BLACKSBURG, Va. — The pageantry of college football was new to Ime Ekanem, but he caught on quickly. The fanaticism surrounding football teams reminded him of soccer back home.
Ekanem, the father of Virginia Tech defensive end Ken Ekanem, has been in Nigeria for years, living and working — and this fall running for governor of a Nigerian state.
But he put his campaign on hold to come back to the United States for the first three games this season — it was the first time he’s watched his son play since he was a sophomore in high school.
By kickoff of the Ohio State game, Ime had caught on.
“His father was in the stands and another man’s son made a sack and he says, ‘That’s my son!’ ” said Mary Ekanem, Ken’s mother, who is separated from Ime but remains good friends.
“When Ken got a sack, he goes, ‘That’s my son!'”
Ken, a 6-foot-3, 249-pound redshirt sophomore, has given the family plenty to cheer about.
After two injury-riddled seasons, he is finally healthy and living up to his reputation as one of the state’s top recruits in 2012 coming out of Centreville High in Northern Virginia.
His three-sack, four-tackles-for-loss game at North Carolina was one of the most productive games in defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s grading system, and he leads the team with five sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss.
“I think he’s starting to look like the guy we recruited,” Foster said.
His mother described him as “an older soul in a younger body,” a laid-back individual who, outwardly at least, doesn’t appear to let much rattle him.
The ACL and meniscus he tore in the state championship game of his senior season? He knew he’d come back from it if he worked hard enough — even if one of the schools recruiting him, Notre Dame, backed away.
At least some of that maturity comes from his atypical upbringing. His father was born in Nigeria and came to the United States for schooling, later working as a defense contractor near Washington.
An opportunity arose in Nigeria for him to help build a privately operated international airport in Akwa Ibom state capable of landing planes that will be built in the next 50 years, a rare commodity in Africa.
And so the back-and-forth began. At first, he’d return every other month, then once every few months, then just on holidays. Eventually, he moved there full-time in 2005, when Ken was in fourth grade.
“It’s really a hardship,” Ime said in a phone interview from Nigeria. “It’s a sacrifice, but I am also doing something that will make my children proud of me if I can change these peoples’ lives.
“So I think they understand where I am coming from. My coming to America was no accident. It was perhaps one of the things that I needed to come back and change this society.”
Pops and I chilling the night before the the big win in the horseshoe pic.twitter.com/Aym2SgTdMY
— Kenjamin Ekanem (@Ekannibal) September 8, 2014
In Ime’s absence, Ken’s brother Ed stepped in. An accountant in Arlington, Virginian and five years Ken’s senior, Ed, served as a father figure. They’d play video games and Ed even coached Ken’s youth basketball team.
“If our dad was around, I don’t know what the normal process would be,” Ed said. “But we’re buds.”
Their relationship is so tight that Ken wears No. 4 because that was Ed’s number as a defensive back in high school.
“I basically was his little twin,” Ken said. “A little mini-me.”
He didn’t stay little for long. When Ed left for college at Arizona State and Ken was a freshman in high school, the younger brother stood about a foot smaller than him. The next year, they were the same height. By the time Ed was a junior and had transferred to Radford, “the tables had turned a little bit,” Ed joked.
Ken was establishing himself on the field at Centreville High School.
He grew bigger but kept the athleticism he showed playing soccer and basketball when he was younger.
In his senior year, he had 72 tackles, 18 sacks and 32 quarterback pressures, earning co-Defensive Player of the Year honors in Group AAA from the Virginia High School Coaches Association.
The only thing that slowed him down was a torn ACL and meniscus in his final game in December 2011. He committed to Virginia Tech two months later.
“I don’t ever remember him getting down,” Mary said. “He just knew he would get back out there and play.”
As Ekanem’s football career blossomed, his dad’s role in Nigeria expanded. After the airport job, he opened several businesses, including a restaurant, bakery, gas station and a manufacturing plant in the capital of Akwa Ibom.
Frustrated by the direction of local politics, Ime has started his own campaign for governor.
The primaries are in late October and the general election is in February. That should afford Ime time to get back in November to see his family again, with the hopes that Ken can make it to Nigeria in January. Ken called his dad’s trip in September a blessing.
“He shut off his cell phone and didn’t want to get calls or get called back to Nigeria,” Ken said. “It meant a lot for him to do that and be back here.”
Although he doesn’t see his father much, Ken attributes much of his work ethic to him. As he’s grown, he’s come to understand why his father has lived in Nigeria, seeing how hard Ime’s worked to support his family and help his countrymen.
Ken thinks back to when he was younger and played soccer, too heavy to play football at the time. His dad was hard on him then, pushing him to be more aggressive than the other players.
“He’s definitely molded me into the kind of player I am today,” Ken said. “I give him credit for a lot of things that he’s accomplished.”
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