Franklin Okpala always looks to make a difference.
Okpala, a senior at Frankford High School, is a three-sport athlete, where he plays midfield on the soccer team, kicker on the football team and a combo guard on the basketball team. And no matter which sport he’s playing, his goal isn’t to be the flashiest, but to do whatever he can to help the team.
And while his efforts in sports should be commended, his works away from athletics are what are really noteworthy.
The Nigeria native is ranked No. 1 in his class at Frankford and he recently did research at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked to help find a cure for malaria, a disease that is plaguing his nation.
“I love science and I wanted to study something where I could help, and this is something I really care about,” Okpala said. “It’s with the Wistar Institute. I wanted to see if I could help because if you can find something, it can save a lot of people.”
The serious disease can be fatal and also causes fever, fatigue, headaches and seizures, and sufferers can go into a coma.
Obviously, everyone would love to find a vaccine for malaria, but Okpala is actually in the process of figuring it out. Or at least he’s trying.
“The first thing you have to do is determine what it is, because you can’t do anything until you figure that out,” Okpala said. “We know what it is, we know where it comes from, it’s transferred by mosquito bites. So we know that, and now we’re trying to figure out a way to stop it.
“It’s hard to explain, but I’ve worked with great people. We worked all summer last year to figure some things out. We came up with a vaccine. I can’t do anything with it until I’m in college. You can’t do clinical trials until you have learned what to do.”
Once he learns more, the plan is to test the vaccine in mice.
“I knew I couldn’t try it until I learned more,” Okpala said. “We will try to vaccinate mice and see how it affects them. And then we’ll see what we need to do after that.”
Despite the fact that Okpala dedicates a lot of time to his studies, he still finds time to star on the basketball court.
“We have a young team, but we are doing well,” Okpala said. “We have a great coach who really helps us a lot. They’re going to be really good. We’re working hard together and trying to do the best we can.”
They definitely have a great leader in Okpala.
He is more of a wing player, but when the situation calls for it, he’s not afraid to do the dirty work.
That effort paid off.
The guard helped the Pioneers advance to the Public League AAAAAA finals where they fell to Lincoln on Monday 71-56.
Frankford will now wait for the Catholic League AAAAAA runner-up for a district game. Winner goes to the state tournament.
It’s not the first time this school year that he guided Frankford to postseason success.
In the fall, he helped the Pioneers advance to the Public League Class AAAAA football finals before falling to Simon Gratz.
Okpala provided Frankford with something it hasn’t had in years — a guy who could convert extra points and field goals.
“I’m a soccer player, and I was told they needed someone who could kick,” Okpala said. “I knew I could do it. I never did it before, but I had fun doing it.”
While football was fun, his true passion is basketball.
Okpala played basketball growing up in Nigeria, but the game in the United States is different.
“It’s more physical,” Okpala said. “I’ve learned a lot by playing here.
“This year has been very good. I would like to play either basketball or soccer in college.”
It’s nice to have options. And while Okpala’s athleticism has opened some doors for him, it’s his work in the classroom that has really helped him get noticed.
He maintains a 4.0 grade point average in the classroom. He is the vice president of the school’s National Honor Society, he’s a member of the National Academy of Future Physicians and Scientists, and he’s been accepted to six colleges, including three Ivy League schools and Duke.
“I love sports, but academics are always my biggest concern,” Okpala said. “I want to be a doctor, so studying is very important.”
It’s also important because he has that goal of making a difference.
Okpala no longer lives in Nigeria, but he does have friends and family who are still there. He wants to do whatever he can to make sure they stay healthy.
“Malaria is very dangerous in the very young,” Okpala said. “It would be great if we could develop a vaccine. It has a high fatality rate in children. That’s what makes it so important that we find a vaccine.
“Kids under five are dying. It comes down to developing research, figuring out from symptoms what we need to do It’s not a virus, it’s a disease, so we know a lot about it. We just need to learn more.” ••