Illinois' Sanni out to compete until the end

Defensive back Supo Sanni will wrap up a five-year career at Illinois this weekend. Damen Jackson/Icon SMI

Olatunji Sanni remembers distinctly returning home one summer from college to find his youngest brother, Supo Sanni, had grown four inches, now standing 6-foot-3.

Supo, who ranges from 4 to 7 years younger than his brother and two sisters, was no longer so easy to beat up on and defeat in anything they played in and out of their Chicago Heights, Ill. home.

“We were competing against a little big brother,” Olatunji said through laughter.

Olatunji couldn’t believe how much Supo had developed before his eyes, and now Supo has done it again. Come Saturday, Supo will complete a five-year football career with Illinois, and again his older brother is astonished how much he has grown as a person and player in that time.

“I’ve been most surprised and amazed how quickly he was able to (have success at Illinois),” Olatunji said. “He comes from parents who made sure we were really sharp at things. It’s all about efficiency. I’m amazed by his efficiency to learn things and get better.”

Recruited out of Homewood-Flossmoor High School in the south suburbs of Chicago, Supo earned playing time right from the start at Illinois and saw action in all 12 games as a freshman. He was given even more time as a sophomore and appeared on the verge of being named a starting safety as a junior.

But just as Supo was nearing one of his goals, his career was derailed by a ruptured right Achilles tendon in August of 2010, and he was forced to sit out the season and medically redshirt.

Despite the setback, Supo never lost faith he’d return to the field and even still play in the NFL someday. Whenever a sliver of doubt crossed him mind, he turned to his family to keep him on track.

“It’s from my family pushing me through,” said Supo, whose sister Olayinka plays in the WNBA. “Every time I had a down day, I talked to my family. They keep me up. They know where I want to be. It’s just my drive, just my passion, just not wanting to quit, not wanting to give up for my teammates.”

Supo’s perseverance paid off last season as he started 11 games and had 49 tackles, two tackles for loss, five pass breakups and one interception.

But Supo’s good fortunes wouldn’t continue. He suffered a left knee injury in the offseason and was forced to miss the first four games of the 2012 season. Even now while Supo is back on the field, he’s still through battling injuries and says he’s about 90 percent. He’s had 26 tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass breakup this season.

Illini senior defensive end Michael Buchanan knows Supo almost as well as Supo’s siblings do. Buchanan has played high school and college football alongside him and has been his roommate for the last three years. As Buchanan watches Supo now, he marvels at Supo’s determination and attitude.

“This year he’s been playing banged up,” Buchanan said. “He fought to get back out there and now he’s playing through it. He never uses that an excuse. He keeps on fighting. I really admire him. I don’t think a lot of guys would play through it.

“Supo is a guy who is always going to be positive. He never gets too down. That’s not something you can say about a lot of people.”

Supo doesn’t believe he’s doing anything extraordinary.

“It’s Big Ten football,” said Supo, who had a career-high 10 tackles against Penn State this season. “If you’re going to play this game, you’re going to get bumps and bruises. I don’t want to give up on my team or let my family down. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get on the field. I feel like if you don’t have any bumps or bruises, you must not being playing that hard.”

Playing hard and competing are characteristics Supo prides himself on. Whether it’s football, video games or anything else, Supo expects to win when he gives it his all.

“I’m not really much of a video game player,” Supo said. “I tell (Buchanan) anytime I’m serious about a game, I’m a competitor, and I’m going win. If I get serious, I’m going to beat him anytime. That’s the competitor nature we have.”

Buchanan confirmed Supo’s competitiveness, but not his video game ability.

“He always a competitor,” Buchanan said. “That’s one of the things I like about him. He never wants to lose in anything he does.... He can’t beat me in video games. If he wins one (game), he’ll leave it at that. You can never let him win because he won’t stop talking about it.”

Supo and his teammates haven’t had much of a chance do such talking this season. The Illini have gone 2-9 overall and 0-7 in the Big Ten.

While disappointed in the year, Supo feels a win against Illinois’ rival Northwestern on Saturday will help put a smile on his face as he finishes his career.

“There’s no better way to end the season than beating Northwestern and going back to Chicago and have them in your back pocket,” said Supo, who hopes to play in the NFL next year. “We obviously had some struggles this season, but there’s no better way than winning your last game and bringing it into next year. We’re not only doing this for us; we’re doing it for the program hopefully.”