PHILADELPHIA – Elvis Akpla is a highlight. To almost anyone who has seen him, he has no name, no history, no identity, nothing but a few seconds of one of the most amazing catches a wide receiver has ever made.
It doesn't matter that Akpla was born in Senegal or that he went to college to long jump or that he wants to be a doctor or that he might be the smartest man trying to make an NFL team this summer. He is forever trapped on YouTube: leaping from behind and then fighting through the defender, wrestling a pass from the other man's hands, juggling it, seizing it, pinning it at last to the top of his helmet before tumbling to the ground.
Perhaps you saw it. Millions did. For a few days, it played on the endless loop of sports news shows, with all the requisite bellowing and oohing that comes from the announcers who introduced it. And because few people had ever heard of Elvis Akpla and because he played for Montana State and the highlight was a highlight only because Montana State happened to be playing an FCS playoff game that nobody watched, Akpla and his highlight were soon lost in the haze of dunks, mascot fights and fiery race-car crashes.
Yet for months, the glint of recognition would hit people upon meeting Akpla.
"Montana State? Did you see that catch … "
"That was me," Akpla would say.
"Really? That was you?"
Akpla smiles. He is sitting one recent afternoon in a room at the Philadelphia Eagles headquarters where he is trying to make the team as an undrafted wide receiver. His chances seem remote. The Eagles have a lot of receivers. And those receivers have made a lot of their own highlight clips. But as good as those catches were, none were as good as this one. If that's what it took to get noticed, Akpla is fine with it.
It's just the attention over one catch as if that was his whole identity seems a little silly.
"I knew it was a good catch but I didn't know it was that extravagant," Akpla says.
Or as Forrest Sherman, a football coach of his at Lincoln High in Portland, Ore., and the man Apalka considers his mentor would say: "I've seen Elvis make catches better than that."
Sometimes it is not the highlight that is amazing but the story of the player behind it. You see, Akpla shouldn't have been playing football at Montana State. He shouldn't have been playing football at all. Rather, he went to college in the fall of 2007 on a track scholarship to Oregon, which might be the most prestigious track school in the country.
The irony in this is Akpla didn't know much about track. When his mother, studying to be a lawyer in their native Senegal, brought him to the states as a child, Akpla mostly played soccer. He fell in love with basketball and figured that would be the sport he pursued until he realized he wouldn't be very tall. Then came the steady pursuit from Sherman, who thought Akpla might make an extremely fast wide receiver.
The problem with track was that Akpla didn't like it. He arrived at Oregon and found practice consisted of standing around a jumping pit for several hours a week, working to perfect his form. He liked his jumping coach, he felt he learned a lot, but he found the process tedious. All he did was jump, jump, jump. There was nothing else to do.
"I realized that for me to be great – track more than any other sport because you prepare 24/7 for a jump. One," he says. "You have to be perfectly ready for that. I found out I didn't have as much dedication as I thought I did."
He began to talk more and more about football to his track coaches.
Meanwhile, the Oregon football team had lost several receivers to injuries during Akpla's first semester. One day the school's football coach, Mike Belliotti, called. Would Akpla like to help out in practice? He practically ran to the football offices.
Akpla was smart enough to realize he was replacing the receivers who had moved up the depth chart to take the spots of those who were hurt. Still, the Ducks had four defensive backs (Jairus Byrd, Patrick Chung, Walter Thurmond, T.J. Ward) who would eventually be selected in the NFL draft. Going against them proved to be the best challenge he could have had.
The next summer he was still practicing with the football team and had actually moved up to second string when Bellotti called a few days before the start of the season and told him the NCAA had ruled him ineligible to play. The NCAA had a rule against athletes playing basketball or football while on scholarship for a smaller sport. Even though he barely worked out with the track team anymore he was in school on a track scholarship. He quit the track team, took out student loans and enrolled as a paying student.
When a football scholarship opened up midseason and it wasn't offered to Akpla, he figured it was time to leave Oregon. He transferred in January of 2009 to FCS school Montana State and played there the next three seasons, catching 127 passes for 2,107 yards. One of the last of those catches was the highlight that went everywhere.
Elvis Akpla is so much more than a highlight. He has dreams. He has big thoughts. He has ideas. He wants to know why if hearts can be made from organic stents and torn ACLs can be mended in routine procedures, someone can't find a way to fix a torn meniscus other than taking it out or sewing it together. This problem perplexes him.
"It's a really, really cool side of medicine," he says. "You don't just stop at medical school. It's engaging mentally."
When he was in high school, a friend's father gave him a piece of advice he has never forgotten: Instead of trying to do a lot of things in life, pick one that you love and you will be more successful doing that.
"I was good at a lot of things but I was really good at the sciences," Akpla says. "I really love the body. I've been helped along by a lot of people and I thought being a doctor is perfect – you serve your community and get paid well.
He wants to go to medical school and has the plan to do so if football doesn't work out. However, he wonders what will happen if he makes an NFL roster and plays several years in the league. If he has to wait until he's in his 30s to start his medical career, he would probably pick another post-football pursuit. He wouldn't mind. Football is a true love. If he has a chance to play in the NFL, he wants to do everything he can to make it happen.
In college he majored in biology and neuroscience which put him on a premed path. But it meant he didn't have much of a life either. On Saturdays in the fall, he'd play football and then go to the library and study for eight hours. He is sure he was the only football player at Montana State sitting in the library studying for eight hours after games. Not that he minded. In a way it brought a strange sense of peace.
"I made friends either way," he says. "A couple of football players weren't premed, but they did the same kind of thing like nursing and stuff like that. Then a couple premed geeks as they called them were into football so there was a mix."
Still, school was a challenge. "It's hard enough to do that major without playing football," he says.
"That's what separates Elvis," says Sherman, who considers himself a father figure to Akpla. "He has all physical traits to be an NFL athlete but at the same time he has the mind of a surgeon."
Then he chuckles.
"What's the percentage of kids who make it in the NFL?" he asks. "If he doesn't, how many kids have being a doctor and medical school to fall back on?"
Or as Tom Shaw, who trains many NFL players at his Orlando facility and who worked with Akpla before the draft says: "If it doesn't work out in football you get the sense it's going to work out for him in life."
It's hard to know how much his background – his start in track and time on Oregon's scout team as well as playing for little-seen Montana State – kept him from being drafted. Sherman, who now works for Nike and deals with several professional athletes, says the Oregon players felt Akpla was their best receiver and it was only circumstances that kept him from getting on the field. But his opinion is also biased.
Shaw, who has watched tape of Akpla, says the receiver should have dominated at a place like Montana State and didn't. Yet he says much of that might be because of factors beyond Akpla's control, like the quarterback or the offensive line or even the other receivers. He says scouts have to look for other things on the tapes like how well did Akpla block downfield or did he run his routes cleanly?
"For a receiver to get highlights, it's difficult," Shaw says.
What he means by "highlights" is enough things caught on tape for a scout to evaluate. But it's also ironic given it was a highlight that gave Akpla his only taste of national attention.
With Shaw, however, Akpla worked tirelessly. He was routinely the second or third player who arrived in the morning, beaten only by Bruce Irvin, who was a first-round pick of the Seahawks. He spent a lot of time at Shaw's facilities, working with Jets receiver Santonio Holmes, trying to perfect his routes.
Shaw loves Akpla's speed, saying he is faster on the field than in a 40-yard dash. He also loves the way Akpla picked up concepts, which could be valuable for a team trying to change its offense in the week between games.
Is this enough to make a team? Perhaps. Even one like Philadelphia with receivers like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and Riley Cooper who all played key roles on the Eagles offense last year. If he's going to stick he will have to do so as a special teams player.
In the end, it might take something spectacular: some big catches, a kick return or special teams tackle in the preseason to give him his chance.
Ironically, he will need highlights to show the NFL he is far more than what he is right now.
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