CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — It started as a night like any other, but in an instant, Emmanuel Akubu's life changed forever. On Aug. 19, 2021, Akubu was hanging out with friends in their Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood when he found himself in the cross hairs of gang violence.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
He was shot in the leg three times. The bone in his lower leg was shattered; a metal rod was inserted to help the bone heal. Akubu was a member of the Penn State Lehigh Valley men’s basketball team. Surely his career was over — that’s how Akubu felt when he came out of surgery.
“I was so down,” he said. “I didn’t want to see anything about basketball.”
The PSU-LV team’s spring season had already been cancelled due to COVID; Akubu said he was looking forward to getting back out on the court that fall.
“I was so looking forward to playing,” he said. “I was really hurt, and devastated. I felt so helpless — I was just laying in the hospital bed and I kept replaying the situation in my head. What if I’d done something differently? It was one of my lowest points.”
When Akubu had stabilized, he called PSU-LV head men’s basketball coach Ray-Maurice Edwards to share the bad news: “When I called him, he asked, ‘What happened?’ I literally broke down crying. He was really concerned because he knows that’s not like me.” He told the coach what happened, and after taking a few moments to process the news, Edwards talked with Akubu for about an hour. Akubu couldn’t even think about basketball, but talking to his coach made him feel better.
In the days to come, Akubu’s family, friends and teammates rallied to his side. He started to see the situation differently, he said.
“Maybe something worse would’ve happened," said Akubu. "The situation could’ve gone so wrong. I’m blessed it happened the way it did. One of my close friends said to me, ‘Everybody goes through something.’ I took that in and gave myself a week.”
He said he knew what he had to do.
“I said to myself, ‘It happened. I determine the outcome of this.’ I worked my butt off. It was painful but I pushed myself. I was prescribed pills for pain, and I took about four but didn’t take any more. I didn’t like the feeling.”
After coming out of his initial surgery — though the bullets were removed, Akubu still has fragments in his leg — he couldn’t walk for an entire month. He used a wheelchair for a few weeks, then gradually progressed to using a walker.
Akubu took a year off from PSU-LV to focus on his recovery. He spent most of that time attending physical therapy and getting his strength back.
“I kept pushing hard, and seeing progression," he said. After using the walker, he moved on to crutches, which he only used for a few days. He wanted to walk on his own as soon as he could. “It was hard,” he said. “My leg would shake. But I kept going.” He finally reached his limit for physical therapy: “I was told I was doing an amazing job, and I still showed up once a week.”
He was medically cleared in July 2022. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to play basketball again. The surgeon was shocked and surprised that I’d made that type of recovery in one year," Abuku said. "I thank God for what I have. I told my coach and my mom and dad it was a blessing to be able to play.”
Now living in South Bethlehem, Akubu is back in the classroom and on the court. He was named All-Academic last year, the perfect way to cap his remarkable return.
“The work was worth it,” he said. “I appreciate everyone — Coach [Edwards], Sarah who assists with the athletic office and definitely keeps me on my toes.”
He said he is grateful to his parents for their support, as well.
“My mom and dad are extremely proud. They watched my journey. Seeing me go through that type of thing — it broke their hearts to see what happened, but they’re proud of my comeback," he said. He is in top form, fully healed and ready to get back in action, he said.
“I feel super healthy, super strong. I can run, jump, sprint. I’m perfectly fine now and looking forward to this upcoming season.”
A senior corporate communications major, Akubu said he looks forward to graduating in the spring. In addition to his degree from PSU-LV, he holds an associate’s degree in sports management. His post-graduation plans include working in athletics in some capacity. His injury changed his thinking, he said: “My mindset to this day is to work hard. The outcome will always be positive if you put your mind to it.”
It’s no surprise to Edwards that Akubu is a mentor to his teammates.
“As soon as he was able to get cleared, he got right back on track," said Edwards. "I think that’s a testament to his character and how he’s always been prior to his injury — always press forward.”
Akubu said he sees it as a privilege to mentor younger players.
“The younger guys look up to me and my journey — how I carry myself. They kind of admire that," he said, adding that he hopes others are inspired by his journey and what he has overcome.
“Look at it as motivation,” he said. “Everything that comes in front of you … have a strong mindset. Bumps will be on the road, but don’t panic. Whatever life gives you, take it, put your chin up, and you can overcome anything that’s in front of you. If you’re strong minded and dedicated, you have to be willing to be strong and work hard. That’s the message I want to put out there.