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Maryland football player left Nigeria for opportunity, and returned for his mom

Nnamdi Egbuaba was introduced to football at a camp in Nigeria run be a former Maryland player. He played the sport for only 14 months before earning a scholarship. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Shortly after he took over as head coach of the Maryland football team in early December, DJ Durkin began holding meetings with each of his new players. There were nearly 100 stories for Durkin to learn, but perhaps none was as fascinating as that of redshirt sophomore linebacker Nnamdi Egbuaba. He told Durkin about growing up in Nigeria, which he had left just four years earlier to become an international student at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore. By the time he committed to Maryland, Egbuaba had played organized football for all of 14 months.

Steinberg: Durkin follows the book of Meyer and Harbaugh. Literally.

Egbuaba also had an unusual request during his first meeting with Durkin: He wanted to travel back to his home country to visit his family for the first time since 2012. The trip didn’t materialize until a few months later, when a somber Egbuaba walked back into Durkin’s office to tell him his mother, who lives in the northwestern Ni­ger­ian city of Sokoto, had fallen ill.

After waiting for spring practice and the academic year to end, Durkin helped make Egbuaba’s wish become a reality. Through the university’s Student Athlete Fund, Egbuaba traveled home for two weeks in late May.

He waited four days to secure the visa necessary to enter and leave Nigeria. He paid extra fees to carry a large suitcase of shoes and athletic gear that his Maryland teammates had given him to pass out to children in his home town. He rejoiced with his brothers — one of whom traveled 18 hours by bus and car to see him — and shed tears when he finally saw his mother, Uloma, for the first time in four years.

“We were just hugging for a straight 20 minutes. She was just crying, she was so excited. I was happy too. I cried a little bit,” Egbuaba said. “It was a joyful moment for my family.”

His mother’s house does not have electricity, so at night the family would sit on the porch and catch up. Egbuaba told them about his 3.6 grade-point average as an information science major, and the progress he was making in the strange sport that had given him an opportunity in America four years earlier.

He was discovered by former Maryland linebacker Ricardo Dickerson, who was helping run a camp designed to introduce sports to the country’s youth, in 2011. Egbuaba was pursuing a future in basketball when Dickerson introduced him to the idea of playing football for the first time — and helped lead him to Messay Hailemariam, who was named head football coach at St. Frances in 2011.

An Ethiopian immigrant who came to the United States as a youngster himself, Hailemariam had a similar experience growing up. He fell in love with football and eventually walked on at Maryland in the early 1990s. And after climbing the coaching ladder, he helped develop Nigerian Sunny Odogwu from a skinny 6-foot-8 prospect to into a starting offensive lineman at the University of Miami. He recognized a similar opportunity with Egbuaba.

“He has the potential to play at a very high level. More importantly, it gave his family and himself an opportunity to come here to take advantage of an education that he so desired and wanted. That was really the platform,” Hailemariam said of Egbuaba. “That’s the reason why I do it, because it did it for me. I’m coming from Ethiopia, playing a sport I don’t know about, and it gave me an opportunity to go to the University of Maryland. I’m coaching, and now I’m in the business.”

After completing a nearly year-long process to obtain a student visa, Egbuaba received permission from St. Frances to enroll and moved into Hailemariam’s basement. He had never played football, but his athletic gifts were undeniable. At 6 feet and a chiseled 200 pounds, Egbuaba soon became one of the most productive pass-rushers in Maryland high school football. He had 19 sacks and 105 tackles as a high school senior in 2013, eventually accepting the first college scholarship offer he received. It came, of course, from Maryland.

The transition to life in the United States wasn’t always smooth, but Egbuaba now had more luxuries than ever before. He had grown up, after all, with limited electricity. Sometimes he would have to fetch water from a well to take a bath. His parents had to make ends meet most months to feed six children in the home.

Egbuaba also endured loss. His sister died in a car accident in 2006, and two years later, his father passed away from an illness. That’s why he especially panicked when he received news that his mother was sick earlier this spring, suffering from hypertension and a high fever. Egbuaba had done his best to keep in touch with her on a daily basis over the previous four years, always wondering when he would be able to return home.

“When I went home, she was really doing better. She was doing stuff on her own, and she’s not in a terrible condition,” Egbuaba said. “That actually gave me a peace of mind.”

Egbuaba’s mother has never watched him play football. She didn’t see him suffer through a season-ending shoulder injury as a first-year player in 2014, nor could she witness his struggle through an ankle injury that cut his redshirt-freshman season short. He’s mostly appeared on special teams so far at Maryland but is poised to crack the linebacker rotation this fall.

He’s been energized by his return trip home. He played basketball with old friends and family, visited his childhood home and passed out his teammates’ old shoes, along with Maryland shirts and shorts, to people in the community. He also watched as his mother’s health began to improve. His dream is to bring her to live in the United States one day, and he could feel himself moving closer to that goal as he said goodbye to her to return to Maryland after the visit. It had a markedly different feel than four years ago, when he said goodbye to her to head off into the unknown.

“It was hard for me to leave my mom, because I just feel like I want her to be around me,” Egbuaba said. “But it’s a little bit easier now, because I know where I’m going now.”