Football: Family, faith, loyalty fuel Northwestern’s defensive end Anto Saka

Defensive lineman Anto Saka has two sacks for the Cats this season.
Defensive lineman Anto Saka has two sacks for the Cats this season.
Illustration by Lillian Ali

Ann Saka never considered herself a “football mom.”

A mother of six, she typically took her four daughters to piano, dance and swim practices. Her husband Anthony Saka handled the sports’ side for their two younger sons. The pair worked in tandem to build values of academics, faith and diligence in each of their children.

“My parents always stressed the fact that the only thing we own is a degree,” sophomore defensive end Anto Saka said.

Those family morals helped pave the way for him to become one of the most sought after high school prospects in the country, garnering more than 20 Power Five offers.

They kept him hungry while he bided his time during his freshman season, learning under veteran defenders like 2023 NFL draft pick Adetomiwa Adebawore. And when turmoil overtook Northwestern football’s summer, Anto Saka stuck to the program he’d committed to — before he burst onto the scene with two early season sacks.

Currently, the 6-foot-4 245-pounder leads the team in that category, but he’s not focused on stuffing the statsheet.

“I go punch through the tackle, shut off the gap and make a tackle,” Anto Saka said. “If I get a sack, great, (but) even if I don’t make the play, I still play a key part in helping my teammates.”

Ann Saka initially believed football was just a “recreational” game that helped her son stay in shape. No matter what, Ann Saka and her family placed academics on the highest pedestal.

But after seeing her son dedicate more and more time to the game he loved, she realized football was getting serious in her household. This came to a head during a Loyola Blakefield middle school game against its local rival Gilman School — one of the first games Ann Saka attended.

“I’m watching him, but not really understanding what he’s doing, except seeing him run up and down,” she said.

From the opening kickoff, she was introduced to an entirely new world — one where the spotlight shines brightest on her son and spectators spanning the sideline sing his praises. Everyone spoke a ‘football language’ that she had yet to understand.

Several years down the road, with Anto Saka in the thick of the recruiting process, his family accompanied him on some college visits across the country — far from his stomping grounds in the Baltimore metro.

Holding education at the forefront, Anto Saka and his family toured academic institutions like Duke University and the University of Michigan. Still looking to understand the fundamentals of football, Ann Saka confided in a USC coach, who told the doting mother to “tell him to squash the quarterback.”

As she continues to learn, that simple piece of advice continues to pay dividends, with Anto Saka wreaking havoc in opposing backfields.

“I’m learning it because of Anto, and it’s really fascinating and interesting,” Ann Saka said. “My daughters have been very helpful — my husband, too, (though) not as patient. I don’t know all the details, but I know enough to enjoy seeing my son play.”


Although high school football tryouts took place well before classes began, Loyola Blakefield varsity football coach Anthony Zehyoue’s first interaction with his future star was far from the gridiron.

A 2007 national champion with LSU, Zehyoue also served as a history teacher. Sure enough, Anto Saka was enrolled in the coach’s freshmen world history roster, where he immediately caught the coach’s eye.

“Here I am — the head football coach — with one of the biggest kids on the school campus in my class, and he’s not on the team,” Zehyoue said.

While Anto Saka decided to walk away from football prior to his freshman year of high school, it wasn’t long before he stepped back on the field.

Following a stint playing junior varsity basketball, his classmates and coach guided him back to a game he dominated since his peewee football days.

“I was pretty sure I was done, but (Zehyoue) sought me out on the field during PE class,’” Anto Saka said. “He’s the one that instilled that belief back into me and that love for the game.”

Once he joined Zehyoue’s Dons’ squad, the defensive star took little time imposing his will whenever the whistles blew. In just a small sample of games, the coach knew he had a star on his hands.

Zehyoue said Anto Saka’s impact superseded the statsheet, so much that opposing coaches always brought up his number postgame.

This hype came to a culmination during his final high school game — the Turkey Bowl against his school’s archrival Calvert Hall College. Considered one of the biggest games in Maryland, the two teams have duked it out on Thanksgiving day for more than 100 years.

“The community talks about it all year,” Zehyoue said. “It’s bragging rights for the winner, and it’s a tough year for the loser.”

With the Dons carrying a six-game losing streak into the 2021 tilt, Anto Saka entered the game determined to cap his career off with the sweet taste of revenge. With his father watching in the stands and his mother glued to the television while cooking dinner, the defensive end went to work.

He covered nearly every inch of turf at Towson’s Johnny Unitas Stadium, tallying three sacks, a plethora of pressures and grabbing a 41-35 upset to put an exclamation point on a stellar high school tenure.

As he reflected on the sideline in a whirlwind of emotions, thinking of how everyone had counted his team out, Anto Saka knew this moment would far outlast the final horn. Hanging in his Phoenix, Maryland, bedroom, his unwashed No. 52 uniform serves as a constant, framed reminder of history he helped write — and his motivation to make a difference at the next level.


In the immediate aftermath of as tumultuous an offseason any program could have, many of Saka’s friends began reaching out, trying to gauge his interest in entering the transfer portal.

And no one would blame the former four star recruit for trying to hit the reset button, but he and his family knew that his loyalty to the purple and white was firm. For Ann Saka, the answer stemmed back to her son’s days in the recruiting process.

An “unapologetically Christian” woman, Ann Saka prayed over one of the biggest decisions of her son’s life thus far. She dreamt that her son would wind up in Evanston — but didn’t tell him so he’d make his own decision.

Once he chose NU, Anto Saka’s word was his bond. According to his father, loyalty looms large in their family — and Anthony Saka urged his son to silence the outside noise and honor his initial commitment.

“You stay here and help the team to grow,” Anthony Saka told his son. “Football is a team sport, so they need you and others to build a strong team.”

Through transparent conversations with interim head coach David Braun, his family and close friends, Saka decided to remain a Wildcat and quickly returned to work with his teammates to prepare for what would be a season like no other.

That decision immediately paid off, with the pass rusher racking up sacks in consecutive weeks against UTEP and Duke. He was the first player to both record a sack this season for the ‘Cats and on Blue Devils quarterback Riley Leonard.

“That young man can rush the passer, no doubt about that,” Braun said. “He and I have talked about … (being) someone that can have a huge impact on the quarterback week in and week out, and he’s shown the ability to do that.”

Braun said he’s hoping the Maryland native can develop into an every down, unblockable player in conference play.

As Anto Saka continues to carve out more of a three-down role, he has the support of veterans and coaches alike — but the sophomore said it all starts with accountability. Keeping the same values his parents instilled at an early age, Anto Saka continues to strive toward his childhood dream of playing in the NFL.

“Looking at the man in the mirror and being honest with him has really paid off up to this point,” Anto Saka said. “Whatever I can do to help the team, that’s what I want. That’s the only thing going through my mind.”

Alex Cervantes contributed reporting.

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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