The day Maryland fired Randy Edsall as head football coach, wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo waited until he was sure the news had gone public, then did what he always did when he had a big decision to make: He called his eldest brother.
Etta Etta-Tawo already knew the questions his younger brother would have as he processed the news. What would happen to Maryland now, in the middle of the season? Who would be named the next head coach? Should Amba, set to graduate in 2015 with one year of eligibility remaining, stick around to find out?
“As soon as he heard Edsall was leaving, a lot of stuff changed for him,” remembered Etta, six years older than Amba and a former football player at Clemson. “In terms of opportunity . . .with a new coaching staff coming in, it would all depend on how he does at camp. He might get stuck behind a lot of people and not get noticed and his career would be done. Or, he could go look for a new place and try to be the No. 1 guy.”
Amba Etta-Tawo chose the latter.
Just seven games into his first and only season as a transfer at Syracuse, Etta-Tawo has nearly surpassed what took him three years to accrue at Maryland. The 22-year-old leads the ACC with 930 receiving yards, eight short of his career total as a Terp and more than 300 yards ahead of the ACC’s next-most prolific receiver, North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer.
Etta-Tawo tallied 210 yards and a touchdown on 12 receptions in his debut game with the Orange. He amassed 270 yards and two touchdowns in his fourth game, against Connecticut, breaking the school record for receiving yards in a game. Etta-Tawo is the only player in Syracuse history to have recorded multiple 200-yard receiving games in a season. He led the nation in total receiving yards until a quiet game Saturday against Virginia Tech bumped him to No. 2.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Syracuse Coach Dino Babers said before Etta-Tawo had the second 200-yard game. “Obviously, we had no idea he’d be able to do the things that he’s done so far.”
By now, Etta-Tawo is well known around the ACC as the conference’s surprise star, at least statistically.
His numbers at Maryland had declined steadily over three years, as Etta-Tawo found himself lost amid a growing group of receivers. As a transfer, he eventually settled on Syracuse and Babers — who took over at Syracuse after a successful run at Bowling Green that included a 48-27 upset of Maryland that partially led to Edsall’s firing — because he saw opportunity in the pass-heavy offense.
Babers’s Bowling Green squad had racked up 491 passing yards against the Terrapins.
“It wasn’t until I actually met Coach Babers that it clicked,” said Etta-Tawo, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Syracuse’s School of Education. “That was it, like, ‘These are the guys we played against last year, the ones running the crazy offense, slinging the ball around.’ Every receiver on the team had that opportunity to be a special player. I just knew if I had that opportunity, I could make the most of it.”
So Etta-Tawo worked in training camp over the summer, skipping a family trip to his parents’ native Nigeria to spend as much time as possible around his new team.
Never the flashiest personality on the field, Etta-Tawo impressed Babers with his speed and quiet work ethic.
He texted his brother after every practice with reports that read like highlights from his very best days at Maryland: a 98-yard score one day, two 50-yard touchdown catches the next. Etta Etta-Tawo checked articles online to make sure his usually humble little brother wasn’t exaggerating.
“It was exactly what he said,” Etta Etta-Tawo said. “I was excited for him, of course. Basically, it was like, ‘It’s about time.’”
Of course, time, and lack thereof, hangs over Amba Etta-Tawo’s last season. Football has been a part of the lives of all four Etta-Tawo boys — Etta, Egim, Amba and Ekure — since the family moved from Oman to Atlanta in 1999.
Etta-Tawo’s father moved back to Nigeria a few years after the family arrived in the States, and his mother Stella raised four boys on a teacher’s salary. Etta-Tawo hopes to make an NFL team so he can repay his mother just a little bit.
He and his brothers “kinda made a pact,” Etta-Tawo said. “It wasn’t anything that we spoke about, but we were gonna do whatever we can — football, school, whatever — to take some of the stress off of her shoulders.”
Some of that pressure now rests with Amba, who earned the attention of every opposing defensive coordinator on Syracuse’s schedule after his early success.
He logged a 36-yard receiving game in Syracuse’s loss to Wake Forest, then a 54-yard receiving game in the upset of then-No. 17 Virginia Tech the week after. He has five regular season games left to impress NFL scouts.
Still, his brother says Etta-Tawo tries not to worry too much about personal success now that he’s proven his ability.
Etta Etta-Tawo sent Amba a text after the win over Virginia Tech. He told him he played well despite his numbers, and reminded him what really mattered was the victory.
“He’s a team-first guy,” Etta Etta-Tawo said. “So he texted me back immediately and said ‘I know, man. I’m just glad we shocked the world.’ ”