Back in March of 2006, Andre Akpan was just another American teenager playing for his local club in Dallas, Texas. Despite earning a call-up for a U-20 national team camp, things did not go well for the hopeful striker who admitted to feeling "nervous" and "in over his head," his first time among the country's best youngsters.
That's just life, and the then 17-year-old had seemingly missed his chance. But blessed with brains to match his brawn and significant style out on the football pitch, young Andre was off in the fall to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts just outside of Boston - an institute of higher learning with a respected sports program, but far more famous for its rigorous academic demands. It is arguably the best University in the whole of the USA, and it would seem that young Andre would have to put football on the backburner to focus on his studies.
But after a stunning first year balancing academics and football without missing a beat, Akpan again attracted the interest of US youth boss Thomas Rongen, who called him in for a second chance with the national side. This time it was a to be a baptism of fire at the FIFA U-20 World Cup qualifiers down in Panama in January of 2007.
In his first match at any level of the US national team set-up, Akpan roared to score a hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Haiti. Powerful, dangerous in the air and with pace to burn, the striker looked a long way from out of his depth.
"It was an awesome moment. Getting a goal in my first cap was a like a dream come true, but getting a hat-trick was just amazing," the Texas native told FIFA.com. "To get that kind of output in my first performance was a thrill."
It wasn't all fun in the Panamanian sun for young Andre. With many in the squad full professionals and others attending somewhat less academically challenging Universities, Akpan was on his own a good deal of the time, taking exams while managing also to finish the qualifying group as the US's top scorer.
"The trip to Panama just happened to coincide with Harvard's Fall exams. There were a whole lot of arrangements that needed to be made, because you can't just blow off your exams here," the six-foot forward sighed. "I actually had to take two exams while I was in Panama. And I have one other one that I have to make up next semester…it was really tough."
Although he intends to finish his four-year degree at Harvard in either Psychology or Biology, the striker - with options aplenty - is keen on a career in professional football after his triumphs on Panama, where the US finished first in the group with two wins and a draw from their three matches to book their place at this summer's world youth finals in Canada.
"After being in that environment with a national team, I know now for sure that I want to pursue a professional soccer career. When I made the decision to come to Harvard, I always expected to finish my four-year degree and I still intend to, but a life in the game is appealing to me," Akpan said.
After stating his biggest football dream is to one day line up for the senior US side at a FIFA World Cup, the brainy forward - whose passion for the game was first fostered by his Nigerian-born father who owns an indoor facility in Dallas - is not getting ahead of himself.
"At this point I am just really focussed on making the team for the U-20 World Cup in Canada," he said. "You have guys in the team who are really great players, so I'll need to do my best between now and June to secure a place in the squad."
While he focuses his attentions on the stresses and strains of a second semester of class work, Akpan is getting an education on the pitch as well, surrounded by top professionals in his first stint in a USA jersey.
"Being surrounded by all these professional players and guys who really know how to play the game the right way is absolutely amazing," Harvard's top scorer with 11 goals during their Ivy League championship run in 2006, said with an air of humility. "A lot of these guys really know what it's like to play at the top level and it was great to be around them and benefit from their experience and ability. Most, if not all, of these guys will be playing pro at some point and half of them already are - some have been to a few world cups already."
"Freddy Adu for instance, is a crucial component," he went on. "He's our captain. He might wear the number 11 on his shirt but he is our number ten and so important to our results. He's the player that makes things happen and has loads of experience to work with. He's years younger than most of us, so sometimes we give him a little guff about being captain …but we all respect him totally and know what he can do for us."
With high hopes of making his mark in the competitive world of international football, a trip to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada this summer would be the perfect way for young Akpan to unwind after a taxing first year at Harvard.