College Park — Ayinde Eley’s path to a starting position on Maryland’s defense began before he could even walk and after he had to learn to walk again.
Eley grew up around the game with his father, former Morgan State head coach Donald Hill-Eley, who often took his infant son to his office at Hampton University while his former wife was in medical school.
Eley went on to become a three-star prospect at Good Counsel. But after he returned from unofficial recruiting visits as a junior, he suffered two seizures right before Thanksgiving.
Eley was diagnosed with encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that is typically caused by a viral infection. According to his father, Eley was in a coma for a week and spent nearly three months between the hospital and rehabilitation, relearning how to walk as well as regaining many of his cognitive skills.
“To this day, we don’t know exactly where it came from,” Hill-Eley said. “He had five spinal taps. Luckily the doctors, instead of waiting to come back from the spinal taps, started him on antibiotics and he started to come around. It was tough. It was a long road.”
Eley, who traveled with the team his senior year at Good Counsel but didn’t receive medical clearance until after the season ended, said the illness changed his perspective on football.
“The fact that it was almost taken away from me, it was eye-opening,” he said. “I knew I was going to work my hardest to get back — if it wasn’t in God’s plan for me to get back, it wasn’t. I don’t take any snaps for granted. I just play hard every time. I know how easy it is that this game can go away from you.”
Despite offers from Big Ten rivals Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, Eley felt the biggest connection to Maryland, where he has earned a starting job at linebacker and equaled his career high of six tackles in Saturday’s 79-0 season-opening win over Howard.
“I just felt the home environment, the love from Maryland had been there whether I was playing or not playing,” Eley said after a recent practice. “I just went to where it felt like home and where they really cared about me. It means everything to start.”
First-year coach Mike Locksley has said repeatedly that he likes having sons of coaches on his team.
Maryland has three: aside from Eley, new quarterback Josh Jackson’s father, Fred Jackson, was a longtime college coach, including 23 years as an assistant at Michigan. Freshman wide receiver Dino Tomlin is the son of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
“Obviously being around the game as much as he has as a child, [he has] just really good understanding, really good instincts,” Locksley said Tuesday about Eley, who was named one of three captains for Saturday’s home game against No. 21 Syracuse. “I saw him in the spring, but to see him play, he plays a lot faster than even I would have imagined.”
Eley and his father say one of their favorite football memories is the time at practice at Morgan State when his father put him in charge as the team ran sprints.
“I don’t take any snaps for granted. I just play hard every time. I know how easy it is that this game can go away from you.”— Maryland linebacker Ayinde Eley
“We gave a game away and we had some crazy number of yards in penalties, and to get their attention, I told them, ‘If you’re going to act like a child, then you’re going to have a child in control,’ ” Hill-Eley recalled. “There were a lot of guys trying to work deals with him as he ran by.”
Said Eley: “They kind of roughed me afterward, they kind of wrestled me a little a bit. I kind of got the message then. I didn’t have to say too much.”
“He knew what Cover 2 was probably before math and all the other stuff that goes with learning,” said Hill-Eley, now in his second year as Alabama State head coach. “The majority of the time we spent together during football season was me grading tape and watching videos of what happened in the game.”
Years later, the redshirt sophomore took what he learned from watching his father coach, as well as what he saw playing behind former Maryland linebackers Jermaine Carter Jr. and Tre Watson, to put himself in the situation he is now — starting for the Terps.
“It helped me a lot,” Eley said of his formative years with his father, who was head coach at Morgan State from 2002 through 2013. “From a young age, I’ve been around college athletics. I’ve seen the work ethic they put in. I’ve seen guys make it and I’ve seen guys that were supposed to make it that didn’t.”
Locksley said Eley has a playing style reminiscent of former Terps linebacker E.J. Henderson, a 2003 second-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings.
“He always had a knack of being around the football and was really physical when he got to the ball,” Locksley said of Henderson. “Those are great traits to have and I was really pleased with the way [Eley] played last week. We’re looking to build upon his leadership and his toughness as a Mike [middle] linebacker as well as his football instincts.”
As for the past two seasons, Eley said studying Carter, a 2018 fifth-round pick entering his second year with the Carolina Panthers, and Watson, an undrafted free agent who was cut Sunday by the Miami Dolphins, helped him get where he is now.
“It’s not easy to not play, but you’ve got to see it in perspective, you’ve got to be patient,” Eley said. “Of course you want to be on the field. You’re kind of upset about [not playing]. Instead of wasting a year of being upset, I just decided to watch them and learn as much I can from them.”
According to Eley, Locksley and his father have similar coaching styles and know how to get a message across.
“Both have a real good balance of ‘Let’s go, let’s go’ and knowing how to chill and vibe with us," Eley said.
In Locksley’s case, it starts with an oft-repeated phrase.
“It’s what Coach Locksley says, ‘Being where your feet are,’ ” the 6-foot-3, 226-pound Eley said. “If I’m in class, you’ve got to do what I’ve got to do in class. If I’m on the field, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do on the field. It’s just handling your business accordingly.”
Eley said he would like to follow some of his former teammates to the NFL. After that, he wouldn’t mind following his father into coaching. Hill-Eley has coached in the college ranks since he graduated from Virginia Union in 1990, and also spent two seasons with the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League.
“I wouldn’t mind coaching just to be around the sport,” Eley said. “My No. 1 goal and dream is to go to the next level, of course. But after football, I’d try coaching. I haven’t given it much thought right now. I just like being around the sport.”