BERKELEY -- ‘Football’ means something different in Africa. While the word conjures images of crashing pads and pick-sixes in the United States, across the pond, ‘football’ means soccer.
That’s what Oladipo Lapite played, growing up in his native Lagos, Nigeria. A member of the Yoruba tribe – a nation of 35 million people worldwide, with 21% in Nigeria alone – was royalty, literally, and so is his son, California defensive back Isaac Lapite, who finally earned a scholarship on the eve of his redshirt junior season in Berkeley.
“The Lapite name, amongst Nigerians, they know it immediately,” says Thejuana Lapite, Oladipo’s ex-wife, and Isaac’s mother.
“His side of the family is royalty – chiefs,” says Isaac, proudly. “I’m a prince. It’s just family. I go back to Nigeria, and it’s all love. The family is very big, there’s a palace and everything.”
The last time Isaac was in Nigeria was when he was just a baby, but he carries himself with the kind of upright posture and bearing one would expect, coming from the Lapite clan.
“That character thing, the hard work, that speaks to the Lapite name,” says Thejuana.
Isaac doesn’t experience any of the fringe benefits of his regal standing on this side of the Atlantic, and he’s far from a spoiled royal. He’s had to work for every inch, every grade, every snap.
Oladipo was always on the move, both on the pitch and off. He moved to the United States, attending Chowan College and Tennessee State, after which he attended medical school at The American University of the Caribbean on the island of Montserrat, and became a physician. As he was finishing his clinical rounds in Los Angeles, he met Thejuana, and the two married and had a daughter – Ana. Then, it was time to move, yet again.
Ladi – as Oladipo was affectionately known by friends and family – and Thejuana moved north, to New Jersey, where Oladipo began his residency in general surgery at Harlem Hospital.
It was in New Jersey where Isaac was born. North Bergen, to be precise. Oladipo moved the family again when Isaac was three, to begin a residency in family practice in Monroe, La., and when Isaac was in kindergarten, Oladipo and Thejuana divorced, putting his children on the move, yet again.
“I went with Oladipo for the beginning of his residency, started out at Harlem Hospital. That is what took us from L.A. to New Jersey,” Thejuana says. “We went southern California to Jersey, and then he got a family practice in Monroe, La., and then, a divorce took place and I joined my family in Tulsa, and I’ve been working for them at Marco Pharma International since then.”
Education has always been paramount in the Lapite family, including Isaac’s older siblings Ana Bisola and Abraham Oladipo. Ana is in graduate school in Portland, and Abraham is currently in college in the Bay Area.
“They have cousins who graduated from Oxford, so education was hammered into them,” Thejuana says. “It wasn’t ‘Finish high school and get married,’ it was the next level of education, and his grandmother on my side, I remember when I was in second grade, my mother Vera graduated with a Master's Degree from Columbia University in New York. She and my father Isaac attended undergraduate schools in Georgia. So, on both sides of the family education and success is important.”
From an early age, Isaac was enchanted with football – and not the kind his father played.
“Isaac has always been that determined, strong-willed child,” says Thejuana. “I remember when we were in Jersey, he was wanting to play football in the co-op, and watching Isaac running into walls, he was just strong, and I remember once, he ran into a door and hurt himself, so I had to get him to the E.R. for a few stitches. He has just always been so focused, unstoppable, unmovable, determined. He was the one I would have to watch at the airport.”
Isaac’s precociousness and vivre for competition rubbed off on his older brother, as the two grew and began to play multiple sports.
“Abraham is also very talented and has excellent athletic skills, but it was the younger brother who motivated Abraham Oladipo, playing wide receiver, playing basketball and going into competitive soccer leagues, that motivated him, and he always said that it was his younger brother that did so well that got him interested in it,” says Thejuana.
After moving to Tulsa, Okla., to work for the family pharmaceutical business, Thejuana and her three children settled in Eugene, Ore., where the Bears travel this weekend to face No. 2 Oregon.
Isaac became a varsity star for South Eugene High School on the defensive side of the ball, picking up All-Southwestern League honors as a sophomore, and also playing varsity basketball.
Isaac and his siblings, though, still saw their father regularly, trekking across the country every summer to spend time with Oladipo in New York.
“As a resident, he would study throughout the night when not at the hospital, and even when they would visit him in New York, it was not uncommon that every day, they went to a library,” Thejuana says. “Their father was reviewing for professional exams, and they had to get books and read, so education was stressed.”
As much as education mattered, Isaac spent his free time either on the basketball court or on the football camp circuit, thanks in large part to his Uncle Isaac. It was through Uncle Isaac’s connections, in fact, that a young Isaac got the chance to be a ball boy for the Ducks.
“Isaac was even talented in AAU basketball, so [Uncle Isaac] would sponsor the AAU teams, cover enrollement and travelling expenses for athletes who needed assistance, hired the speed and agility trainers, provided private lessons, etc., for Isaac and Abraham to improve their athletic skills," says Thejuana.
All four years of high school, Isaac was on the honor roll. The only time his grades dipped was at the end of his junior year, when he suffered a severe knee injury playing basketball.
“It’s called patellar evulsion,” Isaac says. “The patella actually came off. It was a fracture of the patella bone, and it came off right where the patellar tendon meets up with the bone. It was actually the first practice of my junior year. Pop. Going to the lane for a lay-up, I had Ashkin Slaughters – tendonitis of the knee – and I played in good health, I thought, so I was playing hard and it was a crazy injury. They told me I couldn’t play anymore.”
While attending So. Eugene High School, Isaac lost the entire first half of his junior year as he recovered.
“It was painful, grueling, just a lot of balance, a lot of single-leg lifts and things like that,” he says. “Every day, every second. I just had the drive. I just thank God every day that I had the opportunity to play sports, and I’m here now, so it’s God’s blessing.”
Isaac transferred to Eugene (Ore.) Sheldon for his senior year, and his first game back on the gridiron in more than a year was, fittingly enough, televised.
“We played Skyline on ESPN at Sheldon High School,” he recalls, with a gleam in his eye. “Fourth quarter, last play of the game, I knocked the ball down and we won the game. It was a post route. He would have scored.”
Despite only playing half the season, Lapite was still named the team’s defensive MVP award. In his sophomore year, he had gotten recruiting attention from Boise State, and a bit from Oregon, but with the knee injury, that attention evaporated.
Isaac only cried in front of his mother twice, that she remembers, during his teenage years. The first time was when the X-rays came back on his knee. The second was on Dec. 31, 2009. After finishing his senior season, Isaac got word that his father had passed away, suddenly.
“He went to Nigeria when I was early on in my high school years, and he got malaria,” says Isaac. “He had malaria. I saw him after that, and he was fine. He recovered, complete recovery, but he still had diabetes, and he just got bad.”
The malaria had attacked 59-year old Oladipo’s pancreas, and complications from his diabetes compounded the illness. He passed in his sleep.
The three Lapite children -- who used to spend their New Years in New York, with Oladipo’s side of the family – were in Eugene that night.
“Oladipo had some complications with malaria. He was in and out of the hospital. The evening of Dec. 31, when I heard Isaac's cellphone ring and heard him screaming, I knew Oladipo had died,” Thejuana says. “They loved going to Times Square with their Dad on New Years and spending summers in New York City. Every summer the kids would go there, because he had them for the summer months. They loved going to the hospital when he was on call and being in his on-call room. So, even though we were divorced, they interacted with their father. Isaac's basketball season had begun, but we flew back to NY for the wake and funeral. It was a tough time, but they got through it.”
In the Yoruba tradition, family is paramount. It was that extended family that helped buoy Isaac and his siblings through the most trying time of their lives.
“The funeral was so encouraging, because family from Nigeria came to the funeral, cousins in London, Canada, the ones that attended grade school with him in Lagos flew into New York, so it was something. They said, ‘Oh, my God, our father was so loved,’” Thejuana says. “People from Harlem Hospital, Brooklyn Hospital, his professional clubs and associations that he belonged to, came, it was pretty remarkable. It was sad for them to see him lowered into the ground like that, but he was a great man.”
Just a few months later, then-Cal offensive tackle Charles Siddoway asked then-defensive backs coach Al Simmons to take a look at young Lapite’s highlight DVD. Shortly thereafter, Isaac got a call from Simmons.
“I got a phone call towards the end of my senior year from Al Simmons, the old DB coach here. He said, ‘We have a slot open. You’d come to walk on and try to earn your scholarship.’ That was the last resort, but it was another blessing,” says Isaac. “UC Berkeley is a great school. My mom was all for that. I came down for an unofficial trip, I came some time in March, during spring ball.”
Even though his father was not alive to see his son go to Cal, Isaac says, he was still with him, watching.
Isaac redshirted his first season, and did not play in either 2011 or 2012, not even on special teams. He had one tackle in the 2012 spring game, but after the coaching staff changed following the 3-9 campaign last season, he found new life.
He charged up the depth chart as a corner and a nickel back during spring practice, and in the 2013 spring game, he tallied four tackles and a fumble recovery, with the latter coming on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
His patience was rewarded, when, on the last day of fall camp, new head coach Sonny Dykes stood in front of the team in the Tahir Family Team Meeting Room and called for Lapite and receiver James Grisom to stand.
“We had our annual fall camp rookie talent show, so we’re in the meeting room, the whole team’s in there, and at the end, coach was like, ‘isaac Lapite, James Grisom, stand up.’ I had no idea, but I saw James Grisom stand up, and I know he’s a good kid, so I was like, ‘It can’t be anything bad,’” Isaac laughs. “He said, ‘These guys have been working very hard, and they’re on scholarship.’ I feel like my whole team knew that we had been just busting, just working, hard, throughout every day of camp. They knew I deserved it, so they were all just as happy as me. We all shared that moment. They ran up, picked me up in the air, tackled me, tears were shed, things like that. It was great.”
During Isaac's high school years, Thejuana took extra jobs, including a weekend job at Walmart, to support her children, and before that, had she used her English degree from Cal State San Bernardino and fifth-year degree in Early Childhood Education from Cal State Los Angeles to teach and work as head teacher and director of the nursery school all three children attended in New Jersey. It was time for Isaac to pay her back, so, naturally, the first thing Isaac did was to call his mom.
“I had to give it back to her,” he says. “I couldn’t even hear the phone. She was crying, screaming, crying. Everybody was in the house: My brother, my sister, my aunt was there, she just had to tell everybody. She was just thanking God, because she knows I’ve been working every day, telling her that something good was going to come.”
“I just started crying, and thanking God, because I knew it was going to happen,” says Thejuana. “I knew. I knew it was just a matter of time, when you study, and you stay focused, and you learn from the obstacles and the challenges, the end result will be a positive experience. It’s the reward for hard work. It's a testimony to other young people, whether you’re privileged enough to have a mother and a father in the same household and be in a healthy relationship and you can see Mom and Dad in love, or whether an unfortunate divorce takes place. there was still enough love Oladipo gave the children and I gave them to hold on to and continue to excel. He was on the sidelines for two years, and did not become discouraged. He knew his time was coming.”