It was a cool November morning on the west side of Toronto.
Frigid temperatures had not yet landed in the southern Ontario area, but a 7-year-old Akeel Lynch stood in the principal’s office facing his mother — frozen in his tracks.
“Akeel took about five minutes to realize what I said to him,” his mother, Dona McKoy, said. “He said, ‘No, Mom. You’re lying. You’re lying. You’re lying. I just talked to him. You’re lying.’ ”
Akeel’s father, Howard Lynch, had been shot dead at age 35.
Being so young, Akeel said he didn’t know how to respond to his father’s murder — which remains an unsolved case 12 years later — after his mother came in to Albion Heights Junior Middle School and broke the news to him that morning.
“At the time, I didn’t cry, because I didn’t understand any concept of death,” Akeel said. “But then when he finally got buried a couple weeks after, that’s when I broke down, because I understood that my father wasn’t coming back.”
McKoy and Akeel’s father had previously separated, but the Jamaican-born couple had joint custody of Akeel, who described weekends with his father as “cherished moments.”
McKoy said her son became so disturbed in the days following his father’s death that he had to be taken to the doctor.
However, the future Division I football player depended on his do-it-all single mother and passion for sports to help keep him from trouble in a rough Toronto neighborhood. He ultimately followed an obscure path to Penn State, leaving home for Buffalo, N.Y., to finish his last two years in high school.
“It wasn’t easy,” McKoy said. “But, the good thing for me is, he listens to me.”
Etobicoke, where it all began
Through his mother’s struggles as a single parent, Akeel has always found strength.
“With my father passing away, my mom had to play two roles,” he said. “For her to just be so strong and not show any weakness, that motivated me to take advantage of every opportunity I had and work hard in chasing my dreams.”
McKoy grew up in Jamaica, and even after more than 20 years up north, she has successfully retained her native accent.
“I try not to lose it,” McKoy joked over the phone from her Canadian home. “But, people always ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ ”
McKoy met Akeel’s father in the Caribbean, but after a vacation in the Toronto area, McKoy quickly decided she didn’t want to go back and they both ended up settling there.
Several years later, Akeel was born and McKoy graduated from community college shortly thereafter. She landed a job at a database company, where she has been working for 16 years and is now the supervisor of the health department.
McKoy raised Akeel and his younger brother, Avontae, in the town of Etobicoke (pronounced Eh-Toe-Bee-Ko), a popular landing spot for immigrated Canadians located about 15 minutes from the heart of Toronto.
Before his father’s death, Akeel would spend every weekend with the older Lynch and three half-siblings, often playing sports like soccer and basketball at the park.
McKoy said her son’s adjustment to less active weekends was one of the toughest parts about coping with his father’s death. However, channeling Akeel’s noticeable passion for sports was crucial moving forward.
“It was hard at first,” McKoy said. “But, he eventually got over it. I got him involved with soccer and other sports to help get his mind off it.”
McKoy also had her son try his hand at kickboxing and track before he was introduced to football at age 8.
The agile Lynch quickly took to football, and despite its popularity not being as great in Canada, his mother found junior leagues for him to join.
However, as Lynch drew closer to high school, the single mother began to worry about his group of friends within their Toronto Community Housing development.
McKoy said she realized her son’s two best friends were beginning to stray down the wrong path, so she switched Lynch into St. Michael’s College School, an all-boys Roman Catholic high school in Toronto.
“I tried to get him away from them,” McKoy said of Lynch’s friends. “And it was a struggle, because I assume they’re going to go out at night and make trouble and I don’t live in the best neighborhood.”
A decision looms
After Lynch switched schools, McKoy said sports — primarily football and track — occupied her son’s time more than ever before.
And his strides on the football field at St. Mike’s began to catch the eye of prominent coaches in the area.
“The moment I saw him, I just knew he had that ‘it’ factor,” said Godfrey Lewis, then a coach of an opposing team in the Toronto area.
Lewis also grew up in the Etobicoke neighborhoods and went on to cross the border to play at Bowling Green before a brief stint in the Canadian Football League.
Noticing Lynch’s advanced abilities, Lewis reached out to the ninth grader after a game and said he’d help the young running back if he ever wanted to take his game to the next level.
“By the time I got home, I already had like three or four emails from the kid, talking about how he wants to be great,” Lewis said from St. John’s High School in Toledo, Ohio, where he is now a teacher. “And it just kind of started from there. All he was, was a sponge.”
Lewis informed Lynch that the interest in Canadian players among college coaches had diminished in recent years, citing the lower level of play and rule differences. For instance, Canadian Football is played with 12 players at a time on a 65-yard wide field, with goal posts in the front of the endzone.
So, Lewis told Lynch his best bet at making it to a Division I program would be crossing the border for his last two years of high school in order to gain recognition.
Lynch was all for the idea, and his family eventually discovered St. Francis High School in Buffalo — less than two hours from Toronto — which was open to the idea of accepting Canadians into its program and keeping them with host families.
“So, I talked to my mom, and said, ‘Mom, I really want to do this. I think I have to leave home at 16,’ ” Lynch said. “My mom was a trooper.”
While the grass was definitely greener on the other side of the border, Lynch still struggled with the idea of leaving his mother and younger brother as moving day approached.
He was well aware that not all attempts made by Canadian players to chase their Division I dreams ended as success stories.
But, St. Francis coach Jerry Smith gave him several powerful words of encouragement that helped Lynch make the leap.
“I more or less told him, ‘In order to do great things in the world, you have to do things that are not ordinary,’ ” Smith said. “It’s better to say, ‘I tried and I failed,’ than it is to never try. He’s one of those guys that believed, ‘If I want to be great, I have to step out of the box.’ ”
So, Lynch jumped.
Smith said the toughest part of the transition for any Canadian is becoming comfortable in his new surroundings, including the ins and outs of a different education system and American football rules and style.
However, after getting into a groove, both on the field and in the classroom, Lynch rose from the bottom of St. Francis’ running back depth chart in no time.
He finished his junior year with 828 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, despite missing part of the season with a torn tendon in his finger. Lynch then exploded for a school-record 2,131 yards and 25 touchdowns his senior season, including a 376-yard, five-touchdown single-game performance.
The scholarship offers began to pour in for the running back. He strongly considered Boston College and Iowa, but after coach Bill O’Brien was hired, he became set on Penn State.
“[Lynch] is a thinker,” Smith said. “Instead of asking, ‘Why?’, he more asked, ‘Why not? Why can’t I? Why can’t things be the way they’re supposed to be?’ The only thing holding anybody back is themselves. And he lives it.”
Looking back on it, Lynch said he’ll forever be indebted to his mother for supporting him in his venture to play at the Division I level. As McKoy explained, Lynch now makes sure to express his thankfulness every time he returns to the harsh streets of Toronto.
“Every time he comes here, he looks at me and he says, ‘Mom, if it wasn’t for you, I’d either be in jail or dead,’ ” McKoy said. “And I’ve told him, ‘I am not on God’s Earth going to bury you or lose you. You’re going to listen to me.’ And I was so glad I sent him to that school in Buffalo. Because I don’t know what would have happened to him now.”
Thankfully for McKoy, she doesn’t need to worry too much about that alternate scenario. Instead, she is planning her six-hour road trip to State College for Saturday’s game against Central Florida, when she will see Lynch play in Beaver Stadium for the first time.
Last week, McKoy watched on TV excitedly as Lynch broke out for 108 yards and a diving touchdown run, calling it a “surreal” experience to finally see his hard work pay off. Lynch said he’s eager to finally play with his mother sitting in the stands.
And he said he also knows his father would be proud to see that not much has changed since his passing — his son is still playing ball on weekends.
John Stuetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnStuetz_PSU