Making a difference

Frank­ford guard Frank­lin Ok­pala is prouder of his ac­com­plish­ments in the classroom than he is of his achieve­ments on the court. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

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.” ••

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