BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech defensive end Ken Ekanem said he can remember every “millisecond” of the injury that altered the trajectory of his college football career.
A little more than four minutes remained in the first quarter of the 2011 Virginia AAA Division 6 title game. Oscar Smith High quarterback J.J. Williamson scrambled, and Ekanem, an All-Met at Centreville, grabbed hold of his jersey. Williamson then planted his foot to change directions, and Ekanem attempted to do the same.
“All I heard was five cracks and then a pop at the end,” Ekanem said. “I just remember screaming for five minutes straight. I knew it was done. I knew nothing good could come from five cracks and a pop at the end.”
Ekanem, a redshirt sophomore, had torn the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee in his final high school game, and he has played just seven snaps on defense in the 32 months since. But that likely will change when the 2014 season gets underway later this month; Ekanem finally grabbed hold of a spot on Virginia Tech’s revamped defense this spring.
Even Ekanem isn’t sure what will come this fall after having played on special teams last year. But he’s focused on repaying his coaches’ faith as one of three new starters on the defensive line. Depth remains an issue, with defensive tackle Woody Baron recovering from offseason ankle surgery and defensive ends DeWayne Alford and Seth Dooley nursing injuries, according to the team’s latest depth chart.
Which makes Ekanem’s ascension — and health — all the more important.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “We need him right now.”
At the time of his injury, Ekanem was a sought-after four-star recruit who had collected 20 scholarship offers and 18 sacks as a senior at Centreville. He had narrowed his college decision to three schools: Oregon, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech.
But Ekanem’s knee wouldn’t allow him to board a plane to visit Oregon before National Signing Day. According to Ekanem, Notre Dame said it would no longer accept his commitment given the long-term questions about his health. That left the Hokies. In a clairvoyant moment, they informed Ekanem before the injury that “regardless of what happens — God forbid, an ACL injury — you’d still have a scholarship here.”
Ekanem, though, had more obstacles to overcome. During his first spring practice, he partially tore the meniscus in his right knee. Last season, he pulled his hamstring twice while on kickoff duty. Coaches quietly wondered whether he would ever regain the form of his senior year at Centreville.
Wiles “was a little hard on me because I was a lot slower than I looked in high school,” Ekanem said last week. “There’s a mental side to recovering from an ACL. They clear you and all that stuff, but in your head you’re babying your knee the entire time you’re coming back from it. You’re limping around. You don’t want anybody to touch your knee or come close to it.
“You see a lot of things differently. You see who your really good friends are that check up on you, who’s there for the person, not the player.”
But Ekanem noticed his burst return this spring, and anticipation set in from there.
Ekanem has maintained a long-distance relationship with his father, who lives in Nigeria, since he was 11 years old. Ime Ekanem has seen Ken play football only a few times but will be in the stands for Virginia Tech’s first three games this year, temporarily halting a campaign to become governor of the southern Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom.
“I got to the top of where you could possibly end up and then just fell all the way down,” Ken Ekanem said. “It’s been a long time coming.”