When UNLV linebacker Austin Ajiake declared for the 2023 NFL Draft on Dec. 6, the social media announcement came with little fanfare. After all, the Rebels haven’t had a player drafted since 2010, and no linebacker has been selected out of UNLV since 2008.
While UNLV hasn’t made a mark on the NFL Draft, Ajiake has left an indelible mark on the program and on the city that may not have raised him but has definitely helped make him who he is today. A footballer, a father, and a leader, laser-focused on the task at hand.
Becoming a Father Transforms UNLV LB Austin Ajiake From Backup to 2023 NFL Draft Prospect
“It was a wake up call,” Ajiake begins to discuss the birth of his daughter, Eliana. “That’s not to say I was doing, like, bad things before or anything because I definitely wasn’t. But it upped my sense of urgency. Once I had her, I realized that I have a whole human being looking at me to set the example, to show her what can be achieved in this world. I never took that lightly. Once that clicked in my head, it was over. I want her to know that you can chase dreams, that you can accomplish what you want to accomplish.”
2020 might seem a strange place to begin telling the story of UNLV linebacker Ajiake and his path to the 2023 NFL Draft. By 2020, he’d already been at the University of Nevada Las Vegas for two full seasons, playing a bit part as a backup linebacker and special teams contributor on a program that had suffered and struggled through a footballing situation as dire as any out there. Paradise, Nevada, had been about as far removed from the normal definition of the word paradise as you could possibly fathom.
However, very quickly into an exclusive sit down with Pro Football Network, it’s clear that the events of 2020 were as important to Ajiake and his still-developing story as anything else that came before. Showcasing a talent for multitasking that you’d expect from a player who just earned first-team All-Mountain West honors playing a position as cerebral as any on the football field, the UNLV linebacker is also playing “Daddy Daycare” as we talk. The biggest influence on his life is sleeping soundly as we discuss how she shaped his story.
“When I had her at 19, it gave me more perspective. It gave me a different role within my own life and how I saw myself. I felt like I had a lot of knowledge that I acquired over the years, because of how quickly I had to grow up. I felt like I owed it to my teammates to share that knowledge and I felt like I would have been doing not only myself, but them, a disservice had I kept it to myself. That’s when I started to establish myself as a leader at UNLV.”
Footballer. Father. Leader.
From the age of seven, Ajiake has always been a footballer — despite a dalliance with the diamond and the hard court. In becoming a father at the age of 19, he became a leader.
He’d never started a game at the program before 2020, but motivation and dedication saw him become a driving force of a UNLV team that in 2022 had their most successful season since 2017. A vocal leader, a physical leader, he also lead the team with 132 tackles and became the first UNLV linebacker to be named first-team All-Mountain West since 2016.
“I think it caught a lot of people by surprise,” Ajiake reflected on a final season that could provide a springboard to the 2023 NFL Draft. “But it didn’t catch me by surprise, and I don’t think it caught the people that really know me by surprise, because they saw how much work I put into it. They saw how I committed and dedicated myself to this final season. There was a lot of sacrifices that had to be made, but that’s what comes with it. I just wanted to take advantage of my opportunities, that was my main goal for this season.”
Not only were people close to Ajiake and the UNLV program not surprised by his ascension this season, they outwardly praised his contribution, motivation, dedication, and perseverance not only from the perspective of his own play but the impact on his teammates around him.
Then-UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo dedicated significant time to discussing Ajiake during his in-season media availability this year, destining him as a “great influence” and a player with “low ego and great output.”
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It doesn’t take long to understand that there is a lack of ego, a humility, around Ajiake that lends itself to the leadership role. During our should-be twenty-minute chat — his ability to communicate and connect makes it feel friendly rather than formal — that runs far longer than the time I had fervently promised to stick to, I’m eager to understand how the praise of this season makes him feel after years of difficulty and struggle for both player and program. The answer proves unsurprisingly selfless, focusing on setting an example.
“It feels good because it made me realize that the effort being put in is being noticed. But not for me, for the younger guys who are following in my footsteps to realize that if you put in the work, if you sacrifice and dedicate yourself, people are going to notice and the results will speak for themselves.
“You don’t have to go to a big school. You don’t have to have five stars. At the end of the day, what separates people is the amount of work that they’re willing to put into it.”
Ajiake Relishes the Underdog Role
Ajiake knows all about the route that he describes. Playing high school football at Bellarmine Prep and pursuing his college dream at UNLV means the linebacker heads to the 2023 NFL Draft as the epitome of a small-school product. Despite a statistically successful high school career as a running back — Ajiake was Bellarmine’s Most Valuable Player and Most Valuable Offensive Player in his senior season — he was just a two-star prospect by the major recruiting sites in the 2018 class, with a small handful of college offers.
“I’m from a small city, and the only person who played in the NFL from there was Robert Turbin,” Ajiake describes his football route. “But other than that, it’s really unheard of. It’s kind of been the same thing with my career here at UNLV. Just kind of being the underdog, overlooked, and overshadowed. But, I’ve learned to love that role and thrive in that role. At the end of the day, I can’t control the stars and the offers, I can only control my effort and preparation. As long as I’m focused on that, the rest will take care of itself.”
That steely resolve, a trust in the process, has been tested during his UNLV career. Although he saw playing time as a freshman — enough that he enters the 2023 NFL Draft on the back of exhausted eligibility — offseason surgeries limited his preparation time, and a lack of on-field opportunities limited his statistical output.
It would have been easy to become disenfranchised during a time he calls “difficult — most of my career at UNLV has been difficult.” But once again, Ajiake demonstrates the human element of his football story.
“There’s so many lessons, relationships, and things that I got out of those first three years that I don’t take for granted. When I look back, it’s honestly all happy memories because, although we didn’t have the success on the field that we wanted, but there’s so much that I can take from that and apply to the rest of my life in every other aspect of my life.”
Life Lessons Bolster Ajiake’s Leadership Toolbox
While the birth of his daughter sharpened Ajiake’s focus, the UNLV linebacker has been loading up on life lessons to bolster his leadership toolbox from his time at Bellarmine Prep and his five years at UNLV but also from a time before then.
One of five children of Tammy and Matthew Ajiake, his family roots have formed an important part of the leader he is today.
“Being a leader, one of the most important qualities is learning how to connect with people and that’s something I was really taught at a young age, maybe not even on purpose but just going through life being the middle child. Just learning how to connect with different people, learning what pushes people’s buttons, what pushes them to be better, how can I say this to this person rather than saying it this way so I’m not trying to offend them. Just the communication aspect of it.”
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Connecting with people is something that Ajiake has carried with him to UNLV. He could have stayed “in my backyard” at San Jose State or truly “flown the nest” to Hawaii. However, Las Vegas gave him the opportunity to “set up my own life.”
With his fiancé and daughter, that’s exactly what he’s done, proudly sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with “LV” as we speak. Ajiake has embraced the local community, and in turn, they have embraced him. He leaves an imprint on that community, wherever his next steps may land.
“It means everything,” Ajiake opens up about giving back to the Las Vegas community he now calls home. “It literally means everything. At the end of the day, that’s why we play. The reason I play is to help those around me and help the community that I’m in.
“I remember when there were times I needed help from people, and I never took that help lightly, and I knew that when I was in a position to give back, I would. Without them watching, buying the tickets, there wouldn’t be any football. That’s been a huge deal.”
Raised in Fremont, Made in Las Vegas, Inspired by Baltimore
Tammy and Matthew instilled family values and communication skills at a young age. His experiences at Bellarmine Prep taught him gratitude for any and all opportunities.
Meeting adversity and success, and treating the two the same while embracing community, and having his focus sharpened by becoming a parent at UNLV have all crafted Ajiake as a man, as a father, as a leader. Fremont, California, raised him, but Paradise, Nevada, made him.
But what about the football player? Where does the imposing linebacker that has dominated college football Saturday’s this season come from? Who motivated and inspired the tackling machine that leads both vocally and by example?
“Ray Lewis,” Ajiake says without hesitation. “It’s funny, because at the time I wasn’t even playing linebacker. Ray Lewis always motivated me. I used to love his motivational videos, used to fall asleep listening to the same video. Even to this day I can still say it word for word. I saw a lot of qualities in him that I have in myself. It’s the mental part that separates good players from great players and when I would watch Ray, I would see the effort, toughness, and tenacity and I tried to model my game after him.”
Effort, toughness, and tenacity are just three attributes that make Ajiake a prospect that shouldn’t be overlooked in the 2023 NFL Draft. The All-Star Game cycle has ensured that he’s on the radar, with an invite to the Hula Bowl in Florida already accepted. The UNLV linebacker is confident that his talent, special teams experience and excellence, and temperament are exactly what the NFL is looking for.
Physical Attributes and Finding Peace in the Process Leads UNLV LB Ajiake to the 2023 NFL Draft
“I feel like I have all the physical attributes. I can run well for my position. I know the game well. I’m pretty smart at the linebacker position. I have the leadership qualities. But, what I think is really going to separate me, and what’s going to allow me to have success, is my character and my eagerness and willingness to learn.
“I learned a long time ago that to become a better version of yourself, you have to lose the ego. My eagerness to develop as a man and help those around me do the same is what I believe separates me.”
Ajiake doesn’t know where the next stage on his football journey will take him. Even the players with five stars who are first-round locks don’t know that. The journey to the NFL Draft could take him back to his childhood home of California, it could take him far from the nest, and it could see him continue to develop his relationship with Las Vegas.
It can be a stressful time. Thankfully, the UNLV star has a mantra that helps him deal with whatever comes next by focusing on the present, even in the midst of the 2023 NFL Draft process.
“We’re all on a different process. Whether you’re trying to be the best football journalist or an NFL player, whatever you’re striving to, we’re all on a journey, all on a process. You know the saying ‘trust the process’? Well that was my mantra during high school.
“But then I started saying ‘peace in the process.’ Because, not only do I trust the process but I’m at peace with where I’m at right now. I think that’s an important part of life that people forget, is that it’s ok where you are.”
“I know you’re striving to get this, but you’re not going to get there if you’re not happy with where you’re at right now. That’s not to say be satisfied, but to live in the present moment and enjoy every step of it — even the setbacks and the times you fall.
“Just enjoy and have peace in those moments because number one, your bad day might be better than someone’s best day. And number two, you never know how close you are to reaching that goal.”