football Edit

Aaron Olalude: What every student-athlete should aspire to be

When glancing over the Bulldogs’ Sugar Bowl roster, if there’s one striking listing, it’s likely that of No. 38 Aaron Olalude from Ibadan, Nigeria, who curiously came to Georgia from nearby Athens Technical College. Yet, even more noteworthy than the 6-foot-2, 207-pound defensive back’s name, where he’s from, or the fact he previously attended a technical school without an athletic program is the walk-on’s extraordinary and inspiring story.

Aaron Olalude at UGA's Fan Day last August.
Aaron Olalude at UGA's Fan Day last August.

Georgia wouldn’t make Olalude available to speak to the media, so reached out to the individual who likely knows the Nigerian native’s remarkable story best.

“Aaron is just a great human being and, to be honest with you, he’s pretty doggone special,” says Messay Hailemariam, who was Olalude’s head coach for the acclaimed St. Frances Academy football program in Baltimore, Maryland. “And although his road to Georgia has not been an easy one, to say the least, he has persevered through and is now realizing a dream."

Hailemariam certainly knows about perseverance. A walk-on at the University of Maryland in the early 1990s, he became the first Ethiopian to play Division I football before having a successful professional career as an accomplished businessman and entrepreneur. Hailemariam’s success led to his desire to help those who otherwise wouldn’t become college student-athletes.

Prior to Hailemariam’s arrival at St. Frances, the small, predominantly African-American Catholic school had won just six of 25 games in three seasons. With him as head coach and athletic administrator, the school began attracting student-athletes for both football and basketball, primarily from the Delmarva Peninsula but from African nations, as well. Hailemariam’s first team in 2011 went 9-3 followed by achieving a 9-0 record the next season. Around that time, at a basketball camp in Nigeria intended to introduce native youngsters to the sport, Hailemariam and a teammate of his at Maryland discovered Olalude and two others.

“Here, Aaron, who was playing barefoot, looked so natural at basketball, but we pulled him off the court because we thought he could be an even better football player,” says Hailemariam, who is currently an associate head football coach at St. Frances and partly in charge of inbound-outbound recruiting. “We bring the players to St. Frances (inbound), and then get colleges, which might initially be unaware of our players, interested in them (outbound). With Aaron and the other two players, we told them to get their international paperwork straight and then we’ll give you a chance to play football at St. Frances.”

It took approximately a year before the paperwork was in order and thousands of dollars of Hailemariam’s own money to eventually bring the three Nigerian boys over to the United States to attend St. Frances. Still, at least at first for Olalude, it appeared he was well worth the wait.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Aaron would’ve been one of the best prospects in the country at receiver or defensive back—whichever position he decided to play—and then would’ve been able to attend school and play football at any college he wanted,” Hailemariam says. “Aaron was definitely all that—that is, until his freak injury.”

Participating in a football camp on literally his first day in the United States, Olalude suffered what first seemed to be a minor knee injury. In reality, he had torn his ACL.

“Right then and there when he got hurt, Aaron thought he would have to go back home to Nigeria,” Hailemariam says. “I told him that he would never have to go back home if he attended St. Frances and got his degree. I told him that sports maybe was no longer in the plan for him, but we were going to find an education for him.”

No. 38 Aaron Olalude
No. 38 Aaron Olalude

Living with Hailemariam and his family, Olalude indeed attended St. Frances where became a member of the National Honor Society. Despite his knee ailment, and although somewhat limited, he also played both football and basketball for the Panthers.

“At receiver, Aaron played in eight games, caught some touchdowns, on what we thought was just a hurt knee. Turns out, he had a torn ACL and was essentially playing on one leg,” Hailemariam says. “He was stubborn, not letting us know how hurt his knee really was. He didn’t want to quit playing because if he did, he would’ve been a failure in his eyes.”

With Olalude having no health insurance, it took Hailemariam one and a half years to raise the money to pay cash for ACL surgery. Still, the only one of the three Nigerians not to ultimately receive an athletic scholarship coming out of St. Frances, Olalude never complained and was always grateful for whatever was given to him.

With not playing football seemingly a foregone conclusion, Olalude started to attend classes at Athens Tech. He also worked as a construction worker, and delivered pizzas—and often despite dealing with car trouble. All the while, Olalude was rehabbing what was essentially a ruined knee.

Eventually admitted to and enrolling at Georgia, Olalude landed a job with the UGA Dining Services where he served food to the football team.

“When he was at UGA early on in 2018, Aaron one day texted me a picture of the football practice field—and said, verbatim, ‘I’m going to be practicing here in a year, Coach,’” Hailemariam says. “Of course, I didn’t say it to him, but I thought that maybe he was holding onto a dream that wouldn’t be realized. I mean, even with the surgery and rehab, he had really torn up his knee—and he was getting older, already a sophomore or junior in school.”

Not until last spring, or a year later, did Hailemariam hear from Olalude again. After years of persevering and fighting through knee problems, and with hardly anyone knowing outside the Georgia football program, Olalude walked on and made the team. On the first day of spring practice, he promptly called his former coach.

“Aaron FaceTimed me on that first day of practice. I answered and looked, and there he was all dressed out in his Georgia football uniform, as to say, ‘I made it,’” Hailemariam says. “I looked at him on my phone and saw this strong, beautiful person with mind-boggling perseverance. He looked at me and saw his old coach—crying. I couldn’t help it. It was so powerful.”

With a knee still not 100 percent healthy, Olalude participated in spring drills culminating with an appearance at G-Day. He dressed out this season at home against Kentucky on October 19. According to the university, he currently has junior status. Whether Olalude will play for the Bulldogs next year as a senior is uncertain at this time, although if he’s made available after the Sugar Bowl, I will undoubtedly ask him. I’m very anxious to know—as is a former coach of his up in Baltimore.

“An amazing student, an amazing athlete—an amazing human being—Aaron’s story is one of not wanting to give up and living a dream—an American dream,” Hailemariam says. “And although football is an integral part of that story, it’s only a small part of Aaron’s greatness. Simply, he’s what every student-athlete should aspire to be.”