By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)
Feature photo by: Matthew Hamilton
Machuor Akau’s football journey has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride at top speed.
It all started after a chance encounter in the halls of Oak Park High School in 2011 with legendary head football coach Stu Nixon.
“About tenth grade, I was still playing basketball, and coach Nixon came and talked to me and said ‘hey you should try out for the football team.’ So I went and tried out for the junior varsity team and loved it.”
Interestingly, Akau suited up as a defensive back in his first-ever season of tackle football. At the time, the junior varsity player was 140 pounds and over six feet tall, so positionally it made sense.
Impact of Recruit Ready/Eddie Steele
When the year ended, Akau was hooked on the game. But he also knew he needed to gain some size, as the plan was to convert him to a hybrid linebacker/defensive end. Cue Oak Park alumnus Brad Black, who along with Blaire Atkinson, founded premier football training program Recruit Ready in 2013.
That year, Recruit Ready was doing in-house training at Oak Park, which Akau benefited from greatly.
“Brad Black, who was a huge mentor of mine, brought me into the strength and conditioning program, so I started training with [Recruit Ready],” he says.
“At the time, I didn’t know a single thing about training, and they instilled that work ethic in me and it just grew from there. I don’t think I could’ve done that without the extra help of [Recruit Ready] guiding me through that process.”
On top of his base training, Akau was also receiving valuable knowledge from former Manitoba Bison/current Saskatchewan Roughrider Eddie Steele.
“Eddie Steele I have a great relationship with,” he says. “In terms of the little stuff like working technique, he would always lend me a hand with that. I talk to him all the time, and any time I need help I shoot him a message.”
Akau had a successful 2013 season, enough so that at the end of his junior year, the Carleton Ravens came calling. Akau built a great relationship with the coaching staff, and they even came to Oak Park to visit him, which he says “meant a lot.”
Returning to the field, when Akau’s senior year came around, he quickly became an unstoppable force at defensive end. He finished the season with 40 tackles, four sacks, two blocked punts and three fumble recoveries — all of which he did in just six games.
Arguably more importantly though, his squad was able to upset perennial powerhouse St. Paul’s for the AAA provincial title in a game that came down to a last-second field goal that was shanked by the Crusader’s kicker.
“I’ll be honest, we thought the game was over, because it was a 15 yard kick,” Akau says with a grin. “But hey, you never know in football. Keep playing until the clock hits zero.”
Naturally, after such an impressive senior year, Akau started gaining interest from other university programs such as Regina, Calgary and Waterloo. But it was Carleton that “held a place in his heart” because they were the first program that showed interest in him.
He took his official visit to Carleton in February of his grade 12 year, staying for two days with fellow Winnipeger and now former Raven Leon Cenerini.
“After two days, I just loved it,” Akau says with a smile. “I already had a great relationship with the players and coaches, and they saw something in me. Kind of like what coach Nixon saw in me in high school.”
With his commitment for the 2015 season made, Akau now had to prove himself at the university level, which, unsurprisingly was difficult at first.
“Going into training camp was a huge jump, not only physically, but just learning the playbook,” he says.
“The game was also a lot faster from high school, so I kind of struggled in training camp, but as soon as training camp ended and we got towards the season, I started picking things up and was beating older veterans.”
By the time week one came around, Akau was set to see time as a true freshman. But that’s when everything started to fall apart.
First, he rolled his ankle and missed game one. Then, the following week, he sustained an injury so gruesome that even writing about it hurts.
“It was the last practice of the week for week two, and we were doing one-on-one pash rush,” Akau says.
“I did one rep and won so I bounced to the other side of the line just to get another rep in. I did an inside swim move, planted my leg, and the lower part of my femur snapped in half. That tore my ACL, MCL PCL and meniscus.”
When Akau went to see a surgeon in Ottawa, it was suggested that he stop playing permanently. Naturally, that didn’t sit well with the native of Kenya, who refused to give up the game he loved dearly.
“I just knew that I could overcome [the injury] and get back, because I saw myself doing it,” he says. “I was like, you did well coming in as a rookie. Once you come back from this injury, you can get back to that level.”
Akau had his surgery in early March in Ottawa, and then returned home at the end of April, giving him the opportunity to do basically all of his rehab in Winnipeg.
“Immediately I went to Elite Performance,” he says.
“I’d never trained there before, so I went and talked to [co-founder] Jeff Fisher, who I have a great relationship with now, and he told me that he would get me back on the field, and that’s all I needed to hear, because the doctor told me otherwise.
“[The rehab] was probably the most grueling year-and-a-half to two years I’ve ever experienced in my life. It was painful and it was long. Most knee rehabs are 7-12 months, but mine took close to two years to fully heal. It definitely took a lot of hard work, but I just kept going after it every day.”
Next steps/Joining the Rifles
Akau chose to take the 2016 season off, de-committing from Carleton in order to fully focus on his rehab as well as spending time with his family.
“At the time, my knee wasnt good enough to play the following season anyways, so I was like, I may as well stay at Elite Performance and continue to work out and train every single day and get my knee better.”
Despite not playing, Akau was still garnering interest from various football programs, including the Canadian Junior Football League’s Winnipeg Rifles.
Head coach Geordie Wilson, as well as defensive backs coach and Oak Park/Manitoba Bison alumnus Justin Kasak were among the individuals who contacted him. He was also getting messages from some of his old friends who now played for the Rifles. This, coupled with Akau’s desire to return to the game slowly and patiently, were enough to convince him to sign with the team for the 2017 season.
”I took it as a challenge to test my knee out, and see if I could still do it,” he says. “Instead of going back to a U SPORTS team, I thought the better route for me would be to play Rifles.”
Akau played in just four regular season games last year, as he continued to be patient with his recovery.
“At times during a game, I’d get rolled on or something, and my knee would instantly swell up,” he says.
“And learning from rehab, you have to be smart with your body, which is something I wasn’t good for before — I would just go, go, go. But after injuring my knee, I took it very, very carefully because I didn’t want to go back to that [original stage of rehab].”
By the time this past offseason rolled around, Akau was finally able to start re-honing his game. He was given the chance to lift heavy again, and has also incorporated yoga and speed work with “guru” Glenn Bruce into his regimen.
“In terms of last season, my offseason program was mostly rehab work, so I didnt have a lot of core or power lifting or strength work. It was moreso mobility, knee rehab specific stuff,” he says.
“This offseason was light years compared to last offseason. I feel healthy, I went on a diet and lost 15 pounds, and I feel way healthier and stronger. It’s definitely going to be a good season, I’m excited.”
Akau has every reason to be excited, not only for himself, but his squad as a whole. The defensive line looks to be a particular strength this year for the Rifles, with himself, as well as Hayden Nellis (who’s currently training with the Bombers), Samson Harper and Justin Kwiatowski leading the way.
“We hold each other to a high standard,” Akau says of the relationship the front four has. “We don’t let each other slack off as a unit or take plays off. I think we’ll definitely do very well this year.”