“Soccer for me, it’s life. It’s how I used to communicate when I didn’t know the language. I’ve been on two semi pro teams where I don’t speak the same language as anyone on my team. If you think about it from that perspective it’s that universal conduit that you can connect with people,” said Aken Ekanem, the ORHS boy’s varsity soccer coach.
Soccer has been a part of Ekanem’s life for as long as he can remember. The experiences of growing up in Africa, playing D1 college soccer and for semi-pro teams, have made Ekanem an asset to the various coaching jobs he has had throughout his life. Now at ORHS he has used his vast experience and knowledge of the sport to not only win the DII State Championship, but also to be a very influential coach and friend for all players in the program.
Ekanem was born in Ethiopia, and ended up moving around a lot as a kid because both his parents worked for the United Nations. His family of 6 moved to many countries but the primary two he said were Ethiopia and Kenya. “I got used to the whole concept of moving around and making new friends. In hindsight, it was a bit rough. I think my personality, being outgoing helped. I wasn’t shy about walking up to random people, so it was okay for me and I just had fun with it really and made it work,” said Ekanem.
As a kid, Ekanem had always had a deep connection with the sport of soccer. Soccer was a way that Ekanem was able to connect with new communities that he was constantly moving to. “Soccer’s always been there. It’s been 100% constant. Whenever we would move around, it was the way I would plug in with the new kids. I didn’t need to know the language, didn’t need to understand, just play,” he said. Whether it be in the streets, his backyard, or organized soccer, he was always playing.
When he was going into high school, his family moved to Kenya. There, he attended a British boarding school, which he jokingly relates to Hogwarts from Harry Potter. While there he joined many different sports teams and had a pretty strict schedule. Instead of only having one sport per season, he would have multiple sports year round. Ekanem juggled, playing rugby, soccer, tennis and basketball all at the same time.
Despite being a multi-sport athlete, soccer was the most important for Ekanem. “We would come out of class for a 30 minute break, and in the class prior to that we would be passing notes picking teams, and as soon as the bell goes we are playing. Then we would go back to class, and for lunch we would eat as quickly as possible and then go out and play again. After school it was the same thing,” he said.
It was during this time in high school that he really began to embrace soccer. Having two Nigerian parents, he was a big fan of the Nigerian national team. He explained how when things really flipped for him were when Nigeria won the gold medal at the ‘96 Olympics. They had to beat the best teams in the world, and it wasn’t really meant to happen. “The excitement around that really solidified and that’s when I started concentrating not so much into the play and my favorite players, but also on what the coaches were doing. I was trying to understand the concepts of the game. So, that is where my passion for coaching started,” he said.
Coming out of a boarding school, Ekanem knew he wanted to go to college in the United States. His older brother was already living there, and his older sister was attending Creighton University in Nebraska. Since his parents were the ones paying for college, they decided that Creighton was where he would attend as well.
Luckily for him, they had a Division 1 soccer team. “I realized they had a soccer team, which was great. I walked on but didn’t get much playing time. The team went to the D1 finals and it was extremely competitive, so getting playing time was impossible,” he said.
There he studied Computer Science and African Studies. Playing Division 1 soccer can be very rigorous with a very strict schedule, but coming from a boarding school, this wasn’t a big adjustment for Ekanem.
Coming out of college, Ekanem couldn’t find a job due to the first dot com bust (a bubble in the stock market surrounding internet companies) and companies wanting a minimum of two years experience. Despite having the opportunity to be a practice player on the Los Angeles Galaxy (a Major League Soccer team) he instead decided to attend graduate school at North Carolina Central University for information sciences. Along with this, his mom found him a job working for a neighbor who needed a software technician. “Within the same month of me applying for grad school, I got a job in software for Formscape. Next thing I know, I am flying all over the world installing and supporting software,” he explained.
Along with attending graduate school and working at a software company, he also began playing soccer for a semi pro team called the Rhinos, in North Carolina. He would practice three times a week, and play on the weekends, and sometimes missed practices due to work travels. When asked how it was handling everything he said, “It was great. I had the energy. I was excited and always loved doing it. Remember, I was playing a game I loved. I didn’t have homework anymore, and I had the energy and it was a blast, and I absolutely loved it.” Sadly while playing for them, he tore both his ACL and MCL, which set him out for seven months. After returning to play, he joined another semi pro team in a Mexican League around age 24.
During this time he began coaching as well. “The school I went to grad school at didn’t have a soccer team, so I started a club team and was coaching and playing for it.” The rest of his family moved over to North Carolina when his parents retired, giving him the opportunity to coach his younger brother. “Then I started assistant coaching my little brother’s high school team at Durham Academy in North Carolina,” he said.
When he was 26, he stopped playing at the semi pro level, because work was getting serious. This didn’t stop him from playing altogether. He moved up to New Hampshire in 2007, and he would still play daily at Seacoast United. “When I figured out about Seacoast United in Epping, I was there every single day. I would finish work at 5, go home have dinner, then go to Hampton from 7 to 11 and play,” he said.
He began coaching for the Portsmouth Soccer Club (the Oyster River Youth Association (ORYA) equivalent for Portsmouth), until he moved to Newmarket. There he began hanging out with people from Durham, Lee, and Madbury, and began coaching for Maximum Velocity FC (MV). “Because MV had so many guys from Oyster River, we figured why not help out ORYA,” he explained. He then coached at ORYA for a little bit, coaching a U15 team to a state championship win.
He had previously spent time around the ORHS team in 2015, and coached some of the players on MV. This 2015 team ended up winning the Division II State Championship. Ekanem recalls that this put the idea that it would be nice to win a championship of his own in his head.
He stopped coaching for MV and began coaching for different clubs such as Granite State FC and GPS in Bedford. Fast forward one year in 2018 his high school coaching career started when he was hired to be the varsity coach at ORHS. “Coaching at ORHS, I’m loving it because having the time to mold a team into what I want it to be is awesome. It’s got its challenges, but it’s fun, and it’s constantly brand new because every year you have a new team, which is fun for me,” he said
Many of the ORHS players were very excited to have him as the new head coach. A lot of this year’s seniors and juniors had him as a coach when he first started out at ORYA, and really loved him as a coach. “When I heard Akan was going to be the new varsity coach coming into my freshman year, I was very excited. Akan is no stranger to the ORYA community, coaching the club soccer team in our youth days,” said Nathan Mendoza (‘22). He continued, “I think he just inspired more kids to play and try out since everyone knows and loves him as a coach. Since he’s come we have seen amazing results, obviously with our recent championship win. I think he just brings with him a presence as a coach that attracts people to the sport within the high school.”
This past season, Ekanem led the ORHS Varsity Soccer team to win the Division II State Championship. This only came after two years of defeat in the playoffs. In his first season in 2018, the team lost against Bow in the quarterfinals of playoffs, which Ekenam says was due to mistakes with his coaching tactics. In the 2019 season the team lost to Lebanon in the semifinals of playoffs. “Lebanon put the stick to us, and they were a better team at the end of the day, as a team as a whole I still think we should have beat them,” he said.
Going into the 2020 season, he put all lessons learned from the previous seasons and was able to win the state championship. “It was like, finally. It was confirmation of doing some things right here and that we can be successful. Don’t get me wrong the championship means a ton from that perspective, but in the grand scheme of things it means more to me to have a team that is playing together well,” he said.
Ekanem prioritizes the team over winning, and that really shows in his coaching style. His key ideas are serious fun, playing both fast and simple, and taking responsibility for yourself and your actions. “I would say I’m flexible sometimes. Some coaches have a set in stone plan of what they’re doing, but I’ve got more of an adaptive mentality. I do have some hard core ideas on how we play, like play the ball fast, play the ball simple, and don’t overcomplicate things, but it’s mapping out who passes to who, it’s more the style is fast and simple and go have fun,” he said.
While implementing his key ideas he is a very motivating and agreeable person to work with. According to Jim Thibault, the ORHS boys JV soccer coach, “He has high energy, is easy to get along with but absolutely not someone you can walk over. He’s got a balance, where he’s in charge but he definitely cares about you as a person (coach to coach and coach to player), and that’s motivating.”
Ekanem has a very flexible coaching style that shifts with the different players he has on a given team. Many players have been able to improve their play because of this coaching style “Akan is a very strategic coach. Some coaches may be very offensively driven or defensively driven, but I believe Akan is more of a coach who coaches based off of what his team needs. He will switch it up sometimes to be more offensive than defensive and vice versa. He coaches based off of his player’s strengths and weaknesses,” said Mendoza.
He bases some of these ideas off of his previous coach’s styles, along with Alex Ferguson, the coach for Manchester United. He explained how the “disciplined fun” part of his coaching style came from his high school coach Alfred Weddie, who he relates to Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots. Along with Weddie another person he models his coaching after is his college coach for his freshman year, coach Sharp. He explains how Sharp enforced responsibility and the idea that everything on and off the field can be solely controlled by you. He believes you shouldn’t blame anyone else to explain why something happened the way it did.
Along with this he always stresses the importance of working together as a unit and understanding how each person fits into that unit. “I would rather lose and have a team that is playing amazing as a team, and I know that sounds insane, but a key part of a soccer team is the team. Ideally, a team that has that concept at their root is going to be successful, but the winning part is not everything, the winning part is a result of a well put together team,” he said. He relates this to Argentina’s national team. They have always had an incredible strike force, and hypothetically they should win every cup, but they don’t play as a team.
This team mentality is something that many of his players appreciate. “He definitely isn’t a coach that believes he knows it all, and he’ll trust his players and assistant coaches to make decisions as well, and I feel that definitely makes him a great coach,” said captain Aidan Kelley (‘21).
Not only does Ekanem prioritize having a cohesive team that works well together, he has made huge efforts to have this same mentality with the Oyster River community. “You can see him at reserve games, junior varsity games, just supporting the players but also coaching. He roots everyone on and gets the varsity players involved with the younger grade levels; U8’s U9’s, trying to get a full community Oyster River soccer program,” said Kelley.
As the JV coach Thibault has seen Ekanem working with the younger players first hand and thinks he does an amazing job of working with them as well as the varsity team. “He’s present but not in a way that I think the kids feel nervous when he’s there. For the freshmen and sophomores when he does come to practice, they want to perform for him but they’re not afraid of him. He’s there often enough that he really does know the kid’s names and pays attention to individual player’s improvements. He’s actively watching and taking notes and giving feedback,” said Thibault.
Although coaching has been a major part of his life, playing was a major part as well until around two years ago when he stopped playing. “I slowly wound down my playing altogether. Even in 2007 I would play 3-4 hours a day, and then slowed down for 2 reasons: because my son came along, and played less to spend more time with my family, and because my body was beat.” he said.
He plans to begin playing a little bit this year, and at some point later on, to retire from working and fully focus on coaching. Ekanem said, “Well I’ll die coaching somewhere. I’m always gonna coach. I plan on playing a little bit this year, and hopefully the program continues to grow and get better, and then at some point when I’m done working, I’ll fully focus on coaching.”
Ekanem has largely made an impact on many players’ lives both on and off the field and has been a mentor for many. Mendoza said, “I think of Akan as a friend. Yes, he’s my coach. He’s been my coach for years, but off the field when he’s not coaching, he’s a friend and a mentor. He’s always teaching me the good and the bad in this world. He’s always there to cheer me up, talk with me about anything, and he’s always there to help me with anything. I think off the field he just does what he can to make people happy and to teach people how to be a better person.”