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Penn State's Akeel Lynch looks to the student section as the team celebrates their 45-7 win over Eastern Michigan on Saturday, September 7, 2013. (ABBY DREY/CENTRE DAILY TIMES)
Penn State's Akeel Lynch looks to the student section as the team celebrates their 45-7 win over Eastern Michigan on Saturday, September 7, 2013. (ABBY DREY/CENTRE DAILY TIMES)

RACHEL BRADY

Big Maple finds his niche with Nittany Lions Add to ...

The moment seemed surreal to Dona McKoy, as she watched her son hop off the team bus at Beaver Stadium on game day.

The boy she had raised alone in a small Toronto apartment had overcome family tragedy and beat so many odds to land as this chiselled 19-year-old running back standing before her, an elite athlete on scholarship at Pennsylvania State University.

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Akeel Lynch is the lone Canadian playing football for the 2-1 Nittany Lions, a thundering six-foot, 211-pound newcomer students have nicknamed Big Maple. But his road to Penn State was filled with challenges, from the unexplained murder of his father to a humble upbringing by a single mom trying to steer him away from the wrong crowd.

When his football talent blossomed, he took what he felt was his only shot at university – leaving home for Buffalo at 16 to finish his high-school football career where U.S. colleges might notice him. They did. The journey has landed him in State College, where after sitting out a red-shirt 2012 NCAA season, he’s now showing his value to the lineup.

Lynch was raised in the diverse Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, the son of Jamaican immigrants. His parents had separated, but shared custody of him. Weekdays were with his mom, weekends with his dad and three half-siblings, spent outdoors playing sports.

But that ended one day, when he was called out of his Grade 2 classroom at Albion Heights Junior Middle School. His mother delivered devastating news. His father, Howard Lynch, had been shot and killed while on a trip to Florida.

The seven-year-old boy stood stone-faced.

“It wasn’t clicking to him at first that his father had really died – he was spaced out, he didn’t cry, and he couldn’t believe it,” McKoy said. “He didn’t fully realize that his dad was gone until he saw the body in the coffin at the funeral, and then he broke down. He just cried and cried so hard.”

McKoy says her son struggled mightily at first – distracted, lethargic, and refusing to eat. She sought the advice of doctors. Authorities never solved the case, and the mother had few answers for her boy. She could give only small mementos as closure – a copy of the death certificate and a card from the funeral.

McKoy, who worked as a data processor and had a background as a high-school high-jumper in Jamaica, encouraged her son to fill his time being active.

“I was a little kid and didn’t really understand death,” Lynch said by phone from Penn State. “So I turned to my mom and to sports as therapy.”

He tried soccer, kickboxing and basketball, then turned to football after going online to learn about it and making a case to his mom to play. He started out with the Junior Argonauts in Toronto at 10, and showed talent over the next few years. His mom bought him a Penn State jacket during a church trip to Pennsylvania, which seemed to get him thinking about U.S. college football.

As he entered his teens, she had a bad feeling about some of his friends and decided to move him to St. Michael’s College School, a Catholic all-boys facility. He was offered a financial bursary and thrived there in not only football, but track and field, and played trombone in the school band.

“He spent so much time on school and sports, he didn’t have time to get into bad things like some of those kids,” McKoy said. “I’m so glad we made that decision. Some of those old friends are in prison now or dead.”

St. Mike’s junior football coach Frank Ribarich said Lynch’s unique talent was clear from the first Grade 9 practice. He was the best player Ribarich had coached.

“We had an undefeated season that year, and it was due in large part due to Akeel’s abilities,” he said. “When we played in the Junior Metro Bowl championship game, we were down 9-0, and suddenly after six incredible minutes of Akeel Lynch, we were up 20-9.”

Much as he did throughout his two seasons at St. Mike’s, Lynch had rushing and receiving touchdowns, made game-altering special-teams plays and then helped run out the clock with smart rushes to secure the win, with what Ribarich called “amazing maturity, patience and intelligence for a player that age.”

By Grade 11, he left for St. Francis High School in Buffalo, fearing U.S colleges wouldn’t find him in Toronto. The strong student earned financial help and lived with host families while attending the football powerhouse.

“If I didn’t get a scholarship, I didn’t know if we could afford college, so I had to at least try,” Lynch said. “It took me some time to adjust to the American field and rules, but I could definitely play with those guys.”

Over his two seasons there, he improved steadily. As a senior, he was selected 2011 New York player of the year after rushing for a school-record 2,131 yards and 25 touchdowns, including one jaw-dropping game in which he rolled for 376 yards and five majors.

“One of his favourite sayings was: ‘Talent is overrated,’” St. Francis coach Jerry Smith said. “He would say, ‘I have no idea how much talent I have. I just work hard to find out.’ That’s a coach’s dream, to have a kid who believes he’ll never know much talent he’s been blessed with until he pushes the envelope.”

Lynch earned several college scholarship offers along with Penn State’s, including Iowa and Boston College. He carefully researched the schools – and watched as Penn State’s football program endured the grave fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal, ultimately bringing a new coaching staff and hit with severe sanctions, including a four-year postseason ban.

But Lynch ultimately decided the renewed Penn State program was where he wanted to be.

After a 2012 season on the scout team, he was stellar in spring practice, showing size, speed and scoring ability in the team’s spring Blue-White game. Through three games this fall, Lynch has rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, including a 108-yard debut against Eastern Michigan.

He’s the youngest of three backs currently sharing the ball.

“He’s making his dream happen – it’s real,” McKoy said. “And he’s only in his first year there with a long career ahead. He says, ‘We did it, Mom.’ And I say, ‘No, you did it.’”

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