Dec. 23, 2013
By Kalyn Kahler
Northwestern Athletic Communications
Since the beginning of her volleyball career, junior outside hitter Yewande Akanbi has found an identity in her jersey number. At Dawson High School in Pearland, Texas, she wore number five, prompting teammates and friends to often call her `cinco.' When Akanbi arrived in Evanston in 2011 and that number was taken at the time by Kathryn Chrystal, Akanbi chose No. 17, for her birthday, which falls on November 17.
Yewande took on a new number this season, stepping onto the court wearing No. 79, a numeral she chose to honor her younger brother Folabi, who passed away unexpectedly while playing with friends in a pick-up basketball game on February 27, 2013.
Folabi was a 17-year-old senior at Dawson. Just three weeks prior to his untimely passing, the younger Akanbi had signed a National Letter of Intent to play offensive tackle for the Montana State Bobcats beginning this fall.
"He was a big kid, 6'5", 290 lbs. Everybody thought he was really scary but he was like a teddy bear," Yewande said of her brother. "Except when he got on the field."
Yewande said that she and Folabi, her only sibling, had a very close relationship and bonded through their respective sports.
"We would tell each other everything and he always said that I was his role model, both in sports and school," Yewande said. "Going through high school- until I was a junior or senior, people would always compare him to me and call him `Little Yewande.'"
Yewande said that changing her volleyball number to Folabi's football number seemed like the best way to honor him, since they had spent so much time playing football and volleyball together.
"We have a volleyball net in my backyard and we would go out and serve and he would help me," she said. "I would help him with football and he would throw to me and our dog would just be running around in the backyard and we would do that for hours."
A few weeks after Folabi passed away, Yewande's mother, Lola, brought up the idea of changing her number.
"She said `Oh, what about you changing your jersey number?' Yewande noted. "At first I thought that in volleyball they wouldn't let me do that since it's such a big number, it's not like 23, so I didn't think it would work."
Yewande's number 79 stands alone in the Big Ten. Traditionally, volleyball numbers fall in the range of 1-30, and none of the teams in the Big Ten currently have a player on their roster with a number higher than 33.
But Yewande decided to give it a shot and asked her coaches if a number change would be possible.
NU associate head coach Kirstine Jensen said that changing Yewande's number was a simple process because there actually aren't any NCAA restrictions on jersey numbers.
"We thought the number change for Yewande was a great idea and the least we could do," Jensen said. "It's obvious that she was close to her brother and this was a simple way to be able to honor him. All we had to do was have new jerseys printed up for her and change out her name and number plate above her locker."
The number change caught the attention of some Wildcat Volleyball fans. Last year, Yewande coached a team of 12-year-old Wildcat Juniors and this season those players have shown their support of her tribute to Folabi.
"[The players I coached] all follow me on Instagram and one of the girls commented and said, 'I changed my number to 79 too!'" she said. "Back when I was coaching too, they all wrote 79 on their hands.They were so cute about it. The fans have been really supportive."
Yewande said wearing Folabi's number 79 on the court means she's not alone and motivates her to play harder.
"I'm not just playing for me but I'm playing for him because he doesn't have the chance to play anymore," Yewande said. "It pushes me to do my best on the court. Even when I'm working out, I need to push myself not just for me, but also for him. I say to myself- I can do one more rep or get one more kill, not just for me but for him too."
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