Hinwa Allieu scurried back-and-forth in a 4-on-4 soccer game during his lunch break as a sophomore at The Avalon School, an all-boys school in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in fall 2013.
It was a normal day for Allieu until Ed O’Daniel, tasked with constructing Avalon’s football program, approached him.
O’Daniel noticed Allieu by his 6-foot, 200-pound frame and initiated a conversation with him about the school’s football team. Allieu listened and occasionally responded with a “yes” or “no” before agreeing to attend practice later in the day.
Allieu was a self-described introvert, after relocating about a month prior from the African country of Sierra Leone without his family. He was 16 years old and living with his uncle, Dennis Luseni.
“I thought I was going to a soccer practice,” Allieu said. “I went over there and he gave me all this equipment. I was like, ‘How do you guys play football over here?’
“We went out on the field, and I tried to follow what the team did with putting their pads on. I saw everything that happened, and I was like, ‘This is definitely not soccer.’”
Despite his discovery, Allieu, who had never heard of American football until his conversation with O’Daniel, showed up for each team activity the remainder of the season.
It took time for Allieu to comprehend football, slowly grasping the sport while displaying glimpses of potential. Less than two years from first strapping on a helmet and lacing up his size-12 cleats, Allieu garnered scholarship offers from multiple Division I universities.
He ultimately committed to Division II University of Nebraska at Kearney, signing his national letter of intent on Feb. 3, 2016.
Now a junior defensive end at UNK, Allieu enters this season as one of the top defensive linemen in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
“I’m really proud of how much better I’ve gotten over this time,” Allieu said. “It’s crazy how much better I’ve gotten with being new to the game and learning it.”
Allieu grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone with his parents and four siblings. Bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Freetown is the country’s capital and largest city with 802,639 residents.
Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 179th out of 188 in the Human Development Index in 2016.
The Sierra Leone Civil War transpired across the country, including in Freetown, from 1991-2002 and left more than 50,000 dead.
“People will be culture shocked if they go there,” Allieu said. “But if you live there for a bit, you will understand what people go through and will make you value what you have more in life.”
Allieu’s parents, Prince and Mychaella, wanted a better life for their children. They sent their daughter, Nyawa, at 7 years old to the United States in 2005. Hinwa joined his sister eight years later at the age of 16, while his older brother, Nyakeh, departed Sierra Leone a year later in 2014.
Allieu’s oldest sister, Memu, resides in Australia, while his 5-year-old sister, Munjay, remains in Sierra Leone.
The three siblings in the United States moved in with Luseni, in Germantown, Maryland, about 30 miles outside of Washington D.C.
Devoted to their Roman Catholic faith, Allieu’s parents preferred their children attend private school. The Avalon School met his parents’ desires and was the closest private institution to Luseni’s home.
Allieu enrolled as a sophomore in the fall of 2013 and faced obstacles, including the English language. While he did understand some English, Allieu grew up speaking the Krio language.
He visited the United States three times prior to relocating but admits the transition was overwhelming.
“I had to adapt real fast,” he said. “My English wasn’t as good as it is now. I struggled a bit. I stayed quiet and tried to learn and get my English better.
“I was an introvert in high school and just observed how people interacted in high school and observed the new culture. I just focused on schooling.”
Partaking in an extracurricular activity changed Allieu’s outlook on the situation, he said. While Allieu’s experience and passion lied with soccer, O’Daniel envisioned Allieu interrogating opposing offenses on the football field.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Boy, you have all the stature. Now someone just needs to teach you how to play,’” O’Daniel said. “I told him I could make him into a nice defensive end and that he should come play with us.”
Allieu served as the team’s kicker and played two snaps on the defensive line his sophomore year. O’Daniel, a 1971 NFL draft pick by the San Diego Chargers, taught him the game and showed him the significance of weight training.
Allieu and other teammates would tag along with O’Daniel and train at LA Fitness, a 15-minute commute from Avalon, two or three times a week.
O’Daniel worked with Allieu his sophomore season but never again. Avalon hired Tyree Spinner as the new head coach in spring 2014, and he brought in his own personnel.
Even with the coaching change, Allieu made noteworthy strides his final two seasons, earning more playing time each year.
By the time he graduated from Avalon, Allieu had played every position across the offensive and defensive lines, minus center, while contributing on special teams.
He physically matured, measuring 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds.
His growth as a football player and untapped potential caused Division I college football programs to take notice. Allieu received offers from Rutgers, Navy, William & Mary, Townson and James Madison.
One stipulation came with the offers, however. The coaches wanted Allieu to reclassify to the 2017 class, meaning he’d spend an additional year in high school. Allieu wasn’t interested in that idea.
“I was already paying a lot of money for high school because I was an international student,” he said. “My parents didn’t want to pay for that all again, especially because I already had all my credits to go to college. I came out of high school with a 3.5 GPA, so I was ready for college.”
A unique connection allowed Allieu to continue his football career.
In July 2015, UNK assistant coach Shayne Shade called Allieu to express the program’s interest. Shade received a tip from Damon Harrell, his cousin’s husband, about Allieu.
The first-year UNK coach informed Allieu that they are distant cousins.
Shade contacted Allieu occasionally until his official visit. Allieu voyaged to Kearney with Luseni, learning about the town, university and benefits of playing collegiate football.
“I came on my visit and was culture shocked,” Allieu said. “I’m good at adapting to new people and new situations so it wasn’t that bad. Coming from Maryland all the way to Nebraska was different, but I adapted well.”
Shade considered Allieu a “hidden gem” once he saw his size and athleticism in person. Allieu signed with UNK a month after his visit.
“When he came on the visit, we were in the gym and all the recruits were messing around and he went up and jumped and put his whole arm in the hoop,” Shade said. “It was like, ‘Wow man. Heck yeah.’ His stock went up.”
Allieu made an instantant impact as a freshman. He recorded 45 tackles, the third-most on the team, and one sack in 10 games.
He also started watching film and observed videos of NFL players on YouTube, including then-New York Giants and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack.
“I just try to see their technique,” Allieu said. “I try to reinvent my game. You have to watch people who have done it before. It has helped me become a better player.”
His production continued to trend upwards last season when he earned third-team All-MIAA honors at defensive end after accumulating 32 tackles, including seven for a loss, and a team-best 5.5 sacks.
“He’s a special case,” second-year UNK head coach Josh Lynn said. “His overall football knowledge, even since I got here, has improved considerably.
“He’s an athlete. Hinwa is a kid that if he wasn’t playing football, he’d probably be on a basketball court and be a pretty good player. That’s just the athlete he is. Whether it’s college or high school football, your best athletes are usually one of your best players.”
The climax for Allieu in his first two season was his parents attending a game each year. His parents witnessed a UNK road game against Northwest Missouri in 2016, before traveling to Kearney for the Pittsburg State contest last year.
“I had so much more energy,” Allieu said. “I wanted to go out there and show them how much better I’ve gotten over the years. I just wanted to make them proud. They make the effort, and I appreciate it”
Expectations are higher than ever for Allieu this season. Blessed with elite athleticism and intimidating size, Allieu has been in the weight room four times per week this offseason, enhancing his strength and speed.
Lynn believes the 6-foot-5, 270-pound two-year starter will be a disruptive force for the Lopers, who return eight defensive starters from last season.
“I think he needs to be in the top end in the conference in sacks,” Lynn said. “I think he needs to push to be a first-team All-MIAA guy and come into his own as a leader on the defense.”
That would open many doors for Allieu.
With his size and athleticism, Lynn said the sky is the limit.
“I think it’s important that he reaches his full potential as a football player, regardless of what level that might be. If the NFL, it’s the NFL. I think he’s one of the best defensive ends in Division II football.”