Studying the box score in Mrkonic Auditorium after Kansas University’s 42-24 victory against McNeese State on Saturday night, junior linebacker Tunde Bakare searched for what he believed should’ve been half a sack on his stat line.
It wasn’t there.
It’s fitting, considering Bakare was playing with half a heart. The other half was with his older brother, Omoniyi, who, at age 22, was shot and killed while riding in a black Dodge Avenger late May 13 in West Virginia, two weeks before Bakare reported to Kansas for summer workouts.
Bakare, 20, has spent the past few months turning to football when the pain has become too much to handle. Never was that more true than Saturday, when Bakare was on the brink of living out a childhood dream but somehow kept thinking of how much the situation did not feel complete without Omoniyi there.
“It was real emotional, coming out playing this game, because it was bigger than just a game,” Bakare said. “My brother was like my best friend; all he wanted me to do was come to Kansas. That’s why I came here.”
His brother’s influence also helps explain why Bakare plays the way he does: fast, furious and with great passion.
When Bakare, 5-foot-10, 215 pounds, from Forest Park High in Woodbridge, Va., arrived at KU, he dreamed about honoring his brother’s memory while playing the game they both loved.
Omoniyi, a standout running back in his day at Woodbridge’s Hylton High, went on to play college ball at Fairmont State University in West Virginia. He wore No. 34 throughout his playing career, so, naturally, Bakare, who wore 21 at Highland Community College, wanted to wear his brother’s number when he got to Kansas.
But the number was already taken by linebacker Huldon Tharp, so Bakare opted for No. 17 and routinely incorporated the No. 34 into his haircuts.
“I’ve never worn 17 in my life,” Bakare said. “But when I got 17, my dad told me that God does those things for a reason. And then my friend told me it’s crazy how 17 times two is 34. So 17 for me plus him equals 34.”
It’s more than just a number for Bakare. It’s another way to remember his brother.
Not that he has any trouble doing that. In addition to pictures hanging around his room and countless memories of better days constantly racing through his mind, Bakare says he still actually feels his brother’s presence from time to time.
He felt Omoniyi with him before Saturday’s game, when his nerves were raging before he took the field.
He even felt him out there at linebacker, sometimes during live action.
“I did,” he said. “I felt myself doing some things, and I thought, ‘Dang, that wasn’t me on that play. That was Omoniyi.’ I think about him all the time. Every day, I’m gonna give it all I got because it’s all for him.”
With the emotion of playing his first game since his brother’s death spiking his adrenaline, Bakare said his initial taste of Div. I college football was everything he hoped it would be, particularly because the Jayhawks won.
“It felt amazing,” he said. “I think that’s the best experience of my life. Ever since I was a little kid, all I ever talked about was Div. I, and to come out that first play and hear the crowd, I was just like, ‘Man.’ I wanted to soak it all in.”
As for that stat sheet Bakare was studying, it listed seven tackles for KU’s new linebacker, three solo and four assists. Not bad for a debut, he said. But not nearly good enough for a guy now playing for two.
“Some people think of it as a job. You dread it sometimes,” Bakare said. “But to me, I love it. Football’s my life, and I want to leave everything I got on the field every time. If I do good enough, I can get people to recognize who he was, too. It’s not just about me.”