Five years ago Sam Anaele was half a world away, dreaming that one day he might join the same elite company as his fellow countryman, Festus Ezeli, as an NBA Champion. The dream that started in Nigeria has slightly deviated, but Anaele is right where he belongs in Lexington. “It feels like home.”
Before Anaele was a top 100 football recruit, the 6’4″ athlete was a budding basketball prodigy. When he wasn’t in school or playing basketball in Nigeria, he was watching his favorite player, LeBron James. Anaele chased the basketball dream to America where he settled in South Florida.
“I came here three years ago. I was supposed to be in basketball, but I’ve grown in love with football. It’s been an uphill climb for me and I love the process I’ve been through. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world,” Anaele told KSR.
Once stateside, coaches convinced him that he should give football a try. It was the best decision he ever made.
“There was more opportunity in football,” and basketball had one fatal flaw: “I’m not going to lie, running around,” he laughed heartily.
Anaele loved everything about football. The pads popping. The intensity. Once he put on football pads, there was no going back to basketball.
“It was a love at first sight for me. It was a romantic story,” he said. “It brings out the dog in you. That’s the beautiful thing about football,”
If Anaele loved football at first sight, the feeling was mutual. It took no time for him to become one of the top recruits in the 2020 class, vaulting all the way up to No. 96 in Rivals’ national rankings. As much as he enjoyed the hardwood, the hoop dreams had to die so his love for football could thrive.
Brad White and Josh Allen’s Influence
Anaele knew the next step was on the gridiron at the collegiate level. That became even more abundantly clear when Anaele’s ascent into the college football world began at a University of Miami football camp in July of 2017. When the camp concluded, the edge rusher had an offer from The U. It was the first of many. Eventually he pressed pause on the process and committed to the Canes in January of 2018.
The trajectory of his career took another turn when Kentucky entered the picture five months later with a scholarship offer. Anaele was introduced to a new member of the Kentucky coaching staff, Brad White. He brought NFL experience to UK and in one season would help transform Josh Allen into a top 10 draft pick.
“I’m here to get developed,” Anaele said. “Coach White constantly talked to me about getting better. He was all about developing players and making them the best football players and humans — that was big for me. It was pretty much what sold me.”
The deal closed once Anaele just so happened to run into Allen at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility. The recruit was on an unofficial visit from Florida, while the UK legend was working out shortly after he was taken seventh overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“It was cool. It was surreal for me, seeing him on TV then seeing him in real life, getting to talk to him and asking him questions about the position, about the school, about pretty much being a football player. Getting to see how open he is even at the height of where he is now — he’s getting better. That brings me back to the the developmental aspect of Coach White and what he wants to do. You can see the progression of Josh from when he first got here to when he left. That’s pretty much what I want and even better for me.”
Six weeks after Anaele and Allen’s interaction, he flipped his commitment from Miami to Kentucky, a decision he never reconsidered.
Even though Anaele has only played three years of football, it’s still two more years than Allen played on the defensive line before he arrived in Lexington. The early enrollee has lined up in a three-point stance as a defensive end and stood up as an outside linebacker. He’s ready and willing to do it all for Kentucky, and not just because he got to meet a top ten draft pick.
“If you remove the Josh Allen factor from it, I still would come here because it feels like home, pretty much, to be very honest. Besides football, it feels like home. The education is great, fantastic, and your coaches are awesome.”
Early Learning Lessons
No longer an elite recruit, Anaele is now learning on the fly what it’s like to be a college athlete at the University of Kentucky. Of all the obstacles thrown his way in his first six weeks on campus, geography has been the most challenging. The climate in Miami and Nigeria is just a little bit different than Lexington weather.
“The weather is something I’ve gotta get used to,” he said. “Last week was surreal for me. It was awesome. I made a small snowball in my hand. It was cool. It was really fun. It was great.”
Luckily he’s not the first person who’s followed a similar path. Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, a redshirt sophomore defensive tackle, is a Nigerian that moved to South Florida with basketball aspirations before eventually putting on pads for Mark Stoops’ football team.
“We talk and I ask him a lot of questions about school, about football, how he was able to get acclimated to the weather and everything. The advice he gives me is just stay focused in class, stayed focused on the football field and in the film room too and get better everyday. He’s a motivating factor for me because when I see how far he’s come, I really want to get to a point where I can be a motivating factor for other people coming behind me.”
Anaele’s life has dramatically changed for the better over the last three years. Despite the curves in the road, he’s remained successful. No matter what happens over the next three to five years, the gifted edge rusher is prepared to adapt and adjust to continue his love affair with football.
“At the end of the day it’s all love for football for me now. I love this sport,” he said.
“It’s all mental for me. Everything is mental. It’s a new place. It’s a new environment, but at the same time the goal remains the same. You have what you want to do. You have what your eye is set on and that’s it.”