When he opens the door to his off-campus apartment, C.J. Olaniyan’s world shrinks.
He immediately opens his arms to ask for a hug from his 18-month-old daughter, Nahla. She knows how their nightly ritual goes by now, hugging her father’s leg and putting her hands up to ask him to pick her up.
“She always says ‘Weeee’ because she wants to fly,” Olaniyan said.
Olaniyan obliges, tossing her in the air a couple times. After a day of classes and football practice, Olaniyan said he’s probably more excited than his daughter for their greeting every night. But when the door opens, it’s easy to see Nahla’s excitement, said Ebony Hines, Nahla’s mother and Olaniyan’s girlfriend.
“Everything changes,” Hines said before adding through laughter, “they forget about me.”
Olaniyan, a fifth-year senior defensive end at Penn State, has cherished his time with his family this season. Hines and Nahla have been living with Olaniyan in State College since the home opener against Akron.
Olaniyan said his mind is at ease when he leaves for campus.
The young father can go to classes and football practice without worrying about his family, like he did much of last year when Hines and Nahla were in his hometown of Warren, Mich.
Concerns about how they were doing often crossed his mind. Their interactions were limited to phone calls and nightly FaceTime chats. He missed out on seeing Nahla crawl, stand and talk for the first time.
That was the hard part for Olaniyan — though Hines tried to document each milestone on video.
This year, he sees his loved ones every morning and knows he’ll see their faces again at night. He looks forward to hearing “Daddy” when he gets home. He enjoys home-cooked meals rather than eating Chipotle for dinner as he did so often last fall.
With his family here and his mind at ease, Olaniyan said he’s been able to focus more on football during his final season. The defensive end is a captain respected by his coaches and teammates for his maturity and reliability.
Since becoming a father, Olaniyan’s focus has sharpened and shifted.
Everything is about his family now.
“It’s been a huge motivation just being able to know that I’m working to take care of my family,” Olaniyan said.
‘An iconic figure’
Whenever Olaniyan’s back in his hometown, he makes time to see an influential teacher and his football coach at Warren Mott (Mich.) High School.
He’ll go to dinner with Kelley Collins and her two daughters, and he’ll spend time with them during the holidays. Collins, who taught Olaniyan forensic science and biology in 11th and 12th grade, considers him part of the family.
He’ll stop by to talk to the Warren Mott football team, offering a different voice for coach Tom Milanov’s players. They listen intently to Olaniyan’s tips for success because the school views him as “an iconic figure” due to his stature as a Big Ten football player.
The respect still felt in the Warren Mott hallways is about much more than football, though.
“You can’t find a teacher or administrator or anybody in the school district that would say something bad about him,” Milanov said. “He just was a good person and a quality individual, so everyone’s proud of him.”
Collins recalls Olaniyan got along with everybody in school. He was also an intelligent student who took an interest in the forensic science class she taught.
Collins grew close with Olaniyan and his group of friends. She was affectionately known as ‘Mama Collins,’ checking on them and offering encouragement daily.
No one formed a stronger bond with her than Olaniyan.
During trips home from college, Olaniyan has given his former teacher Mother’s Day cards. He’ll take her daughters — 16-year-old Katrina and 14-year-old Kaylee — out to the movies. And he checks in on his “pseudo younger sisters” from time to time, making sure they’re not giving their mom too much trouble.
Collins, a single mom, considers Olaniyan a male role model for her daughters.
“C.J. will joke with them and say if you’re going to date somebody, I need to talk to them,” Collins said. “He plays that big brother role.”
Milanov got to know Olaniyan during his freshman year at Warren Mott. Olaniyan played on the junior varsity team that fall before playing under Milanov on varsity his final three years. They became close as Milanov helped Olaniyan navigate the recruiting process.
Major programs flocked to the high school to visit with Olaniyan. Milanov hit the road with him for a handful of unofficial visits across the Midwest. It was a unique experience for Milanov, who has had three former players continue their careers at Mid-American Conference schools.
Through all the attention, Olaniyan was a consistent performer, even playing through a severe ankle injury during his senior year. Milanov knew his star player was hurting, but Olaniyan didn’t draw any attention to it. He quietly played hard and finished his high school career.
It’s an example of Olaniyan’s character and a tribute to how his parents raised him, Milanov said.
In the last five years, Milanov has watched proudly as Olaniyan has become a leader for the Nittany Lions and a dedicated family man since the birth of his daughter.
“That’s been very inspiring to see him really become a man and take care of responsibilities and really grow up big time,” Milanov said.
‘It’s really not about you anymore’
It was April 20, 2013, after the Blue-White game, when Olaniyan received a phone call from his girlfriend’s mother.
Hines had texted Olaniyan earlier in the day with an update, saying she was in so much pain. She eventually went to Hutzel Women’s Hospital in Detroit with her mother.
There, they learned the baby was on the way.
Olaniyan got the news, called former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien to let him know and hit the road around 7 p.m.
“I probably broke a couple traffic rules,” Olaniyan said, admitting he was speeding a little bit to get to Detroit.
Hines later learned Olaniyan was en route.
“I was just so excited and happy that he could keep coming and experience some of this pain that I’m going through,” said Hines, who started dating Olaniyan in April 2010.
Olaniyan recalls arriving at the hospital around 1 or 2 a.m.
“My heart dropped,” Hines said. “I was just so happy that he made it.”
Around 8 a.m., April 21, 2013, Nahla was born.
Hines started counting her fingers and toes and noticed how long her daughter’s legs were. The 5-foot-10 new mother joked “We’re breeding giants.” She remembers Olaniyan being timid at first.
“He got comfortable enough to hold onto her,” Ebony said. “But you could tell he was just so scared, like I don’t want to hurt her. She’s so little.”
Olaniyan described that day as an unbelievable experience. He remembers hearing her cry. He also quickly realized his daughter would need him and her mother for everything — to feed her, to keep her warm, to comfort her.
“When you have somebody that just depends on you this much,” Olaniyan said, “it’s really not about you anymore.”
‘An unbelievably mature individual’
Before every game, Olaniyan is reminded of how far he’s come on and off the field.
He tapes his wrists, a trick he picked up from a Penn State veteran as a freshman to improve his takeoff. And he receives two photos from Hines on his iPhone an hour or two before kickoff.
“I always say for me, it doesn’t take much for me or actual stuff for me to be motivated,” Olaniyan said. “I’m already motivated from the inside as far as being able to think about being able to play for my family and play for my teammates.
“That’s all the motivation that I need.”
Both parts of his pregame routine offer a glimpse into what drives him.
Olaniyan was part of the scout team during his freshman camp and learned a valuable lesson from defensive end Jack Crawford. With Olaniyan lined up at tackle in front of Crawford, the junior defensive end exploded off the ball and nearly broke Olaniyan’s wrists.
Olaniyan never taped his wrists prior to that day, and he’s taped them ever since. Crawford, now with the Dallas Cowboys, coached him on improving his takeoff, explaining that kind of power was needed to play in the Big Ten.
Olaniyan, a starting defensive end who has two sacks, is now the veteran providing an example for younger teammates like Garrett Sickels and even fellow starter Deion Barnes.
“I think they feed off of C.J.’s approach to the game,” defensive line coach Sean Spencer said.
The fifth-year senior has embraced his role as a captain. Olaniyan said he paid close attention to how past captains improved as leaders and did more to help the team. He’s trying to do the same, speaking up more when necessary.
“He’s been a great role model,” defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said. “He’s a great leader by example. Everybody can count on him.”
Olaniyan may be quiet, but he becomes a vocal leader during games.
“He definitely pumps us up when we need that extra juice,” defensive tackle Austin Johnson said. “Him and Mike Hull are pretty much the communicators.”
Spencer called Olaniyan “an unbelievably mature individual,” attributing that trait in part to his responsibilities as a father.
Olaniyan’s become a trusted sounding board for his position coach. Spencer said he’ll talk about what he sees from the line and how Olaniyan can help him. The senior carries the coach’s message onto the field. Spencer gushes about Olaniyan’s football intelligence, saying he asks “300 and 400 level questions.”
Head coach James Franklin said Olaniyan brings a steady presence to the team. “He’s the same guy every single day,” Franklin said.
Olaniyan is also playing for his family.
He gets to see their faces on his iPhone before every game.
One picture is of Nahla. The other is of Hines.
The snapshots are different each week. Some are goofy. Some capture Nahla sleeping. It depends on whatever they’re doing back home. The photos always bring a smile to Olaniyan’s face.
The tradition started last season with Hines and Nahla more than 400 miles away.
‘It’s about Nahla’
Hines spends her days keeping busy with Nahla.
Nahla’s learning through flash cards and educational games on the iPad, and her mother has dinner ready each night.
She decided to move to State College with Nahla to spend quality time with Olaniyan this season since she graduated from South University (Novi, Mich.) with a bachelor’s degree in health care management and completed an internship at a home health agency in Troy, Mich.
Olaniyan’s still busy, but being together certainly beats relying on phone calls and FaceTime.
“I wanted him to see her and us to be a family,” Hines said, looking back at last fall. “But now that we’re here, it’s a lot better. It was really hard though.”
Their parents provided a strong support system. And Hines and Nahla did come to stay with Olaniyan last November.
State College is where Nahla took her first steps. And this time, Olaniyan didn’t miss out.
One day, when Nahla was either eight or nine months old, he heard Hines screaming for him in the living room.
“When I first got there, she stopped like she was shy,” Olaniyan said. “Then after a while, she got a little more comfortable and when we (weren’t) paying attention, she got a little more comfortable and started taking some baby steps.
“It was a special moment.”
He’s gotten to experience the joy in seeing Nahla continue to develop this fall. Hines said recently her daughter adopted “I don’t want it” as her new phrase. Nahla’s going through other phases, too.
During a bye week in the Lasch Building, Olaniyan noticed his daughter fidgeting in her jean jacket.
“You want me to take it off?” Olaniyan asked. “You hot?”
“Hot,” Nahla repeated, eliciting a delighted chuckle from her father.
“She’s in the repeating stage,” Olaniyan said.
After helping Nahla out of her jacket, Olaniyan explained how his parents raised him.
“They wanted you to do the right thing all the time, and that’s what I’m trying to teach her as she gets older is being able to do the right thing,” Olaniyan said. “The thing I always wanted to do for my parents, I always wanted to make them proud and try to instill that in her. You have to try your best and try your best to make your family proud.”
Olaniyan is still trying to live up to that standard.
He’s already graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminology, and he’s currently working toward a second bachelor’s degree in sociology. He interned with the Spring Township police department during the summer, and he’s looking into possible opportunities with the CIA or FBI.
Hines said she and Olaniyan plan to get married. “But he hasn’t popped the big question,” she said.
On the football field, Olaniyan is simply focused on being a dependable teammate and leader. As his Penn State career winds down, Olaniyan said he’s taking it day by day, not thinking about what lies ahead.
But he said everything he’s learned and experienced in the last four-plus years will affect the person he becomes in the future.
And his future will undoubtedly revolve around Nahla.
“He has something to look forward to as far as succeeding for someone,” Hines said. “It’s not just about him or me, it’s about Nahla. I think that’s what drives him now.”