Centreville senior defensive end Ken Ekanem gets a lot of the same calls that most top recruits receive. Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster have reached out the day after a Hokies victory. Notre Dame’s coaches have called moments before kickoff.
Ekanem views such calls as “a pretty cool experience.” The senior is in demand, and he knows the attention won’t last forever.
The phone calls that come from Nigeria are another matter. For more than six years, Ken’s father, Ime Ekanem, has lived in his native Nigeria. His father’s visits have dwindled, and calls come every week or two. Afterward, Ken will tell his mom, “Dad called.” And that will be it.
If the calls mean anything more to Ekanem, outwardly the 17-year-old doesn’t let on.
“It’s just me and him aren’t that close,” said Ekanem (pronounced ee-CAN-em). “His phone calls, they mean something to me, but it’s not like I look forward to it.”
The absence of a father in Ken Ekanem’s everyday life has done nothing to hamper his football development. A returning All-Met, the 6-foot-4, 245-pounder is one of the area’s top recruits. This month, he pared the long list of college suitors down to five schools: North Carolina, Notre Dame, Oregon, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.
The recruiting process occasionally comes up when Ken talks to Ime over the phone or via text. Other times, they just catch up on daily life. “He just calls to check in,” Ken said.
Ken, who grew up with his mother, Mary, and two siblings, Ed, 22, and Mayen, 18, in Centreville, said he learned to adjust to his father’s absence at an early age.
“The main thing, he missed most of the Christmases but he always ended up making it back for my birthday,” Ken said. “But once he missed my birthday I got a little emotional. . . . I think it was sixth or seventh grade. I didn’t cry; I was just like, this is weird.”
In Nigeria, Ime Ekanem owns several businesses, including restaurants, bakeries and a gas station. When he moved back to Nigeria from Centreville full-time in 2005, the plan was for him to help build a privately operated international airport in the Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria. Visits back to the United States have dwindled. “Every year has been less and less,” Ken Ekanem said.
The thought was that he would be gone for two or three years, and he could return home for weeks at a time.
“I watched this man struggle for many years to make things work here and give what he would like to give to his children, and it was not working as well as we’d like,” said Mary Ekanem, Ken’s mother. “We were struggling. When this opportunity came we thought it’d work.”
At first, Ime’s visits happened five or six times a year and lasted weeks; now he makes it to Northern Virginia for a total of about two months each year.
“As a father, I don’t want my children to go through what I had been through to get to where we are today,” Ime Ekanem wrote from Nigeria in an e-mail.
“But if I could remake the past, I would rather spend more time with my children experiencing their growing up and giving them the confidence and guidance that they deserve, and I am sure my kids understand this.”
In his father’s absence, Ken, who has visited Nigeria four times, said he leaned more on his older brother for guidance.
He would eat as much as possible to try to weigh as much as Ed, five years his senior. And when it came to sports, Ken again followed in his older brother’s footsteps. Like Ed, Ken played soccer and basketball before finally joining a football league in eighth grade when his age caught up to his weight class. Ken Ekanem picked up tips from his brother in both basketball and football, he said.
Ken said he has also leaned on his brother for advice about certain schools and programs throughout the recruiting process.
“I know inside he’d prefer if his father was here and with him all the time, but he’s never come to me and said, ‘I’m so mad, why isn’t he here?’ ” Mary Ekanem said. “I’ve gone to him and said, ‘Are you okay, do you know your father loves you?’ ‘Yes I do,’ he’ll say.”
Ekanem emerged on the recruiting scene last season, when he had 75 tackles (60 solo), 17 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and 18 quarterback pressures.
As a senior he has continued to be one of the area’s top performers. In seven games he has racked up 44 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback pressures.
“He has a size and a speed, and just his raw physical features certainly bring a lot of attention,” Centreville Coach Chris Haddock said. “But I think his greatest attribute is he is as quality a character kid as you’re ever going to find. . . . I think he carries himself in a way I hope all our football players do and that all high school football players should carry themselves.”
Ime Ekanem said in the e-mail that it has been difficult to keep up with Ken’s recruitment from Nigeria, both because of the distance and his cultural disconnect with the sport. He accompanied Ken on unofficial visits to Penn State and Clemson during trips back to the United States, however, and he will return for Christmas this year.
During his last visit in June, Ime Ekanem began to tell Ken stories about his childhood in Nigeria — the long two-hour walks to school, the dirt roads and no electricity — and his struggles in the United States as he tried to launch a career. He spoke of the jobs he held at Pizza Hut and as a vacuum salesman, despite holding a master’s in management technology from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, because, he said, people would not hire someone with a thick Nigerian accent.
The stories were ones Ken Ekanem had never heard, the byproduct of the arrangement that has kept his father away for so much of Ken’s childhood. The stories provided a picture of his father that Ken said he lacked before, as well as some perspective on what his father may have passed to him despite being away so often.
It was, at least, a glimmer of a connection the two could share even with the distance between them.
“He never gave up, he was a workaholic,” Ekanem said. “Obviously I have a good work ethic in school and in the weight room. I think that’s what I got from him.”