Scholar-Athlete Profile: A.J. Koikoi

Scholar-Athlete Profile: A.J. Koikoi

The Franklin & Marshall scholar-athlete profile features one Diplomat per month who personifies what it means to be an NCAA student-athlete. The F&M campus is filled with dedicated, passionate, and talented student-athletes who have interesting stories to tell – and it's our goal to let those stories be heard. To be chosen as a scholar-athlete of the month, F&M student-athletes must demonstrate academic excellence, leadership, and community service, or have a noteworthy story that stretches beyond the realm of athletic competition. 

To view previous scholar-athletesclick here.

Coming out of St. Paul's High School (Md.), A.J. Koikoi was a three-year starter and two-time all-conference selection as a defensive end on the football team with aspirations of playing at the next level. That dream came true when he enrolled at Franklin & Marshall College in the fall of 2012 and made an immediate impact, appearing in 11 games, registering 3.5 tackles for loss. However, coaches, teammates and spectators of the program quickly realized there was much more to Koikoi than meets the eye.

"When A.J. first arrived, he was a personable kid with a big smile that everyone gravitated toward," remarked F&M football head coach John Troxell. "This made him a person on our team that guys could follow, and the adversity that he faced at times, whether here at F&M or at home, made him a person that others could look to for advice." 

President Daniel Porterfield persuaded Koikoi, the oldest child of Liberian immigrants, to choose F&M, believing the multi-faceted student-athlete was someone that could be a leader and agent of change on campus.

"I chose F&M because of the small-school feel that shows each and every student on a daily basis that you are more than just a number," said Koikoi. "Whether it was through athletics or within the classroom, F&M forced me to go beneath my surface to find my inner passions and use them to grow as a person." 

After his immediate impact during his freshman year and gains made in the weight room, Koikoi became a starter as a sophomore and responded with a career-high 44 tackles, including 4.5 sacks. His outgoing personality, according to Troxell, made it easy for him to serve as a leader and mentor early in his career. 

"He made our young guys feel comfortable from when they first arrived and he became a big brother to some of them throughout the years," said Troxell. 

Competing in football teaches you more than the rules of play; it provides participants with the tools that translate into other aspects of life. Having played the sport since childhood, Koikoi affirms the sports grind-it-out nature as being a major attribute that molded him into the man he is today.

"I often look back at the wins and losses and the long days of camp to remind myself when everything is stacked against you, one must continually fight to achieve your desired goals," said Koikoi. 

The defensive lineman finished his collegiate football career with appearances in 40 games for the Diplomats, in which he totaled 128 tackles, 16.5 sacks, 23.5 tackles for losses and forced two fumbles. Though that production could have easily been wiped out when Koikoi had the odds stacked against him and was forced to leave campus in the spring of his junior year because of financial hardship. 

"Instead of giving up on my dream of becoming the first of my family to graduate college, I overcame my circumstances by working hard to make the money I needed while also taking on the extra coursework needed to graduate on time," said Koikoi. 

His hard work ethic paid off when Koikoi returned to the College and became a two-time All-Centennial Conference Second Team selection. The hardships he faced allowed for further growth as a person and leader at F&M. He continued to mature away from the football field, as well, teaming up with other members of the African American community on campus to take a stronger stance regarding many of the social issues that impact African-Americans on the nation's college campuses.

"Students find themselves apprehensive to support a cause like the 'Black Lives Matter' movement, but it's important to remember that all lives matter," said Koikoi. "We are at a critical time in our history where we need to focus on the key issues as opposed to glossing over them with all-encompassing rhetoric, and hopefully we can reach a point where we can understand each other and fight for instead of against each other."

Continuing to defy the one-dimensional label that is so often and unfairly placed on student-athletes, Koikoi decided that when his senior year ended for football he was going to add "multi-sport" collegiate athlete to his growing resume. He became a member of the Diplomats' men's lacrosse team in the spring, returning to a sport he played during high school. But the rules of the game had changed, and so had Koikoi, who is now 6-foot-2 and 276 pounds. 

"I quickly realized I wasn't as quick as I once was and I was learning all of this while competing against some of the best lacrosse players in the Centennial Conference," said Koikoi. "Even though some of my lacrosse IQ and skills deteriorated, I cherished the opportunity Coach Todd Cavallaro gave me playing this awesome ever-changing sport at the collegiate level."

Koikoi achieved his goal of graduating on time with a self-designed degree in Culture and Cognition, which is a combination of Psychology, as well as Japanese and International Studies. 

"Graduating was not just an accomplishment for myself, but it was an achievement for every Koikoi — from those within the United States to those who are still in Liberia," said Koikoi. "Being the first to graduate was not only a major feat, but an even bigger honor to bring my diploma back to my family."

The F&M graduate recently accepted a fellowship through Princeton University that will fulfill another lifelong dream for Koikoi and take him halfway across the world for a unique opportunity to make an impact on students in Kurashiki, Japan. The fellowship, which was initially brought to his attention by Professor Monica Cable, the director of fellowships at F&M, affords him the privilege of teaching English to Japanese students at the Seishin Catholic School. 

"After making it through the first round of interviews and speaking with former fellows and program directors, I knew I found the perfect situation that suits me best," said Koikoi. "I want to learn more about their culture and my hope is that they will love learning about my Liberian roots and passion for football and lacrosse."

How could they not? 

The person that will be standing in front of them was forced to make more sacrifices and face more obstacles than most of his peers. His never-give-up attitude is why he excelled on the field of play and is the same quality that gave him the fortitude to return to it when the odds were stacked against him. And while his unique background and passion for athletics may be what first meets the eyes of his future Japanese school students, it is that attitude which will likely resonate with them the most.