Fear and anticipation set in as a teenager prepared for a life-changing experience. The only obstacle standing between a young man and his past was a 6,200-mile plane ride.
As Boye Mafe left for Nigeria, a million thoughts raced through his mind. Mafe wondered how he would survive a year of boarding school on his own.
“[The trip] was something that was new to me. Being in a country by myself without my family there, without my brothers and sisters, and to be on my own for the first time at a young age, it scared me a lot,” Mafe said. “It was something that really changed my life.”
However, Boye finally had an opportunity to understand the sacrifices his parents made. Mafe’s father, Wale, immigrated to the United States from southwest Nigeria in the late 1970s. It was just the beginning of their family’s journey to a new country. A few years later, Boye’s mother, Bola, joined Wale in America. They both decided to leave behind family and friends to pursue a new life.
After departing from Nigeria, It didn’t take long for them to carve out a new life. Wale attended St. Cloud State University, pursued a career in accounting and started his own business. Bola, a seamstress and designer, opened Bola Fashion Designs in Minneapolis. She designed her family’s traditional wear and created outfits for people across the country. Wale and Bola launched their careers, started a family and laid the foundation for future generations.
Raised in the Yoruba Culture
Before immigrating to America, the Mafe family originally lived in Yorubaland, a region of southwest Nigeria. The area is rich with cultural tradition and features more than 256 different dialects. Wale and Bola brought the Yoruba culture with them to America. While growing up, Boye and his five siblings learned about their family’s cultural values and beliefs.
“Our parents always really tried to make sure we were involved in our culture. Our culture is very much about respect. Respect for your elders, respect for yourself, respect for each other. Holding yourself to a higher standard,” said Mafe’s older sister, Tayo. “[The Yoruba culture] wasn’t something that ever left us. It was never anything we were embarrassed by. It was always a part of us and at the forefront.”
Wale and Bola wanted Boye and his siblings to gain a firsthand understanding of their homeland. They fulfilled this mission by sending each of the Mafe children to boarding school in Nigeria. When Boye reached middle school, he spent a year abroad and connected with his culture. The trip helped him experience the life his parents left behind. Mafe not only learned about his family’s roots, but gained a new perspective of the world. He witnessed all of the Yoruba culture’s values, including hard work, determination and family.
“I’ve learned a lot about the culture and the way my parents raised me and why they raised me that way. It makes a lot of sense to me now after going through that,” Boye said. “It showed me a lot of eye-opening events and things that I didn’t understand before.”
After the Mafe children spent a year in Nigeria, they learned what it would take to be successful in life. All of them saw where their parents came from and gained a deep appreciation for the life they created in America.
“Going there and being in boarding school, it straightens you out. It puts you on the right path. I thank my parents for that,” Boye’s older brother, Dami said. “It showed us that the time for games are over. You have to get serious about your life and everything you are doing with it. [Boye] really changed when he came back.”
When Boye returned from boarding school, Tayo noticed how much her brother’s personality and view of the world changed. Tayo saw all of the academic and cultural skills he gained while in Nigeria.
“I think when you leave and you’re in a place that’s vastly different, you have more of a worldly mindset,” Tayo said. “He’s always been an old man and an old spirit ever since he’s been little, but it was even more.”
Boye, the youngest member of his family, faced the challenge of keeping up with his older siblings and cousins. If he wanted to play games or wrestle with them, he had to compete extra hard.
“He would always step up to the challenge as a little kid and would try his best to keep up. He never gave up. He definitely had a fighting spirit about him,” Tayo said. “Even though he was getting beat bad, he would still continue to come back and try to win.”
Boye was determined to show everyone he could compete against people who were older than him. If he hit the wall or jammed up against someone, Mafe always lifted himself up. He learned how to compete by playing games with his family.
“He like never cried. That’s why we liked him. We used to call him indestructible,” Boye’s cousin, Ayo Idowu said. “There would be holes in the wall from him hitting his head on the wall, but he would just walk away unscathed.”
Boye’s fighting spirit partially stemmed from his love for WWE and WWF wrestling. The Mafe siblings often hosted “Friday Night Fights” in the backyard. A sleeping bag “ring” in the snow became a makeshift WWE wrestling stage.
“We had some boxes and he decided to make his own championship belt,” his sister, Tayo said. “He would go around the house and he’d go, ‘I’m a WWE and WWF champion!’ He was very, very into it.”
When Mafe was little, this type of fearless personality and energy kept everyone busy. If his siblings or cousins were trying to focus on an intense video game, they sometimes had to get him out of the room.
“We’d lock him in the laundry room while the rest of us were playing video games in our room because nobody wanted to deal with Boye,” Idowu said. “Now, it’s like, I can’t believe this is the kid I used to lock up. He’s leading captain’s practices and he’s asking me questions about life and football.”
The 20-Mile Drive in Rush Hour
After spending a year in Nigeria, Mafe was physically unrecognizable when he returned to Minnesota. An energetic little brother and cousin suddenly towered over all of his family members.
“He had a very extreme growth spurt during that time,” Tayo said. “He went from me being able to put my elbow on his shoulder, to him putting his elbow on my head.”
Boye’s family quickly realized he may have a future in football. Boye’s cousin, Ayo Idowu, became a star defensive end at St. Thomas University and carved out a short career with the Seattle Seahawks. After Boye returned from Nigeria, Ayo saw his cousin and knew everything was about to change.
“[Boye] came back and the kid was like 6-foot-4 and had a pretty athletic body. And we’re like, ‘OK, it looks like you’re actually going to be an athlete,’” Idowu said. “And that’s when we started helping him out with football and saying, ‘I think you could figure this out.’”
Several decades ago, the Mafe family had never even been exposed to the game of football. Soccer was always the sport everyone played together.
“[When they] first came to America, they didn’t know about football,” Idowu said. “We were soccer people. I think they grew to love the sport growing up here in the 70s and 80s and understanding how fun it is to watch.”
The tradition of football was eventually introduced by Boye’s uncle, a football coach in St. Paul. He persuaded Wale to drive Boye’s brother, Dami, across the Twin Cities to play football for him. Little did they know, a simple 20-mile rush hour drive was the beginning of a family football legacy.
Dami Mafe fell in love with the game and tore up the East Metro Football League. He became a star running back for Hopkins High School and committed to play college football at Minnesota State Mankato.
The game of football was eventually passed down to other members of their family. Idowu’s brother, Dayo, played linebacker at North Dakota University. Additionally, several of Mafe and Idowu’s cousins pursued college football careers. Boye’s sister, Tayo, was also a star Rugby player. She played for the U19 Women’s National Team and led them to their first win.
‘Come Play With Us’
Mafe watched his family fall in love with football, but initially never thought about playing. Boye’s mindset quickly changed after he started tossing a football around during recess. Pickup games at school fueled his love for football. One day, after playing together, Mafe’s friends encouraged him to join the local football league.
“I remember the day like it was just yesterday. I was playing at recess with some of my friends and that’ was when little league football was a thing,” Boye said. “We played at recess one day and [and my friends] were like, ‘You should try out for the team next year and come play with us.’“
Mafe signed up to play youth football the following fall. At the time, he didn’t know this simple decision would become a defining moment in his life. If Mafe had not been encouraged by a group of friends, his football career may have never started.
“I decided to play with my friends and that was all she wrote ever since then,” Mafe said.
After walking on the field for the first time, Mafe never left. A small flame lit a burning passion inside Boye.
“It’s Going To Be Lights Out For Everybody Else”
The Mafe family’s athleticism dates all the way back to their Nigerian roots. Growing up, Boye’s grandfather, father and mother all had athletic backgrounds.
“My grandpa was around 6-foot-5. A real tall, athletic guy,” Dami said. “My mom was like 6-foot. My dad grew up playing soccer and he was a sprinter, so he had the speed. I would say [the athleticism comes from a] combination of those three.”
Among a long list of family members, Boye may be the best athlete. Mafe’s eye-popping testing metrics were featured on Bruce Feldman’s “Athletic Freaks” list. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Mafe posted a 4.57 40-yard dash, 40.5-inch vertical and a 10-6 broad jump.
After comparing Mafe’s testing data with 1,318 NFL defensive ends from 1987 to 2020, his Relative Athletic Score (9.89 out of 10) ranks 14th. Boye’s closest athletic comparison in Kent Lee Platte’s database was Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (9.88 relative athletic score).
Mafe’s leaping and explosiveness traits are the most impressive aspects of his athletic profile. He can touch the top square of a basketball backboard. His broad jump is also in the top percentile among past defensive end prospects. When former Gophers defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere saw Mafe go through testing drills last year, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“We were in the weight room last year during testing time and the dude was jumping through the roof like a basketball player. He was squatting like an offensive lineman and bench pressing like he was a fullback. The dude is just doing things that are spectacular,” DeLattiboudere said. “When this dude hits the combine, it’s going to be lights out for everybody else. They are going to feel pretty bad about all those months that they put in.”
During the early stages of his football career, Mafe’s athleticism was used creatively by his coaches. Boye could play almost every position on either side of the ball. Dami vividly remembers attending one of Boye’s most dominating youth football performances. It was the day he knew his sibling had special talent.
“My junior year of high school I went to one of my brother’s football games with a couple of my other teammates. [Boye] played every position on the field and had seven touchdowns in two quarters. He was a man amongst boys. Getting picks, running, jumping over kids. It was really crazy to see,” Dami said. “My friends looked at me and they said, ‘Yeah, this kid is going to be good.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can already tell.’”
‘Be A Golden Gopher’
Since high school, Mafe has been fine-tuning all of his unique athleticism. He played football and basketball at Hopkins High School, but eventually decided to focus on his best sport. The decision was sparked by a conversation Boye had with his cousin.
“[On the court, he was] athletic as hell, scrappy, but couldn’t chew gum and walk, right? He looked bad, but he did look like a man amongst boys. I had a conversation with him after the game. I said, ‘Boye, here’s the deal, you can be an amazing defensive end or linebacker someday,’” Ayo said. “[I told him], ‘you need to drop that sport.’ He pushed me for a while about that, but we finally got him to quit his senior year.”
Boye instead focused on football and earned scholarship offers from Minnesota, Rutgers, Wyoming, South Dakota State, North Dakota and Northern Iowa. He ultimately decided to stay in Minneapolis and play for the hometown Gophers.
“Growing up in Minnesota, everyone always tells you, ‘be a Golden Gopher.’ I had family close to me here, my base was here, everybody I knew and my family was here,” Mafe said.
When P.J. Fleck was hired in 2017, he quickly made the Hopkins High School defensive end a recruiting priority. Once he touched down in Minnesota, Fleck had just two weeks to recruit Mafe. Boye said it didn’t take long for the Gophers’ new head coach to win him over.
“Coach Fleck preached to me that I wasn’t just going to come here and play football, I was going to come here and learn about life. Learn about opportunities, get jobs, get around Fortune 500 companies and people who are very influential in the city of Minneapolis, or around the country,” Mafe said. “That was something that really sold me. He didn’t just want to see me play ball, he wanted me to be a better person, wanted me to find a job, look at the opportunities that were around me and learn about life.”
Flipping the Switch
During his first year in maroon and gold, Mafe adjusted to head coach P.J. Fleck’s culture and learned new techniques. It took a few years for him to adjust and master all of the details. However, he quickly developed with the help of mentors like former defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere.
“[Boye is] a goofy dude, he’s a playful dude. A lot of the time, I was like, ‘Yo, is he ever going to take this serious? Is this ever going to be something that he actually wants to dive deep into as a mature young man?’ And now, I can sit here and say that everything that Boye is becoming was because he put the time and effort in order to grow, mature and become a better football player and young man,” DeLattiboudere said.
Last year, DeLattiboudere watched Boye work hard and study all of the details. Mafe recorded 14 tackles (3.5 for loss) and three sacks in 2019. He played a rotational role in the Gophers’ scheme and frequently kicked inside on pass rushing downs.
“Last year, I kind of just sat there and I looked at Boye. I didn’t tell him a lot. I didn’t tell him how proud I was of him all the time because with Boye, you have to show him love little by little,” DeLattiboudere said. “You show him love in the right ways and then he grows like a flower. It’s astonishing how much this dude has grown and he’s going to be an absolute dude just like everybody thinks he’s going to be.”
Following the departures for DeLattiboudere and Carter Coughlin, Mafe, a redshirt junior, is set to lead the Gophers’ defensive line in 2020. Winston is ready to see Boye’s energy and passion reverberate throughout the entire position group.
“I know every single morning, and everybody on the defensive line will attest to this, Boye Mafe had the most energy out of anybody. He has a high-pitched giggle laugh and you can hear that dude,” DeLattiboudere said. “He’s coming into meetings, he’s laughing, joking and always pointing at you. The joy and energy that Boye radiated was contagious. If you come in mad to that complex that morning, or you were upset about anything, you see Boye and you’ll break out laughing.”
However, when the ball is snapped on Saturday, Mafe morphs into a completely different person. All of his teammates can see it when they look into Boye’s eyes.
“He is just a goofy dude, but it’s scary how he flips the switch. He puts his hand in the dirt and becomes a monster,” DeLattiboudere said. “He’s a great, generous, kind-hearted human being, but when it’s time to flip on the switch, he becomes a beast.”
Mastering the Culture and Details
This season, Mafe is set to become the team’s starting rush end. He is replacing Carter Coughlin, who was selected by the New York Giants in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft. During camp, head coach P.J. Fleck has already noticed the strides Mafe is making on the field.
“Boye has stepped into a role where now he’s mastered it, he knows it and it’s instinct for him. And when you see that player lock down whether it’s fundamentals, whether it’s the system, whether it’s the technique, whether it’s the culture, he’s locked all of that down,” Fleck said. “And now, you start to see this massive growth because it’s not just learning all the time, you’re mastering. He’s at that stage.”
Fleck is seeing Mafe’s positive energy and instincts show up every day. He said Boye has built trust among all of his teammates in the defensive line room.
“He’s a joy to be around on the practice field. He’s got a high, high motor. He has incredibly freakish numbers when it comes to the combine-type stuff, but he’s also a really good, instinctual football player,” Fleck said. “I think that’s what makes him really special.”
Boye said he developed these instincts by spending time learning the roles of every other player in the defense scheme. His goal was to understand the responsibilities of each player in the system. This has allowed him to play faster and more efficiently.
Mafe’s cousin, Ayo, worked with Boye this offseason and noticed all of the strides he made in those areas. Idowu, a former defensive lineman, runs Lines of Scrimmage, a local football training business. He works with more than 100 athletes each year, including Mafe.
“I think his development over the past three or four years is due to honing in on the details. I think him being a student of what he does. He gets in his stance right. He uses his hips. I don’t think he realizes how strong he is and how strong he can be,” Idowu said. “Boye weighs as much as a tackle, but he’s as fast as Carter Coughlin coming off of that edge. You can isolate him at three-technique and give him a two-way go.”
Driven By His Past
Boye Mafe is guided by the people and moments that shaped him into the man he is today. Two of the most emotional moments of his life defined him. Early in his college career, Boye’s mother, Bola, passed away after a battle with cancer. Around the same time, he lost his grandmother. Mafe and his siblings came together and strived to carry on their legacies.
“Through those difficult moments, the big thing I learned is that when it gets tough, you just have to keep going. And that time waits on nobody. There are moments where it gets tough and you have to really sit there and you weep, you sorrow and you cry, but then you have to get back up and keep going,” Mafe said. “That’s something I learned from my parents.”
Despite all of the challenges Bola faced during her battle with cancer, she never lost her positive mindset. Bola’s caring and bubbly demeanor continued to impact everyone she came in contact with. Boye watched his mother fight through all of the adversity with a positive mindset. It is something he will never forget.
“No matter what, when my mom was going through the tough times with her cancer, she never really cried about it, she never really got mad about it, she never really showed that to us. She kept a positive light all the time,” Mafe said. “I just carry that no matter how down it is, or how bad times can be, you always have to find the positivity in everything, keep a smile on your face and keep pushing.”
Throughout these difficult moments, Mafe was surrounded by his teammates and coaches. Mafe said the F.A.M.I.L.Y. (Forget About Me, I Love You) component of Minnesota’s “Row the Boat” culture was on full display. His phone blew up with messages from everyone in the football program. Mafe’s coaches and teammates wanted him to know they were always available to listen.
Minnesota’s football program was there for him every step of the way, including on one of the most difficult days of his life. Minutes before his mother’s funeral, Mafe looked up and saw head coach P.J. Fleck and his teammates walk in. It was the moment Mafe knew he wasn’t just playing for a team — he was part of a family.
“[When they showed up] that was something that was very impactful to me and I appreciate them dearly for that. Carter Coughlin, Tay’ion Devers and guys like that. It really shows you that they really cared about me more than just playing games and that we weren’t just teammates, we were truly family,” Mafe said. “Coach Fleck showed up to my mom’s funeral and stuff like that really stuck with me and showed me that I wasn’t in this alone and that they were with me and truly cared about me.”
The Power of Family
Family is one of the most important values of the Yoruba culture.
After losing both their mother and grandmother, the Mafe siblings came together. The values those influential people taught them started to shine through. It was a moment where they needed to be there for each other. During those difficult times, Boye lifted up his family and supported them through everything.
“I think he has become the glue of our family in keeping everyone together. He’s funny. He’s hilarious. He has a way of making you feel good. If somebody is down, he’ll be there for you,” Tayo said. “He just has this aura about him that puts people at ease. He has joy vs. happiness and I think people can feel that off of him.”
The entire family remembers the impact their mother and grandmother had on others. The Mafe children have been, and always will be, shaped by their upbringing, culture and family. As Boye’s siblings watched him grow, they saw many of those traits shine brightly.
“In each individual of us, I can see the traits of both my mother and my father. Especially for my brother, I see a lot of my mom,” Dami said. “She’s very kind, very talented. If she puts her mind to it, she can do it. I also see a lot of my dad with [Boye]. My parents shaped all of us into who we are today and I thank them. I’d say they put us in a lot better off position than we should be.”
When Tayo and Dami look at Boye, they see the caring, kind-hearted and calm personality of their mother in him.
“Boye definitely has some of the mannerisms of my mom. She wasn’t easily wavered when it came to how she felt about things,” Tayo said. “It would take a lot for something to knock her. When other people may be nervous about something, she was calm, cool and collected. We didn’t know all of the stressors that she was going through and she would just work through it. I would definitely say Boye has picked that up.”
When Boye thinks of his mother, he remembers the way she deeply cared for every person in the world. Whether it was someone she knew for years, or a complete stranger, Bola was always there to lift others up. These are the lessons Boye carries with him to this day.
“My mother was one of the most caring people I’ve ever met. My mom would give the shirt off of her back to anyone who ever needed it,” Mafe said. “She just kept that caring atmosphere about her. She always made everybody around her happy and made sure that everybody in the room was taken care of before she would take care of herself. I kind of carry that with myself now.”
Making Them Proud
Every time Boye Mafe sacks a quarterback, he carries on the legacies of everyone who came before him. Boye represents Nigeria, Minnesota and his family on the biggest stage.
“Seeing Boye in the maroon and gold is really great. I get good seats, so I watch him closely. I try to yell to him as much as possible and hope he hears me. Sometimes he looks, sometimes he doesn’t,” Dami said. “When he does, I feel a rush and I’m really proud of him.”
This pride has kept the Mafe family connected during difficult moments. Boye and his siblings remember the foundation Bola and Wale Mafe laid for future generations. When times get tough, they lean on the lessons their parents taught them. Each day, Boye strives to carry on his family’s legacy in everything he does.
“One thing I’ve learned from my parents is to always keep persevering and carry yourself with a chip on your shoulder,” Mafe said. “That’s what I’ve always carried myself with is the fact that I have to keep going and there’s always people counting on me, so I can’t let anybody down.”