by Katharine Palmer, Virginia Athletics Media Relations
Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you. They are supposed to help you discover who you are. Just ask Tunji Soroye.
In his first two seasons with the Cavaliers, Soroye played in 49 games and had earned his way into the starting line-up for the last nine games of Virginia’s 2007 ACC regular season championship squad.
Then, unfortunately, the injury bug bit Soroye. He played in just two games during the 2007-08 campaign and comes off the bench this season. Still, the hardships don’t get him down. Soroye is thankful for the opportunities he has had to play basketball and further his education at the University of Virginia.
Soroye earned his degree from UVa last spring in anthropology. He could have departed Grounds then and not return for his final season of eligibility. Because of his medical hardships, Soroye’s request for a waiver was granted and he decided to return to John Paul Jones Arena for one last season wearing the Orange and Blue.
“Last season was unfortunate,” Soroye said. “I didn’t play; I dealt with injuries. There was an opportunity for me to come back and play this season. I wanted to try stay healthy and play my last year. I didn’t want to go out on that note.”
Soroye is making the most of his return, even if it is somewhat behind-the-scenes. In early November, prior to the season tipping off, Soroye was named a team tri-captain along with Calvin Baker and Mamadi Diane. Not only is his focus set on getting and staying healthy, but also helping guide a squad that includes eight freshmen and sophomores.
“I want to be a leader and show those guys what do to on and off the court,” Soroye said. “I want to be someone they can talk to besides the coaches, and make them feel comfortable.”
Growing up in Dugbe Ibadan, Nigeria, it was the game of soccer that Soroye first fell in love with. Then, because of his outstanding height, he was introduced to the game by a cousin. Soroye, then 6-8, went along and witnessed basketball for the first time in person at the age of 16.
“I had only seen basketball on television before,” Soroye said. “At the court I saw a girl playing. She was 15 and she was really good. So I just kept watching everyone. The next day I went back.”
Soroye, though no longer competitive on the soccer fields, still follows the game whenever he gets the chance. He explains that in Nigeria, the kids all play soccer. There are pick-up games and one-on-one contests, much like the way basketball is here in the United States.
“In America, everyone thinks soccer is boring,” Soroye said. “But I don’t feel that way.”
Playing soccer as a youngster helped Soroye’s transition to the hardwood. When he first arrived in the United States, his speed was good. For a big guy, he was able to keep up with the smaller, quicker guys.
“Your footwork and hand-eye coordination in soccer has to be good, and that also helped me transition to basketball,” he said.
Soroye’s basketball coach in Nigeria was the first coach who saw him play and the first one to suggest the opportunity of playing in the U.S. It was his high school coach at Montrose Christian in Maryland, who gave him that opportunity.
“Coach (Stu) Vetter came to Nigeria to watch me play and that was sort of the foundation of how I got here,” Soroye said.
Moving to a new continent brings on its fair share of challenges.
“When I first got here it was really tough,” Soroye said. “I would go to school, come home, be by myself and do homework. In Nigeria I had my family and friends. And the food was so different. But eventually I got more comfortable.”
As Soroye mentioned, American food was certainly something to get used to. The only dish he can tolerate, thus far, is meatloaf.
“Thank God my mom taught me how to cook,” he said. “I like to make chicken and rice and I also make this dish called iyan. It is like mashed potatoes but with yams, and it’s a little bit thicker. You eat it with sauce, egusi. It’s like having mashed potatoes with gravy. But we eat it with our hands.”
After graduation from Montrose Christian School, Soroye decided to continue his basketball career in Charlottesville. He notes that former Virginia coach Pete Gillen and his staff were always there at his games, even on the road.
Another move brought on another set of challenges.
Riding high after helping the Cavaliers share a piece of the 2007 ACC championship and working his way into the starting line-up, his sophomore season ended in the NCAA Tournament. The next season, he played in two games before suffering a season-ending injury.
“It’s one of the risks you take when you play sports,” Soroye said. “I didn’t know how it felt until it happened to me. You just sit there and think. Some of the games last year when I was sitting on the bench, I didn’t want to be there – just sitting. I was wearing street clothes. I got tired of it. But I didn’t have any other options. It is one of the most difficult things to go through as a player, seeing your teammates playing and you’re just sitting. I felt so helpless.”
Soroye has worked his way back to evolve into leader and captain. The challenges, he says, are just a part of life.
Soroye, currently enrolled in professional development in the Curry School of Education, will assess his options following the season. If he is healthy enough, he doesn’t want to give up on basketball, but his injuries have given him the chance to think about Plan B.
“I like being in different places and exploring different cultures,” Soroye said. “Nigeria and the United States are two different worlds. When I am done playing basketball I want to be able to travel. Maybe work in the business, represent some kind of company. I would love to continue playing overseas. I just don’t know yet, but I will figure it out.”
When asked if he had any regrets, Soroye had a simple answer.
“None,” he said. “Injuries are a part of the game. But coming to UVa, leaving with a great education, having played in the best conference in the country, that is something to be proud of.”