Son of Former Raider, Liberty’s Akili Calhoun Jr. is Cementing a Legacy of His Own
by: Pranav Iyer
It was late in the fourth quarter and the Valley Christian Warriors were poised to embark on a last-minute drive to lead their team to the CIF Division I-A state final. After all, they did it just a week before to take the mighty Saint Francis Lancers into overtime, where they avenged their heartbreaking 7-3 regular season defeat. But with the clock ticking down and Warrior quarterback Cory Taylor dropping back, it was an unsung hero that made his mark when it mattered the most for the Lions.
Coming off the ball in a straight bullrush was sophomore defensive end Akili Calhoun Jr.. He followed the initial attack with a swim move just as the offensive lineman tried to get hands on him, allowing him to get to the quarterback. Calhoun then grabbed Taylor and took him to the ground, thinking to himself that he made just an ordinary momentum stopping play. But while on the floor, he turned around and saw his teammate Darrion Bartley racing to the end zone with a ball. Calhoun had made likely the biggest play in his life and caused a strip sack that sealed the game and punched their ticket into the state championship game.
“I thought he still had the ball in his hands and then I saw number 21, Darrion Bartley, running for a touchdown,” Akili Jr. said,” and I was like, ‘Yes, yes!’”
But to Calhoun and his entire family, the moment was so much bigger than just football. That same week, his 99 year-old great grandmother passed away. She had a great impact on the Calhoun family and the upbringing of Akili. So for their family, this historic game was not just for Akili Jr. or for the Lions, but more importantly in remembrance of a lost life.
“My grandmother was very in love with him,” Kathy Calhoun, Akili Jr.’s mother, said. “She always talked to him and he talks to her in kind of the same way I did. So when she passed, although he understood my viewpoint, it was really hard on him and he was very sad about that. So he played in that last game against Valley Christian, he said he played it for her. And I truly feel like my grandparents were there watching and cheering him on.”
She was 99 years old, had Alzheimer’s disease and a broken hip so according to Kathy, she was not living her best life in her final years. But Kathy adamantly spoke about how much love she fused into the entire family in addition to her commitment to education that trickled down through the generations.
And that dedication to academic excellence is part of what makes Akili’s story such a special one. Akili Jr.’s great grandfather was the first Mexican principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In each successive generation from then on, the importance of education has been at the forefront of importance and has lead to the current success of the family. Kathy was the first to go to college in her family, which she credits largely due to the virtues her grandfather bestowed on her.
Akili Jr.’s father, Akili Sr., found the value of education later on in his life, as it lead to him having both a master’s and doctorate degree and his current career as a psychologist. But his path to this point was one of trial and error and humble beginnings. Akili Sr. grew up in Compton, California and says much of his upbringing was more about survival than anything else. One of the staples in his life was football, which awarded him a scholarship to his hometown school, USC. But at USC, he got in trouble for behavioral issues and was promptly dismissed from the team. He transferred to the University of Hawaii where he was able to settle down due to the lack of outside influences. At UH, he was able to prosper on the field and make a significant enough mark to eventually find himself a spot in the NFL on the Los Angeles Raiders. But his time in the NFL was short lived partly because of injuries but also as a result of his reliance on his size and strength and lack of focus on the more technical aspects of the game, he says. After his five year stint in the league, Akili Sr., like many other former professional athletes, did not know what path to take next. But to the surprise of many, he went back to school with a clear plan in his mind and was able to find new direction in his life.
“When I was coming up,” Akili Sr. said. “I never thought I would retire from the NFL because I thought I was going to be young forever. And that was the worst thing I ever did. I had like a tenth grade reading level when I left the NFL. So basically, I didn’t have the skills to survive so my wife convinced me to go back to school. I hated school man, forreal. I know in order for me to be successful, especially a black man in America, you have to have things that are different. What I mean by different is, a lot of people don’t expect me to be educated the way that I am. That has helped me a tremendous amount in my life right now. It has opened up doors for me I didn’t think I could even open up.”
With all that Akili Sr. has been through from a tough childhood to his rediscovery after football, he has done his best to raise Akili Jr. in the classroom, on the field and as a man in a way so that all of the the same mistakes he made would not be repeated by his son. From early on in his son’s life, Akili Sr. has passed on the wisdom and knowledge of the game that he received from Hall-of-Fame coaches. This has helped Akili Jr. find success at such a young age without dependence on athleticism alone.
“At 14,” Akili Sr. said, “for him to be able to perform at this level with technical skills, you can just imagine when he puts on size and mass, what type of things he’s going to be doing.”
Because of the financial success of Akili Jr.’s parents, he has been gifted the opportunity to grow up with the freedom to find his own path and discover his own passions. As an honor roll student and a stud on the field, Kathy understands the importance in finding a balance academically and athletically and is working with him to find a program that can set him up for success in both ventures.
Following the thrilling win against Valley Christian, Akili Jr. and the Lions were able claim their first state championship in their school’s 116 year history. For the defensive end, that makes it two NCS Championships, a Norcal Championship and a CIF state championship in just two seasons.
“‘This is really going down. This is really happening. He’s going to be on TV one day. He’s going to be on a college field,’” Kathy thought to herself in awe as Akili Jr. approached their family ensuing the state championship victory. “The feeling that this is a glimpse of his future and that it’s all coming to fruition, it was amazing.”
With two years still to go for Akili Jr. at Liberty, only time will tell what steps he takes next. But with the support of a family that has instilled the values of education, work ethic and perseverance into his DNA, he is excited for what his future has to offer.
“Im looking forward to these dubs, man,” Akili Jr. said. “I’m looking to working hard and just getting to where I want to be in life. That’s all it is, hard work.”
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