More than once Albany coach Greg Gattuso has praised sophomore running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks for his on-field decision-making. More than once he has marveled at the way he finds the right hole and exploits it.
It is a different story off the field, according to Ibitokun-Hanks. There, the best decision ever made about his life was not his own.
Had it gone another way, he would likely not be a budding star, with 784 yards to date for the Great Danes, the second-highest total in CAA Football and ninth in the FCS.
Had it gone another way, he would not be trying to help his team, 4-3 this season, end a three-game losing streak when it hosts Elon Saturday on ASN.
He doesn’t know exactly how things might have unfolded for him otherwise, but he gets some awfully strong hints when he returns home to Newark, N.J. There he runs into guys he knows well. He also learns the fate of some others.
“A lot of them are locked up,” he said. “Some of them, unfortunately, are dead.”
He wanted to join a gang when he was a freshman at Irvington (N.J.) High School, which is just outside Newark and the first of three high schools he attended (in addition to a prep school).
And the way he tells it, the gang didn’t want him. Its members were aware of the promise he had shown in football, a sport he had only taken up when he was 10. Some of them, in fact, had been his teammates, and had seen his unique ability for themselves.
According to Ibitokun-Hanks, they told him, “EB (his nickname), this is not the life for you. We need you to go out and make it, and when you do make it, just don’t forget about us and make sure you give back to the community.”
“So,” he said, “I’m still trying to keep that promise.”
The best way to do that at present, he believes, is just by getting back there whenever he can – “making appearances, coming back to old Pop Warner games, making sure the kids put a face to the name.”
As he put it, “A lot of guys go out and have their own success, but they don’t come back.”
So he puts in the time, lets everyone know he has not forgotten about them, reassures one and all he is still part of the community.
Had he not followed his current path — indeed, if he hadn’t been steered that way — he would like to believe that football still would have been his ticket out. But he can’t be sure.
“I’m glad,” he said, “I don’t have to think about that one.”
Rather, he can concern himself with the season at hand. After running for 609 yards as a freshman, the 5-9, 199-pound Ibitokun-Hanks began this season with 104 yards against Buffalo, 178 against Rhode Island and 183 against Holy Cross, all in Great Danes victories.
He added 90 more when Albany moved to 4-0 by beating St. Francis, but has managed 216 yards while his team has lost to Richmond (36-30 in triple overtime), Maine (by a 20-16 count) and last week to Villanova (24-13, after the Wildcats built a 24-0 halftime lead).
“It’s a little frustrating just to know one play could have decided our whole season,” he said. “We could have easily been 6-0 going into Villanova, but things happen. You’ve just got to flow with the punches.”
As he always has. According to an Albany Times-Union profile, he is Nigerian on the side of his mother, Rotoimi Ibitokun, but growing up lived with his dad, Travis Hanks, and his grandmother. After Irvington High Ibitokun-Hanks spent a year at Malcolm X. Shabazz High School in Newark, then two at Don Bosco, a prep power in Ramsey, N.J.
The Times-Union also reported that he wanted to sign with Albany out of high school, but at his dad’s urging went to prep school — specifically, Avon (Conn.) Old Farms — where he rushed for 1,553 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2014.
“Me and my dad have always been a team,” he said. “I trusted his decision, so I just followed him and did what he wanted me to do.”
But ultimately another decision loomed even larger in his life. And that has allowed him to run to daylight.