Lael Onifade isn’t the first young athlete to bring up his mother in an interview after a big victory.
But it’s the way this young man talks about his mom that really stands out. You can hear the admiration and respect he has for her in his voice. You can see what she means to him in his eyes when he describes her. And you can feel the love because it all comes from his heart.
Lael Onifade, a senior wide receiver and defensive back for the improved Pioneer football team, is lightning fast. He’s strong, making it tough for defenders to bring him down especially in the open field. He has good hands. Very quick. But it’s his heart that really makes this young man tick. It’s rare – and special.
“I just want to make my mom proud in whatever I do,” said Onifade after Pioneer’s win last Thursday over Skyline in which the senior caught a TD pass for the home team. “My No. 1 goal is to make my mom proud.”
He continued talking about his special relationship with his mom, Natasha Smith.
There wasn’t a follow-up question or any other prodding on the subject. He volunteered. His heart was wide open and he wanted people to know what she means to him.
“I’m working hard in everything and everything I do is for her,” he said, his voice loud but crackling with a little bit of emotion. “She deserves it. I want to be able to take care of her and buy her anything she wants. I love her with all my heart.”
And that heart is bigger than any linebacker he will ever come across or any challenge he will ever face in life.
Even when it comes to the football team, Onifade talks more about the team’s personality and chemistry than what offense they are running, how they tackle or how penalties can prove costly. He has a quick answer when asked about the difference between this year’s team – sitting at a respectable 3-3 on the season – and last year’s team – which finished a disappointing 3-6 last year.
“This year’s team is a family,” he says. “I love these guys from the bottom of my heart. We are always together and always practicing and always trying to get better. We even spend a lot of time together outside of football. It’s our unity that really sets us apart from last year’s team.”
Onifade didn’t start playing football until high school. He played outside linebacker on the junior varsity team as a freshman under his current varsity head coach Bill Bellers.
“It was my first year ever playing football,” he said. “I was supposed to go to Skyline so when I came to Pioneer I didn’t know many people so I thought playing football I would get to meet some people.”
While basketball was initially his main sport, football quickly took over his to-do list and eventually pushed basketball off his calendar for good. But it wasn’t a slam dunk decision.
“I thought I could play football and fell in love with it right away,” he said. “My sophomore year I played JV again. I was also playing basketball at the same time so I wasn’t giving football my full attention and during that summer I was splitting my time between the two.
“I almost quit football so I could just play basketball. But I ended up doing the opposite. Basketball wasn’t as fun anymore. And football I felt like I needed to put the work in and focus fully on that if I was going to be successful.”
He has put the work in and that has translated to success. Just like he drew it up.
Onifade earned a starting role on varsity last year as a junior.
“I felt a lot of pressure last year because I didn’t want to be the weak link on our defense,” he said. “We had a lot of good players, and I felt like I owed it to them to hold up my end and not mess up. People tell me I did well last year but I set a high standard for myself and felt like I could have done better.”
Bellers, in his first year coaching the varsity team, has been very pleased with his 5-10, 175 pound receiver and defensive back. Onifade has produced on both sides of the ball and is a big reason for the Pioneer’s success.
“He’s been great since day one, and I can’t say enough good things about him,” Bellers said. “This is the third year I get to coach him. He got called up to JV as a freshman and I’ve been impressed with him ever since I met him. He’s an amazing kid.”
Bellers is mostly impressed with the way the young man carries himself.
“He does things the right way,” Bellers says. “He’s a great leader. He’s easy to coach and does a lot of good things for us. He plays both offense and defense and he’s all over the field.”
And despite being “all over the field,” Onifade has a motor that never seems to run out of gas.
“Coaches make sure I get a blow every once in a while but I work hard enough in practice and in training before the season that I don’t really need to rest,” he said. “But they will still give me a blow even when I tell them I’m good. It keeps me fresh for the end of the game.”
Onifade wants to continue his football career at the next level but college is the main goal.
“I do want to play football but I want to be the first person in my family to make it to college,” he says. “Like I said, I want to make my mom proud.”
While his stats show how fast he is or how strong he is or how talented a football player he is, they don’t have a stat for what really matters. And as good as Lael Onifade is on the football field, he’s even better off it – and that certainly would make any mother proud.