Aug. 9, 2002, The Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia: Akin Ayodele stood among a group of jumping, yelling, charged teammates. He didn't hear them. He caught himself in a daze, observing the scene around him, yet unable to concentrate fully on anything.
Having grown up in Irving, Tex., he had previously experienced NFL gameday. A friend's father had arranged for him to work as a Dallas Cowboys sideline assistant. Looking out across the field now, his eyes had never seen it from this perspective. He was not prepared for this.
"I'm here, I'm here now. I've finally made it," Ayodele was telling himself in the midst of this daze, but it was all of the time he had for reflection. His first NFL game as a player was just minutes from kickoff.
"I had to shake my head and smack myself. I was like, 'you better focus up and get back in the game, otherwise you're going to get caught up in this, staring out into space and daydreaming about being in the NFL,'" Ayodele said.
Kickoff would mean the realization of a dream for Ayodele. It would signal a diminishing to the dreariness of training camp. It would also be the culmination of a day of nervousness, excitement, fear, confidence, doubt and pure adrenaline that can only be experienced prior to kickoff.
At 8:40 that morning, Ayodele boarded a chartered flight bound for Atlanta with 85 of his Jaguars teammates, but his thoughts were centered on individual performance more so than team. He wanted to prove he belonged. He wanted to prove it to his coaches and teammates; to those who said he couldn't be an NFL linebacker. He wanted to prove it to himself.
"I have to have a good game; I have to show people that I can play," Ayodele was telling himself.
Once in Atlanta the team was bussed directly to the hotel. Lunch and team meetings helped kill time, but as the hours passed, anticipation heightened and nerves began to build. The pregame meal was served at 3:30 p.m., but the butterflies in Ayodele's stomach prevented him from eating more than a little spaghetti and a grilled chicken breast.
"Don't choke up now; don't get too nervous," he told himself, his palms beginning to sweat with nervousness.
He got on the first team bus to the stadium at four p.m. He was trying to focus on his responsibilities and the adjustments he would have to make during the game. It wasn't easy. He found his mind wandering during the ride to the stadium.
"What if these guys are more athletic than I am?" he asked himself. "What if the line is just quick and strong and they get a hold of me? What if I get pancaked or something like that, or what if I take on a block and just get smashed?"
His thoughts of self-doubt were eventually replaced by those of confidence.
"No, no, that's not going to happen. You're going to come out and you're going to be the one doing the hitting," he told himself.
Taking the early bus meant he had a lot time to kill at the stadium. He got dressed early and went out to the field and began to stretch and throw the ball around a little. As pregame warmups with the rest of the team approached, Ayodele's confidence continued to grow. He felt ready to play.
At 6:37 p.m., the Jaguars began to warm up as a team, and for the first time they were all wearing the same colored jerseys. They were all in pursuit of a common goal, winning. Seeing his teammates get hyped, Ayodele was sensing a new-found togetherness. For the first time, he felt as though he belonged.
As the gameday atmosphere began to fill the Georgia Dome, his anxiety began to subside. It was game day; he was comfortable and ready to play. He caught his mind wandering that one last time, but quickly pulled himself back to the moment.
As the national anthem was played, Ayodele could feel his heart pumping, yet, he felt remarkably calm and confident.
"I'm not going to act as though I wasn't nervous, but I was a little nervous. I was more anxious than anything. I was ready to get that first hit out of the way," he said.
He wouldn't have to wait long. Ayodele sprinted down the field on the opening kickoff, twisted around and over a Falcon blocker and dropped Darrick Vaughn for his first tackle in the NFL.
"I made the tackle and I kind of looked up, and I was like, 'I just made my first NFL tackle.' It felt good; it felt great," he said.
Ayodele continued to show poise and big-play ability in his first taste of NFL action, making seven tackles in the game, two for losses. He added another tackle against the Bucs in the second preseason game.
While he has had some success statistically, the rookie downplays his performance to this point. He credits the plays he made to "just doing my job" and sees a long path ahead of him.
"I'm learning, and it's not just enough for me to know my job; it's for me to know what everybody else around me is doing, and that's something I'm trying to learn, and also for me to learn about the offense; what's going on on the offensive side of the ball," he said.
Ayodele may have a long path ahead of him, but he's off to a fast start.