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Saturday, December 18, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Linebacker Has Taken Some Hits Off Field -- D.D. Acholonu Endured The Tragic Death Of His Father And Ineligibility Before Signing To Play For WSU.

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

BOTHELL - D.D. Acholonu talks faster when he's excited, his words jumbling together.

One day after signing a financial-aid agreement with Washington State, Acholonu is firing off words in bunches. But it's more than a full-ride scholarship that has Acholonu's eyes glowing and his words flowing.

He has waited to start playing college football since graduating from Inglemoor in June. He will leave for Pullman to begin college in less than a month.

"It feels good to be part of something," he said.

But then his words slow down.

Something is missing.

"I wish my dad could be here to see it," Acholonu said.

Oliver Acholonu died in a car accident in September. He was driving home from work when his car crashed while traveling north on the I-5 express lanes in Seattle. His Jeep Cherokee struck the barrier just north of Mercer Street, jumped over the rail and plummeted 100 feet to the ground below. Acholonu was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 51.

The family still doesn't know what caused the accident.

"I just couldn't even think about it," D.D. Acholonu said. "I still haven't even read the article yet. When I picked up the paper, I just had to drop it."

D.D. was at his family's home in Bothell when a police officer knocked at the door. The officer told Maria, D.D.'s mother, that her husband had been killed.

"I cried for days," D.D. said.

He sobbed uncontrollably the first time he entered the funeral home. His high-school football teammates attended the memorial service, all wearing their football jerseys in a show of sympathy and solidarity for their graduated teammate.

Acholonu was a three-sport star at Inglemoor. As an outside linebacker, he had eight sacks as a junior, 14 as a senior. Last spring, he placed seventh in the triple jump at the Class 4A state track meet.

At 6 feet 4, 222 pounds, he has linebacker size and sprinter speed. For the past three months, his weight training has been sporadic, but Acholonu remains in shape. Even when he's relaxed, his biceps bulge as if a baseball were stuffed inside his upper arm.

Acholonu will be part of next year's recruiting class at WSU and will have four years of eligibility. He will enroll in January, which will allow him to practice with the team this spring.

Before the accident, D.D. was planning to walk on at Washington as a non-scholarship player. But he was declared ineligible to compete as a freshman by the NCAA.

Acholonu scored 860 on the SAT, but his grade-point average was too low under the NCAA's sliding scale for freshman eligibility. D.D. thought he had a B in English; he received a C, which left his cumulative GPA .001 too low to be eligible as a freshman.

The family appealed the ruling, and after a few weeks the NCAA granted the appeal, citing the minuscule margin. Acholonu was diagnosed with a learning disability during high school, which also factored into the NCAA's decision.

After the accident, D.D. delayed starting college because his family returned to Nigeria to bury Oliver. All six children went to their father's home village of Awaka Owerri.

"It cost me an arm and a leg to take the kids back there," Maria Acholonu said. "They didn't see their dad get sick and die. They just saw him buried. (This) gave them closure."

D.D. stayed in Nigeria for four weeks. It was his first time back since preschool.

He learned to speak in Nigeria, talking in Ibo before he spoke any English. His given name is Dillebe, but in the first grade he made up the name D.D.

"It was a lot easier, especially on the teachers," he said.

It was an early hint of his outgoing personality.

As he talks about his hopes for college football, Acholonu flashes a smile and his eyes shine with enthusiasm.

On Jan. 7 he will leave for Pullman. He wonders what his classes will be like and is excited to meet his roommate.

He will arrive in Pullman in the middle of winter, but he isn't worried.

"The cold can't faze me," he said.

Not after all he has been through.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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