It was the third Sunday of June in the summer of 2009, and there Akeel Lynch stood in his Junior Argonauts football uniform on the sideline in downtown Toronto, Ontario.
The Jr. Argos all remained on the field at halftime for a special Father’s Day ceremony. The 15-year-old Lynch kept his helmet on.
His single mother, Dona McKoy, could barely watch, her heart wrenching up in her chest as she gazed down at her son from the bleachers. Lynch stood as patiently as he could near the water coolers while one-by one his teammates each gave a wave and a smile to the crowd, along with their dads who were each being honored with a few nice words by the public address announcer.
Neither Lynch’s name, nor his father Howard, were called.
As the longest halftime of his life dragged on, Lynch’s eyes turned toward the ground, partially obscured by his facemask, and he quietly wept.
“Father’s Day is always hard for him,” McKoy said. “Always.”
The Phone Rings
McKoy will never forget the phone call that changed her life.
It was Monday Morning in Toronto. A 7-year-old Akeel was in school when she picked up the receiver. On the other end a man’s voice filled her ear. He was calling from Florida and asked her if she was who she was and if she knew Howard Lynch.
Of course she did. The two had been married, had since separated but remained amicable.
“Yes, he’s my son’s dad,” McKoy said.
The Jamaican-born couple had joint custody of Akeel. The man identified himself as a police officer.
“Howard was murdered last night,” the cop said.
“But I just talked to him last night,” McKoy responded quizzically.
“He was murdered last night.”
Lynch was blindsided by news of his father’s death. He couldn’t process it.
The sense of finality — he would never see his father again — hit him once his body was returned from Florida in time for the viewing. It surfaced again at the cemetery the day his dad was buried.
To this day, the family doesn’t know what happened, although it is assumed Howard Lynch was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The case remains open. The closest thing to closure the family — Akeel plus a younger brother and older brother on his mother’s side and a brother and two sisters on his father’s side — received was a death certificate that revealed what they already knew: Howard Lynch had been shot.
To date, Lynch can’t remember the last time he and his father were together. He remembers portions of time spent with him but can’t pinpoint the exact topic of their last discussion.
“I didn’t think about it because I always thought I would see him,” Lynch said. “The last time you see someone you think, ‘Oh, I’m going to see him tomorrow.’”
But he wouldn’t and McKoy continued on, raising her two sons while working long hours at a database company where she’d eventually become the health department supervisor. Every so often, she’d take her boys back to Jamaica to visit their grandparents and cousins.
McKoy, who speaks with a thick Jamaican accent, grew up on the island before moving to Toronto when she was just 19. Visions of his mother’s childhood surroundings have stuck with Lynch.
“My mom is from the urban side where you have to go run down to the tap to get water and bring it back to your house,” he said. “There’s not paved roads. There are dirt roads. It’s not that poor but obviously where we were living at in Toronto at the time was better than what they had, a little more opportunities.”
Following in his mother’s path
Shortly after his final season with the Jr. Argonauts ended, Lynch had already started his transformation into a standout athlete. He was a solid soccer player, but football was his game.
It was also his saving grace.
McKoy decided her son needed to be separated from a group of friends they both realized were veering down the wrong path. Their neighborhood of Etobicoke, on Toronto’s west side, was where three of Akeel’s best friends since kindergarten strayed away.
One murdered the other. The third is now in Canada’s Witness Protection Program after testifying at the trial. Akeel will never see any of them again. Luckily, he got away from them before he could get sucked into a similar downward spiral. McKoy sent him to St. Michael’s College School in Toronto.
“And that’s when all my time got diverted to school and football,” Lynch said.
But from talking to people at St. Michael’s, Lynch realized he’d need to make a significant change if he wanted to be able to chase his dream of playing Division I college football in the United States.
In Canada — where gridirons are 12 yards wider and football is played with 12 players rather than 11 — Lynch was already the player who got most of the touches on his team but he figured they would be missed by major college recruiters if he stayed north of the border where the talent level isn’t perceived as well.
“In Canada you can just give it to the fastest kid and outrun everyone to the edge because the field is so wide and the end zones are so big,” Lynch said. “Yeah, I was that fast guy.”
His dream was to play big time college football in the United States. But in order to be recruited, he knew he had to play American football. Eventually, Lynch met Jerry Smith, who coached football at St. Francis High was not far away in Buffalo, N.Y. at a football seminar just below the U.S.-Canada border.
Lynch was intrigued and wanted to switch schools for his last two years of high school. It meant he would need to leave home to attend St. Francis, however.
McKoy said it was the toughest decision of her life to let her son choose his own path at just 16 years old. After all, she was at least technically an adult at 19 when she left Jamaica. But she decided it wasn’t her decision after all.
“She knew that for her kids, me and my little brother and my older brother, she moved to Toronto to seek out more opportunities,” Lynch said. “So when I told my mom that I wanted to move to go play football in the States, she understood that because she did the same thing when she was just a little bit older than me.”
The empty nest
“For the whole first week when he was gone, I couldn’t function,” McKoy said. “I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t eat, I didn’t even want to have a shower.”
Derrick Neely was going through a similar depression nearly two hours south in Amherst, N.Y. He and his wife Latica’s oldest son, Adam Redden, had always been his football buddy. Neely had volunteered his time at St. Francis where Adam played and the two spent each Saturday and Sunday glued to the couch together watching football.
When Adam moved onto campus at the University of Buffalo to begin his football career in the summer of 2010, Neely grew lonely, not having a fellow sports fanatic in the house. Usually reserved, Derrick grew quieter as August turned into September and football season got underway.
But a request from St. Francis football coach Jerry Smith changed all that. He asked Neely if he and Latica would take in two Canadian boys for the time being.
Initially, they were hesitant until Akeel Lynch and Will Hudson showed up one afternoon to hang out with the Neely’s younger son, Josh — also a football player but not as passionate about the game as his older brother and dad were.
“When I met him I knew, this kid was going to be in my house,” Latica Neely said. “It was just a bond that he had with my husband who was going through empty nest syndrome because our son has just left home for college and Akeel was that football player that my son was.”
Derrick, who had played at Georgia Tech, immediately took Akeel under his wing. While Will and Josh spent time out and about on weekends or Skyping with high school friends, Akeel was plugged into Adam’s former seat on the couch beside Derrick. And Derrick began to snap out of his mental funk.
“When you’re with your kids every day and you try and teach them the things you know and then you see them go and you have no one to really teach, you just really have to step back and watch and see if they paid attention to the things you taught them. When that’s gone, it’s like an empty feeling. You really have no one to talk to and watch train and tell them to do this and tell them to do that,” Derrick Neely said. “To have him come in, he kind of filled that void when my son did go away and was on campus.”
The Neelys, with Lynch and Hudson along for the ride, made a family road trip to watch one of Adam’s games against Bowling Green that fall. It was Lynch’s first time experiencing college football in person. Another first for Lynch was tasting sweet potato pie, a Neely family specialty, as McKoy was more well-versed in fixing Jamaican cuisine.
But that fall also was the first time Lynch had to endure a serious injury.
Lynch’s junior season at St. Francis would end early. He tore a tendon in his ring finger that required surgery in Buffalo. Shortly after the surgery, Lynch had an allergic reaction to one of the medications he was given. An easy enough procedure to make sure he would retain movement of his finger became a serious complication and Lynch had to be kept overnight to ensure his recovery.
While his mom made the nearly two-hour drive across the border, the Neelys — especially Derrick — kept watch over Akeel by his hospital bedside.
“He loved that kid so much,” McKoy said of Derrick and Akeel’s bond. “I remember when he got hurt and was in the hospital, he spent the whole night and day with him as if Akeel was his own son. I could not believe how close they got.”
Leaving home again
When it was time for Josh Neely to leave home for college, Akeel also left the Neely household.
Changes in Latica and Derrick’s schedules made picking Akeel and Will up after late football practices and workouts tough. But they weren’t about to kick their foreign tenants out. Instead, Lynch volunteered to leave to make it easier on the Neelys.
He moved an hour southwest and found a room at the Bartholomew residence in Fredonia, where another teammate, Miles Bartholomew, lived with his mother Amy, father Anthony and two siblings. The eldest two Bartholomew sons had moved on to college and a room was available on the second floor of the family’s house.
Lynch moved in to the cupola. At first, he was an unfamiliar guest. Eventually, he migrated into the empty room downstairs across from then-14-year-old Emily.
“My daughter would go to him for advice before her own brothers after a while,” Amy Bartholomew said.
And David Bartholomew, who is the same age as Akeel’s youngest brother, immediately started to look up to Lynch, who had recovered from shoulder surgery and was on a tear for St. Francis as the team’s primary running back.
Like he did with Derrick Neely, Lynch began to look up to Anthony Bartholomew, a physician with an extensive college background. While Miles and Akeel went through the recruiting process together, Anthony was there for both his son and his live-in guest.
“Akeel respected that and he respected the hours that (Anthony) worked that went into that,” Amy Bartholomew said. “My husband kept saying, ‘I know that you’re going to play football and you’re going to take it to the highest level you can take it, but be sure you go to a school that will provide you with a solid academic foundation.’”
Lynch had a flier for a Penn State football camp tacked in his room inside the Bartholomew house for nearly a year. It was an offer he wanted badly from Nittany Lion coaches at the time.
When he finally got it and it came time to commit, Anthony Bartholomew’s advice helped guide him. When the NCAA sanctions were imposed against the team in 2012, Lynch briefly entertained the thought of transferring. But added advice from Penn State football lettermen and Bartholomew’s words were there to dissuade him from doing so.
When Lynch scored his first touchdown against Eastern Michigan, Derrick and Latica Neely were in the stands at Beaver Stadium. As Lynch ripped off an 18-yard run in the fourth quarter, Neely went wild.
“He was a proud father, so to speak, during the Penn State-Eastern Michigan game when Akeel got that touchdown,” Latica Neely said. “People are yelling at him like, ‘Is that your son?’ He was like, ‘That’s my godson.’ He was so ecstatic.”
Lynch is part of another family now — one comprised of nearly 150 Penn State teammates, coaches and support staff.
He never forgets where he came from or his other families, however: His house and blood-relatives in Toronto and Jamaica, and the Neelys and Bartholomews in Amherst and Fredonia, respectively. To this day, when Lynch returns home, he makes three stops.
He stops by to see the Neelys first, then winds his way up closer to Buffalo where the Bartholomew house awaits. On his most recent trip, Lynch was supposed to spend a day with Amy and Anthony and the kids but stayed an extra few just so he could take part in Amy’s surprise 50th birthday.
While the Neelys and Bartholomews have never met all together, each family knows Akeel and considers him a child of their own. McKoy considers them all one big family and envisions a day where they can all sit down for dinner together.
She’ll cook Jamaican. Latica Neely will bring a sweet potato pie.
“Those people were the most amazing people on Earth,” McKoy said. “They took care of him as if he were their own son. I remember Amy said to me, ‘I never thought I would love someone else’s kid as much as I love your son.’”