Lionheart: Former star running back Louis Ayeni inducted into Woodbury Hall of Fame
While signing up for fourth grade soccer, an unknown woman took one look at a young Louis Ayeni and told him he should think about playing football. No one could’ve guessed where it would lead.
A 1999 Woodbury High School graduate, Ayeni became a record-setting running back for the Royals who would go on to play in the NFL along with becoming a Division 1 college player and coach.
Ayeni, the current associate head coach and co-offensive coordinator of the University of Toledo Rockets, was recently inducted into Woodbury’s Hall of Fame. He was part of the second-ever class along with Abby Frost, Bob Longo, Lindsey Huff, Dwayne Tannahill, and the Bring Our Teams Home group.
“I was pretty good growing up,” said Ayeni, 32. “I was pretty big and I could always run and jump. Once I got older I got coached by some great people and got to play with some great teammates and they made me a lot better. They challenged me to work hard and do the right things. That parlayed into a state championship, a college scholarship and a chance to play in the NFL. Now I’m just trying to give those same things back to the kids I coach now.”
At Woodbury, Ayeni helped lead the Royals to their only state title in 1998. He is the school's career leader in yards with 3,504 and touchdowns with 47. His senior year he ran for 2,112 yards and 34 touchdowns, which are both school records and big-school state single-season records.
“The funny thing is I only played like a half in most of the games,” Ayeni said. “We had a really solid team. We had some talent. I think if recruiting was back then like it is now we would have had a lot of other guys playing Division 1 football.”
As part of Woodbury’s recent Homecoming football game and induction ceremony the school paid homage to the 1998 state championship football team – and many of the players returned to Woodbury for the event.
“It was really nice,” Ayeni said. “They did a nice job with it. It was almost surprising. There’s so many new things they do they never did before. The parade was great, the pep fest was like a rock concert and the deal before the game was really nice.”
Ayeni said it was “an honor and a privilege to be even considered” for Woodbury’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s truly something special to be inducted,” Ayeni said. “I just hope people know it’s not just me, it’s a whole community being inducted. Growing up in Woodbury there were a lot of people that had a hand in me being as successful as I was.”
Ayeni was born in New Orleans, La., and moved to Woodbury in third grade.
“It was tough coming from the south to the north and not knowing anybody,” Ayeni said. “But, the city embraced me. I’ve been around some really good people there. It’s impacted my life in many ways.”
Two men Ayeni said changed his life were longtime Woodbury football coach Gary Halvorson and track coach Jim Scott.
“Coach Hal taught me the essence of attitude,” Ayeni said. “He taught me how to believe, have goals and never settle for being average. Jim Scott instilled a relentless work ethic in me. You work for him, he’s going to test you. He’s going to make you do things you would never do on your own and make you comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Ayeni also credited fellow 1999 graduates Jenn Olson and Jessica Mace-Radke for his success.
“Along with my family, my coaches and teammates, those two girls kept me on the straight and narrow as I went through life in Woodbury,” he said. “There were a lot of people, but those two are really special to me. They were like my older sisters.”
Ayeni said the one thing that stands out most in his memory about Woodbury is his senior class.
“Everybody had ambitions, everybody had dreams and we all wanted to be successful,” he said. “We challenged each other every single day to be the best we could be. We were a pretty tight-knit group and when we all came together it was truly something special. My senior class, I challenge anybody to tell me that’s not the best senior class to ever come out of that high school.”
Before graduating, Ayeni earned a full athletic scholarship to play Division 1 football for Northwestern University.
He spent five seasons as an active member of the team playing both offense and defense, helping lead the team to postseason Bowl competition and a Big Ten conference championship in 2000. After serving as a team captain his senior year, he graduated in 2003 with a degree in communications.
After college, Ayeni extended his football career to the professional level as a member of the Indianapolis Colts playing for University of Minnesota graduate Tony Dungy and the St. Louis Rams under Mike Martz.
In 2007, Ayeni transitioned from player to coach, working alongside head coach Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern as a graduate assistant offensive coach while earning his master’s degree in sports management.
Ayeni said he looks up to his former coaches Halvorson, Dungy and Fitzgerald.
“Those guys are my mentors and are really instrumental in why I’m still in this business and while I’ll continue to have success,” Ayeni said. “I want to be just like those guys.”
Ayeni has spent the last four years with the Division 1 University of Toledo Rockets football program in Ohio. Toledo plays in the Mid-American Conference along with teams like Northern Illinois, Ball State, Kent State and Bowling Green.
Ayeni is the associate head coach and co-offensive coordinator for Toledo, which finished second in the MAC last season and had a 9-4 overall record. Toledo has appeared in bowl games the past three seasons and was ranked in the top 25 in the country for the first time in school history during the 2012 season.
“I always dreamed about playing, not about coaching,” Ayeni said. “But, coaching kind of found me. Now, the funny thing is, I’m kind of on track to become a head coach pretty quick here. The best thing about that is being able to be around young people and help them become better people. That’s what gets me going.”
Ayeni said he’s still using values and principles he learned from his coaches at Woodbury.
“Coach Hal always taught me if you have a championship person, you surround them with championship people you’re going to have a championship team,” Ayeni said. “That’s kind of how I’ve always built my foundation for anything I’m a part of.”
- Patrick Johnson