When you ask those who know Ikem Ekwonu about the 6-foot-4, 320-pound offensive lineman, the first thing they always talk about is his personality. They talk about Ikem, the person, not the football player.
He’s joyful, fun-loving and never lets anything dictate how he feels, said NC State offensive line coach John Garrison.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. Maybe my mother, who is a saint,” he told the Observer in a phone interview. “People gravitate toward him.”
On the field, he’s much different. Ekwonu flips a switch. A columnist for San Diego Tribune dubbed him the “The Pancake King,” because of his propensity to bowl over defenders.
He’s mean, and he’s one player you don’t want to see coming at you full speed.
“Off the field, you wouldn’t even know he was that aggressive kid on the field,” Otis Moore, his defensive coordinator at Providence Day High School, said. “You’d think he was just a goofy kid, likes to play around and joke. But once he gets on the field, he turns into a different type of person.”
It’s also why Ekwonu, who grew up in Charlotte and played for NC State, could be the first selection in the 2022 NFL draft on Thursday. Most draft experts say he’s the top offensive tackle in this draft class.
“Ekwonu, he gets out and pancakes people on the move,” Eric Edholm, a draft analyst for Yahoo! Sports told the Observer in January. “He’s really fun to watch.”
He plays one of the most important positions in football, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have a long-term need at offensive tackle, could choose him.
If they do, he’ll be the first Charlotte native drafted No. 1 overall. There are only two other North Carolina natives who have gone 1 overall in NFL history: Mario Williams (2006), a Raleigh native who also played for NC State, and Roman Gabriel (1962), who is from Wilmington.
And if the Jaguars pass? There are a number of teams who could use him on their lines immediately: The Texans at No. 3, Giants at No. 5 and Panthers at No. 6 all have needs at offensive tackle, too.
The Panthers list Ekwonu high on their draft board. He was among one of the 30 prospects Carolina brought in for visits during the pre-draft process this month.
“I feel like I’d fit in pretty great,” Ekwonu said of the Panthers at his pro day last month. “The culture of the team and the tough guys that they have, I’d fit right in. And it would be kind of cool to play for the team I grew up rooting for my whole life. It would be pretty cool.”
‘My effort will not be in vain’
Ikem Ekwonu was born “Ikemefuna Ekwonu,” pronounced “Ee-kehm-e-fu-na Eck WAHN ew, to Nigerian parents Tagbo ‘TJ’ and Amaka Ekwonu†
They got the name “Ikemefuna” from the book “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. Ikemefuna was the main character. The name translates to “my effort will not be in vain.”
Ekwonu is living up to his name. His friends, though, call him Ickey — a nickname given to him by a high school coach who thought he looked like Ickey Woods, a former fullback for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sports were always big in the Ekwonu household.
Ikem Ekwonu and his fraternal twin, Osita, are the youngest of four children. Osita is currently a senior defensive lineman at Notre Dame.
Amaka, who is now an accountant, was a sprinter in high school, running the 100- and 200-meter dashes. She also did high jump, long jump and shot put. TJ, now a doctor, was a basketball player who played for the Nigerian basketball team in college.
His older siblings played sports, too.
Ikem was well-rounded: He was a track and field star, an all-state wrestler and boy scout. But football was always his first love — and his passion — his mother Amaka said.
When he was nine, the Pop Warner League made him play two age groups up because he was too big for children his age. Even with the 11-12 year-old age group, Ikem was too big. He had to lose a couple of pounds to play with them, so he ate chicken and broccoli for two weeks just to make weight.
Ikem and Osita were also big Panthers fans growing up and have been to a number of games at Bank of America Stadium. He wanted to play in the NFL.
But though Ikem had the talent, the NFL didn’t seem like a reality until he was in college. In fact, many Division I colleges didn’t even come calling until his senior season at Providence Day.
‘Your time is coming’
Garrison was in his first week on the job as the new NC State offensive line coach when he first met the kid nicknamed Ickey. The football program was pursuing offensive the then-three-star prospect from Charlotte to play line for the Wolfpack. At Providence Day High School, Ekwonu was a star.
When Garrison showed up to Providence Day about four years ago, Ekwonu was at wrestling practice, playing around with his teammates. They were tackling each other to the ground.
But when practice officially started, everything turned serious for Ekwonu. He was focused. What Garrison saw was something he says he’ll never forget: To warm up, the wrestlers walked around the room on handstands.
Evan at 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, Ekwonu was doing it, too.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy is a freak athlete,’” Garrison recalled with a laugh.
Ekwonu had always been that way. His high school coach, Adam Hastings, said even though he didn’t start as a freshman at Providence Day, he knew he’d be special.
He was athletic, had the size of a potential professional player, he had a great attitude and he worked harder than most people his age. As a freshman in practice, he’d overpower the seniors.
While he grew, he continued to improve, and he was dominant in high school — on offense and defense — Hastings said.
But while colleges were gushing about his brother Osita, no one was really showing interest in Ikem. None of his high school coaches knew why.
Moore, his defensive coordinator at Providence Day, said Ekwonu would come into his office each morning upset that he wasn’t getting many offers.
Moore kept telling him to be patient: “Your time is coming.”
Ekwonu trusted him.
‘He can move’
While shot put and the discus were Ekwonu’s primary events in track & field, he also ran the 4 x 100-meter relay race on occasion.
There was one race that all his high school coaches recall: He was running the anchor leg in the relay race and trailing the first place runner by a significant margin.
The runner he was chasing was much smaller, but Ekwonu caught up to and won the race for Providence Day.
“For a big guy, he can move,” track & field coach Carol Lawrence said. “He ran him down and caught him.”
That race turned out to be one of the biggest differences in his football recruitment. Hastings, his high school coach, used the film of that race and showed it to college coaches to show his athleticism. The movie immediately generated interest.
NC State was among the first schools to show interest in Ekwonu. They also showed the most interest. They liked his movie and his hustle. They saw a bright future for him.
“His competitive spirit and his physicality are unique,” NC State coach Dave Doeren told the Observer in a phone interview. “The guy has a ton of fun playing the game, but he also plays with a huge chip on his shoulder.”
On the first play of his college career at NC State, he pancaked a defender. He made that a habit. Ekwonu had seven pancake blocks in a game against Louisville as a true freshman, and led the team with 37 that year after starting in seven games.
He was a unanimous All-America selection during his final year at NC State and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy, given to college football’s top lineman.
“He’s taking defensive linemen and driving them to the sideline, knocking guys 15 yards down the field, knocking players on their butt getting up and down the field knocking another player on his butt,” Doeren said. “I mean, it’s not like one time. It’s something he’s done for three years. So every game we can find one to five clips of him just destroying somebody.”
‘He deserves it’
As Amaka and TJ Ekwonu each took time away from work to speak to a reporter on a recent Thursday evening, they still seemed unsure of what to make of this moment. Hearing everyone say his name is something they’re still getting used to.
Before their sons went to college, they hadn’t talked much about their Ikem going pro. Getting his education was always the priority, and if the NFL came, then that’d be the icing on the cake, his father said.
But now that this moment is here, they’re excited. When his parents speak of their children, it’s easy to hear the pride in their voices.
What would it be like if he were drafted in the top 10?
“It’d be incredible,” his mother Amaka said.
“He deserves it,” his father TJ added.
Ikem Ekwonu has been preparing for this moment for all of his life.
Ikemfuna. His effort is not in vain.