Adebayo Akinfenwa is big in soccer thanks to video game

Told he was too big to play soccer, Adebayo Akinfenwa went on to play 14 professional seasons in three countri

When Adebayo Akinfenwa was growing up in central London, he dreamed of playing professional soccer.

Problem was he never stopped growing, eventually developing a body the same size and shape of a Coke machine. But he refused to let his body outgrow his dream.

"I was told from a young age, 'You're too big to play football,' " he said. "My mind-set was, 'There's nobody that can tell me that I can't achieve what I want to do.' That defiance came from very young.

"I wouldn't say that I set out to be different. My mind-set was, 'Look, I want to play football.' "

That determination would lead to 14 professional seasons in three countries, two clothing labels and, thanks to a popular video game, status as world soccer's most unlikely cult figure.

So though his career stalled well short of the English Premier League, he's probably the only fourth-tier English soccer player who has been stopped outside the Los Angeles airport by a group of kids wanting to take a picture.

"Our games aren't really televised. So to be known globally like that, it does make me laugh," said Akinfenwa, whose name is pronounced just as it's spelled — with great difficulty.

For that fame, Akinfenwa (Ah-kin-fen-wah) has his own oversized body and the California-based gaming company Electronic Arts Inc. to thank. His body, because it allowed him to bench-press 400 pounds. And EA Sports because it took that fact and, in its popular FIFA franchise of video soccer games, graded Akinfenwa as the world's strongest soccer player.

But what really makes that combination work is Akinfenwa's equally well-developed character and sense of humor, which are almost as big as his biceps.

"I've been overly blessed to be able to embrace my personality in all this," Akinfenwa said by phone from London, where his 15 goals leads AFC Wimbledon of England's League Two, three steps below the Premier League on the country's soccer ladder. "All this talking about size and getting the acknowledgment, how can you not smile and just go along with it?"

For years he fought it, though, resenting the fact his linebacker-like 5-foot-11, 231-pound build got more attention than his skills. That began to change when, on the advice of his agent, he went to play in Lithuania's A Lyga, where he was recognized for another aspect of his appearance.

It was a painful and troubling experience that wound up changing his outlook on both soccer and life.

"I experienced a lot of racial abuse," said Akinfenwa, the son of Nigerian immigrants. "I was the first black person in the league. For me, when you go through trials and tribulations and come out the other side … I think you embrace the fun side of it. Life in itself can be very tough."

After two years, he returned to England, where he led his League One and League Two teams in scoring four times in five seasons, 2008-2013. He also launched a clothing line under the label HaHa, a name Akinfenwa says was inspired by the people who had laughed at him and told him he was too big to play soccer.

His new line is called Beast Mode On, a name he came up with before Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch licensed his own "Beast Mode" nickname in 2013. But while Lynch's moniker refers primarily to his style of play, Akinfenwa says his is more about defying limitations.

"The strongest thing I've got — that anyone has got — is their mind. So forget your arm, forget the chest," he said. "Anyone can be Beast Mode. All it is is applying yourself. And understanding that no matter what you do in life, you're going to fail at some point, so that's OK.

"It's just what you do after you fall. Just to get up and go again."

Yet despite all the goals and the clothing lines, Akinfenwa, who turns 33 next month, probably would have finished his career in anonymity if a reporter had not followed him to the gym a few years back to watch him bench-press the equivalent of a baby elephant.

That brought him to the attention of the programmers at EA Sports, who were quick to make his avatar a beast in the 2014 release of its popular FIFA franchise, ranked by Forbes as the best-selling video sports game in the world.

"He looks like … a UFC fighter," Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza, an avid gamer, said of Akinfenwa's video likeness. "I would not challenge that guy. He's big, he's strong. He's pretty mobile. Getting into a shoving match with him is not going to help you."

Akinfenwa will have to take his word for it, because the father of four says he doesn't have time to play video games. But he does defend his unique role in this one vigorously.

"There was a rumor going around that I may not be the strongest in FIFA [2015]," he said. "So I had to send EA a tweet saying that if I'm not the strongest in the game, I'm going to have to come around and bench-press every single one of them.

"I don't know if that helped me get the title again. But if it isn't, then I'll be tweeting them again for FIFA '16."

That marks quite a turnaround for Akinfenwa, who started out hoping to play a small role in a big league but is now content having become a very big man in a tiny league.

He couldn't have dreamed it up any better.

"I have to catch myself now and again," said Akinfenwa, who has scored more than 150 goals while playing for 12 teams in his journeyman career. "I've never gotten to the promised land of the Premiership. I've played League One and League Two. To be known globally, worldwide, it is mind-boggling to me.

"But I'll count my blessings, and I'll keep going to the gym."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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