MISSOULA — Samuel Akem burst onto the scene at the University of Montana almost from the minute that he stepped on campus. And even though Akem is close to breaking some long-standing Griz football records, his legacy at UM will be known just as much for his work off the field as on it.
And it's hard to believe the young standout receiver from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, is in his final year at Montana.
Just ask him.
"All the work I’ve had to put in to get into the position that I am today and all of the work that I continue to put in and just how I went from the young guy, to now I’m the old guy," he said with a laugh. "Super old guy, and it’s just a weird feeling."
Now, Akem is knocking on the door of UM's record books.
He caught his 25th career score last Saturday against Eastern Washington, which ties him for fifth all-time, and he needs just five more to pass Marc Mariani's mark of 29 for the school record. Akem also ranks 16th in career receiving yards with Montana with 2,207, just behind Jimmy Farris at No. 15 who finished with 2,223 yards.
For Akem, it's a place that he never thought he'd be when he got here from a completely different part of the country.
"It’s really awesome because I never came here thinking like, 'Oh I want to break records, I want to do this, I want to do that,'" Akem said. "I came here to get my education, I wanted to improve myself as a football player and get the most out of this opportunity as I can. To look up four, five, six years later and to think, 'Wow, I'm closing in on some of those records,' it's just mind-blowing."
Most of Montana's players are regional, coming from the northwest or West Coast if they don't hail from the Treasure State, making Akem a rare Midwest recruit to UM. He got to Missoula thanks to a connection with former Griz defensive coordinator Jason Semore. Montana ended up being Akem's lone Division I football offer coming out of Broken Arrow High School.
Akem arrived and redshirted in 2016, with some confusion clearing up in the process.
"When (Semore) said Montana, I always tell people this story, I didn't know at the time, but Minnesota, the Gophers (came to mind)," Akem said. "Obviously you hear about Montana but I didn't know where on the map Montana was so I was like, 'Oh, Minnesota.' That was the first knee-jerk reaction and then I looked up the University of Montana and I was like, 'Oh wait, that's not the Gophers.' That was the first thing that went through my mind and it was kind of funny."
When Akem did take the field in 2017, it didn't come easy right off the bat. The growing pains were there as a wide-eyed redshirt freshman seeing big minutes and playing in every game. But through that, Akem said he found an even stronger work ethic, put in more time honing his craft, and because of that, he broke out in 2018 with 13 touchdown receptions and 879 receiving yards.
But the roller-coaster didn't stop there. Coming off of that season, Akem caught five touchdowns and was over 800 yards again in 2019 through 10 games before an injury against Idaho in Missoula ended his season prematurely.
Then the pandemic hit in 2020, and his senior year was put on hold for a season.
But through all of that, Akem's view on his adversity is all about perspective.
"Just have to hit them head on," Akem said. "I can sit back and mope and be like, 'Woe as me, I got it hard,' but truth be told people have it harder. Like I’m going to school on a full-ride scholarship, I get to play a game, and I get to get a free education so when you have some perspective about things, it makes it a little bit easier."
When it comes to his work off of the field, Akem was a vocal leader in Missoula back in summer 2020 during the protests after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, which caused nationwide protests. Akem's leadership helped create change, as Montana's Diversity & Inclusion Committee was formed with him on the initial committee.
"I think that I had an obligation to speak up," Akem said. "I would be doing everybody around the country an injustice if I didn’t speak up. I felt like it was necessary for me to speak out and have my voice be heard however I could and to try to help and try to fix the problems that we have going on in America."
It's work like that that will go hand-in-hand with his football legacy when his career at UM closes.
"A lot of times, it’s 'That’s Sammy the football player, that’s Sammy this,' but it’s awesome to be able to have people notice you off the field and notice that you’re trying to make a difference," Akem said. "You’re trying to help the community, you’re trying to better the community, you’re trying to better yourself, educate people, educate yourself and just do good in this world."
UM captain and fellow senior Dylan Cook said Akem's work on and off the field has been something to behold since he arrived at UM in 2018.
"It’s inspiring, honestly, just seeing him be himself and just fight for the things that he cares about," Cook said. "It means a lot and it really pushes me to be a better person even and just seeing him grow throughout the time period on and off the field it’s special. He’s a special person.
"He really helped me grow. Just his energy and his leadership, it meant a lot when I first got in here because he didn't care what people thought of him. He was going to be the same Samuel Akem every single day. It's good to see what his career has blossomed to. He deserves it. He works so hard, he really deserves to have a good career.
Akem recently got his degree in psychology and a minor in human and family development, with an eye on getting into sports psychology for a career to help athletes who are struggling with mental health. Akem said he sees graduate school in his future to make that happen.
There's still seven games left in UM's season, so Akem's career is far from over. But when it does come to a close, Akem wants to be remembered as someone who worked hard and put in the time and work behind the scenes to get him ready for game day.
"It's been great. I never thought I'd have such a good time as I've had here," Akem said. "It's been an awesome time being a Griz and being a part of the University of Montana family. It's honestly been everything and more than I thought it would be."