Grinding it out
A few years ago, Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund didn’t make the cut at Dartmouth High; today he’s the only Nova Scotian playing NCAA Division 1 football.
After running onto the field in front of 100,000 football fans at Louisiana State University’s Tiger Stadium last fall, Nova Scotian Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund knew exactly where to look. His mom, brother, and grandparents were sitting just three rows up, along with his girlfriend Phoebe and her parents, wearing green Southeastern Louisiana football shirts among a sea of purple LSU fans.
Now that he was the starting linebacker for Southeastern Louisiana University, his family would make the long trip down from Nova Scotia for the team’s marquee game against renowned LSU, a program with over 50 alumni currently in the NFL, Odell Beckham among them.
Although Adyemi-Berglund’s team would lose to LSU that afternoon, he and his family would share an unforgettable moment after one outstanding play he made, the culmination of a long, and in many ways improbable journey.
To be the only Nova Scotian currently playing NCAA Division 1 football is a rare accomplishment, which demands a rare kind of resilience required for all self-made success stories. As a kid, Adeyemi-Berglund was not a standout athlete, but his junior-high classmates told him he ought to be good at basketball because, after all, he was Black. “It was constant and annoying,” he remembers. “So I played, and I wasn’t very good,” he admits. “But I liked that I wasn’t good. It intrigued me.”
In his spare time he worked on his shot at the local court, sometimes shovelling snow out of the way in the winter. One cold day at “the cage” while trying to get a basketball unstuck from the frozen mesh he slipped on the ice and fell hard on his back. “It hurt a lot. I laid there for a while. I remember a lady saw me and helped me up. She called my mom.” But Adeyemi-Berglund wasn’t deterred. He returned to work on his game, motivated to make one of Dartmouth High’s basketball teams in the fall.
When the roster was finalized for Dartmouth High’s junior team, he didn’t make the cut. He messaged the coach every day, begging for a spot on the team. Eventually, the coach gave in and added him to the junior team. By Grade 12 he was the MVP of the varsity team.
Football came easier. In Grade 10 he started as a defensive end and by Grade 12 he was the team’s captain and defensive MVP. After high school, Adeyemi-Berglund wanted to play university football, but even with outstanding grades he didn’t get many scholarship offers. When Acadia offered him a meagre $1,000 he took it. “My grandparents were buying mugs and sweaters. I had an Acadia hoodie. I was all set.”
But at the last minute he had a change of heart and chose Champlain College in Lennoxville, Que. At Champlain he got more playing time and more exposure to football recruiters from other schools. He began to see Champlain as a stepping stone to NCAA Division 1 football, and in the off-season after his first year he began attending football camps in Chicago, Detroit, Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Dakota, where he matched up against top American recruits.
His second year at Champlain was a success. The team went on to win a championship, and Adeyemi-Berglund had a stellar year. His highlight tape was impressive, and so were his grades. He began emailing Division 1 football programs. “Hundreds of schools,” he recalls. “I used to send mass emails to every coach on a school’s directory. School after school after school. Small schools, big schools, any school.”
Sometimes he would even try going a back door route to get a coach’s number by calling a team’s front office and pretending he was his own dad. “No one is going to connect a player right to a coach, so I would try that route sometimes,” he says. “I didn’t have time to sit around and wait.”
Adeyemi-Berglund believed coaches wouldn’t look at his online highlight tape unless it had a lot of views. So he would set up all the computers in the lab with his highlight tape playing and go around and refresh them to raise the number of views. “I was rejected all the time,” he says. “I didn’t care.”
By March there were no offers, and time was running out. “There was a point where I was getting disheartened,” he says. ”And there were times when I would just sit up at night and wonder what was wrong, why no one was picking me up. My grades were good, I was a good player, a good student; what was wrong with me?”
Finally, a call came from Hammond, Louisiana. “I was in the locker room and I looked at my phone and I said, what is this number?” It was Aaron Schwanz, the defensive-line coach at Southeastern Louisiana University. “I don’t even remember sending them my tape.” They offered him a full scholarship. NCAA Division 1.
“I went to my room and cried,” he says. “I was like damn, is this really happening? Then I called my grandparents. A lot was going through my mind. When you’re waiting for something for so long and it finally happens, it seems surreal.”
Three years later, after a few setbacks, including having to sit out a year as an ineligible player, he now starts at Southeastern. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in. I worked so damn hard to be there.”
Linebacker and close friend Kyle Nevels attests to his work ethic. “He’s a hard worker, puts in extra all the time,” he says. “When we’re eating team meals he’s looking at game tape on his iPad.”
Before the big LSU game, Adeyemi-Berglund lay in his bed and visualized something he’d seen in his mind many times: beating the right tackle off the edge and sacking LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. So when it happened in the game (twice), he was unsurprised. “I’ve been seeing me hit Joe Burrow for a long time.”
Immediately after sacking Burrow, Adeyemi-Berglund pointed to his family amid the thousands of LSU fans in the stands. “At that moment I thought . . . ‘I’m doing this for you guys,” he recalls. “For my mom because we didn’t have a lot growing up. And for my grandparents who invested so much time and love in me.”
After last season, Adeyemi-Berglund made the Southland Conference All-Academic Team, received an honourable mention on the prestigious 2018 Louisiana Sports Writers Association All-Louisiana Team, and was nominated for the Cornish Award, given to the top Canadian NCAA athlete.
This year, the team’s marquee game came in Week 3 against preeminent Ole Miss (Eli Manning’s alma mater). Yet, despite a hard fought team loss (40-29), Berglund recorded 10 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 2 sacks, and was nominated for the FCS National Defensive Player of the Week. As his final NCAA season proceeds, Adeyemi-Berglund continues to live by the hopeful advice that “success is yours for the taking,” he says. “You can be as successful as you want to be.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.