Before finding his way to Washington, before finding himself in a starring role as the Huskies’ menacing middle linebacker entering Saturday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, Azeem first had to find a balance between something he loathed (school) and something he loved (football).
The whole thing started during a long layover in Los Angeles.
Throughout his first few years of high school, Azeem Victor had intentionally been vague with his father about his grades and here, suddenly, his traveling father, en route from Las Vegas to Florida, had stopped back in L.A. and showed up unannounced at Lynwood High School to see his son — and his son’s grades.
Father and son remember the scene well. It was March 2012, the spring of Azeem’s junior year at Lynwood. There they were, seated together in a counselor’s office, Azeem’s anemic academic transcript laid out on the desk. The school counselor was blunt with the reluctant student.
“Azeem, what do you want to do?” the counselor said.
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“I want to go to college to play football,” Azeem said.
A fine goal. But there was one glaring problem, made clear to Michael Victor for the first time: Azeem was about a year behind in school, and his poor academic standing made graduating high school — much less getting into college — a challenge. Junior college, the counselor suggested, was probably Azeem’s best — and maybe only — hope.
That meeting would become a defining moment for Azeem in his career as a student and as a football player; it was also a turning point in his relationship with his father.
Before finding his way to the University of Washington, before finding himself in a starring role as the Huskies’ menacing middle linebacker entering Saturday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against Southern Mississippi, Azeem first had to find a balance between something he loathed (school) and something he loved (football).
For much of the next year, he also teetered between loathing and loving the man who helped him get there.
“He always told me, ‘You won’t understand the method to my madness now.’ And that always stuck with me, because I always thought, ‘Man, this guy is crazy,’” Azeem said of his father. “But I got it done.”
A role model
The picture shows 7-year-old Ian in shoulder pads, wearing a championship hat (“Compton Angry Birds, 2015 champions”) and posing with a large championship ring on his left hand. His uniform number: 36.
Both Ian and 9-year-old Amir chose that number for their youth football jerseys because their biggest brother, Azeem, wears it for the Huskies. Azeem, in turn, wears the label of role model proudly.
“I have to be there for them, show them the way,” Azeem says. “They look at me and they’re like, ‘Wow.’ I’m like, ‘You guys can do it, too. It’s really simple.’”
Most Saturdays this fall, Azeem’s mom, April, was up at 5 a.m. to get her two youngest boys ready for their games. They had to be to the field an hour early for the first game at 8 a.m.; another game followed after that, and then the family usually hosted a gathering at their house later in the day to watch Azeem and the Huskies on TV.
April admits she gets animated watching from afar, be it celebrating one of Azeem’s big tackles or screaming at the screen after he drops a sure interception.
“Butterfingers! You have to catch the ball!”
‘A marked man’
The hit left a gash that required stitches on the chin of California’s best wide receiver, and the next day Cal coach Sonny Dykes said he was submitting Azeem’s hit to the Pac-12 office for review. No flags were thrown on the field for the play, but Dykes argued the hit was too late, and too much.
A week later in L.A., Azeem was ejected for his fourth-quarter hit on USC quarterback Cody Kessler. (The Pac-12’s vice president of officiating, after reviewing the play, later said the play was called correctly on the field.) That ejection also meant Azeem was suspended for the first half of UW’s next game, against Oregon.
By that point, UW linebackers coach Bob Gregory said Azeem had become “a marked man” around the conference and Azeem needed to be aware of that — he needed to find a balance between playing with passion and playing recklessly.
“We talk about playing one inch out of control in a purposeful manner,” Gregory said earlier this month. “So he’s got to control his emotions, which he has; he’s gotten better. You can’t target, you can’t strike, you can’t hit guys late. Those are the rules of the game, and we have to play within them.”
After Dykes called out Azeem, UW coach Chris Petersen said he didn’t feel the need to defend his linebacker then, and he doesn’t feel the need to do so now.
“I love how Azeem plays,” he said. “He plays the game like it needs to be played.”
Azeem wants to play with “an edge,” and his presence in the middle of the field set the tone for a UW defense that led the conference in scoring defense for the first time since 1991. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound sophomore had a team-high 88 tackles in his first season as a starter, earning all-conference honorable-mention recognition.
After dropping two would-be interceptions earlier in the season, he also scored his first touchdown on a 27-yard interception return in the Huskies’ 45-10 Apple Cup victory, a play he credited to the time he spent after practice that week catching 40 balls out of a JUGS machine every day, determined not to let another opportunity slip through his hands.
He’s still learning — learning to better read cues from offensive linemen, learning pass-coverage concepts, learning to play only one inch out of control.
“Being ‘marked,’ it’s not really what you’re hoping for,” he said. “But it happened. I just had to stay low, make sure I didn’t do anything for the refs to (notice). It was hard. Because especially now, (if) you even touch (a quarterback) on the head, they’re going to throw flags. You’ve always got to be cautious.”
A mama’s boy
Both of Azeem’s parents played basketball in college — Michael at Long Beach State, April at Compton College. They met at a fraternity party, and baby Azeem came to be soon after.
Azeem and April are close. For much of his childhood, it was just the two of them together. “I’ve always been a mamma’s boy,” he says. “I still am.”
Despite the basketball genes, Azeem was never much for the hardwood.
“He can’t play a lick of basketball,” April teases. “I can still beat him — in heels.”
OK, back to school:
The text message, Michael recalled, came through on Memorial Day weekend, some two months after his surprise visit to Lynwood High School. “Dad,” Azeem wrote, “I want to come live with you. I want to go to college.”
“Let’s do it,” Michael texted back.
In March, Michael had invited his son to come live with him and Azeem’s paternal grandmother in Upland, Calif., about 40 miles outside of L.A. Michael works in sports marketing and says he’s helped dozens of players navigate the process of getting into college, and he promised to help his son do the same. After much back and forth between Michael and April, Azeem agreed to move in with his father and spend his senior year at Pomona High School.
“Admittedly,” Michael said, “I wasn’t a great father (before then). I provided pretty well, but I didn’t take the time to sit down with him much.”
Azeem’s grandmother had set up an office for him in her home, complete with a desk and a new computer for him to study and take his online exams. The summer before his senior year, in an attempt to catch up in school and boost his 1.56 grade-point average, Azeem took courses from nearby Mount Sac Community College — two physical science classes and two biology classes.
Once he started at Pomona, his schedule was rigorous, his father relentless. Michael traded in his 2008 Tahoe for a more economical 2003 Volkswagen Beetle — “Gas was $4 a gallon, man,” he said — and drove his son to a from high school . UW defensive end Joe Mathis, also attending Pomona at the time, lived with them for a while too, and often tagged along. Azeem also took night classes at the community college.
“He went to school from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every single day. Every single day,” Michael said. “Like I told him during the course of the whole process, I’ll be the bad guy, but I want you to be a nice guy. At different times, I was very, very hard on him.
“I’ve never told him this,” Michael added, “but there were times at night when I got done and I’d just go in my room and cry. I thought, ‘I hope to God I’m doing the right thing. I don’t want my baby to hate me.’”
On the field, Azeem started out as a defensive end for Pomona, and he was getting attention from schools such as Northern Illinois, New Mexico State and UTEP. After a teammate was injured, Azeem was shifted to middle linebacker and blossomed. It was then that Pomona defensive coordinator John Brown recognized the rare mixture of power and speed he had in Azeem, and then realized he had a “national recruit” on his hands.
By the end of the football season, UW had made a scholarship offer to Azeem, and then-UW coach Steve Sarkisian vowed to be patient while the linebacker continued to get his academics in order. In his final semester of high school, Azeem got two C’s (in Algebra 2 and a civics course) but the rest of the grades, Michael recalled proudly, were A’s and B’s.
“He showed me a lot as a person,” Michael said. “He finished very, very strong.”
Signing with the Huskies in February 2013 was a milestone for the family, Michael said, but not as significant as the day in May — a year after Azeem committed himself to make school a priority — when they got word that Azeem had been admitted into UW, his transcript having been combed through by a special committee on campus.
“ You never really understand why things happen when they’re happening to you in that moment, but when you look back at it, it’s like, ‘OK, I see now.’ That’s why I appreciate him for it,” Azeem said of his father.
He’s not a perfect student, but Azeem is enjoying college life and said he is on track to earn an undergraduate degree in American Ethnic Studies. A particularly proud moment happened last spring, when for the first time his grades were good enough to earn him a spot on Petersen’s “3.0 Board,” recognition for those players who have a 3.0 GPA the previous term. The board is displayed prominently in the lobby of UW’s football offices, and parents are notified of their son’s academic achievement.
“You get on there and your mom gets that e-mail; it makes her proud and it makes you proud too,” Azeem said. “And makes you want to stay on there forever.”