If former Golden Hawk and current Toronto Argonaut Nakas Onyeka has advice for Laurier students and alumni, it’s this: Go to Homecoming.
“Enjoy it, live it up. Know that no homecoming is better than Laurier’s,” he says. “You only have four years at university and they go by so fast.”
Onyeka is currently finishing up his final courses at Laurier as a communications studies student, while juggling the demands of a pro athlete. The Argos selected the linebacker as the 37th overall draft pick in the CFL in 2016 and he’s been straddling both worlds ever since.
“It’s hard to balance both,” admits Onyeka. Luckily he’s used to the juggling act – he dedicated six hours a day to football while a full-time student at Laurier. With the Argos, it’s eight-to-nine hour days, with part-time courses at Laurier. “It’s going to be tough, but it’s kind of relatable (to being a full-time student).”
Each day, Onyeka has a protein shake as he heads out the door to arrive at BMO field at 7 a.m. where he does physical therapy and treatments for an hour. Then it’s breakfast time with the team. Following breakfast they do video reviews of performances and a team meeting, then a two-hour practice.
After lunch, the team hits the weight room for the afternoon.
“I love that I get paid to do something that I really have a passion for. We’re in a grownup world playing a child’s game. I have the opportunity to be excited every day.”
Getting paid to play a sport you love is a dream of many athletes, but few achieve it. When Onyeka reflects on how he has made this unlikely dream come true, he gives credit to the Laurier coaches and senior Golden Hawk players who mentored and supported him. He says in his first year as a Golden Hawk he felt frustrated that he sat on the sidelines, but his coaches kept telling him it was best to wait until he was ready. The more senior players showed him that with hard work, anything was achievable, so he stayed committed to practicing and working out. Finally, it was his turn. When he stepped onto the field halfway through his second year, he was grateful for his chance to play. Onyeka credits that time on the sidelines with “what got me to the stage, ultimately.”
Through his years of playing for the Golden Hawks, Onyeka says his most memorable Homecoming game wasn’t a win, but rather, a loss to the Windsor Lancers. “It was my third year (2015) and we were on a downward spiral. Our coach told us that in order to be the team we wanted to be we couldn’t play like that. From that point onwards, we only lost two games. That was the moment that helped build us to the team we are today,” he says.
Indeed, the Golden Hawks turned it around after that loss, winning the Yates Cup the following year against the Western Mustangs in the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in the Cup’s 109-year history. “That was the accumulation of four years’ hard work and having it finally pay dividends,” says Onyeka, who adds the win remains his favourite Laurier memory.
For Onyeka, Golden Hawks head coach Michael Faulds was the catalyst who launched his football career. “He recruited me right out of high school and is a close friend I can talk to about anything.”
Last summer, when Onyeka had emergency surgery to have his appendix removed, Faulds was the first person at the hospital, even beating his parents there. “I felt really sick, so I went to the walk-in clinic and I passed out. I woke up in the ambulance and the paramedics checked my phone to see who I called last and it was my coach,” he says.
The medical team called Faulds and by the time Onyeka arrived at the hospital, he was already there. “I honestly owe him the world,” he says.
“Going to Laurier is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. Whether it was faculty or the athletics department, they really helped me to achieve my goals. The whole community really helped me and played a huge role in my future,” he says.
As for Homecoming, Nakas will be there for the big football game – despite having an Argos game that same day at 7 p.m. “I’ll be at the game at least for the first quarter, on the sidelines, cheering for Laurier.