Academics are even a hot topic in the locker room, where players recently engaged in a discussion about theoretical physics.
Several players enjoy dual roles. Wide receiver Thomas Kilpatrick writes game stories for the school newspaper, and offensive lineman Fernando Ceballos runs the team's Web site. Ceballos, a senior, is a Bell High graduate and one of three Southern Californians on the Engineer roster. Sonuyi and freshman Chris Russell, a reserve lineman from Irvine Woodbridge High, are the others.
Most of the players played before bigger crowds in high school than they do at MIT; game days here don't generate much of a buzz.
A crowd generously announced at 1,045 watched the Engineers' season finale against Western New England. A five-piece student band--dressed in street clothes--and a 10-member cheerleading squad performed during lulls in the action as the temperature fell into the 40s when the sun darted behind cotton-ball clouds.