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Big: Ndukwe owes work ethic to Nigerian parents

Anthony Tao

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Until that darn growth spurt, Ikechuku Ndukwe was a nimble soccer player, not the lumbering offensive lineman he is today.

But then 8-year-old Ndukwe grew. And grew, and grew.

All of a sudden, young Ndukwe couldn’t run without falling. He couldn’t move without knocking over other kids. He wasn’t fit to play soccer — or to do anything else with kids his age.

His mom, Nnenna Ndukwe, took him to an orthopedic surgeon, fearing some abnormal growth bug was transforming her son into a giant ill-suited for the world. The doctor laughed and told her he’d be fine as soon as his brain caught up with his legs.

But in the meantime, she had to find her son a different sport, and a friend recommended he play football.

“I didn’t really know football,” Nnenna Ndukwe said. “I thought, ‘Hmm, I hate that game. It’s too aggressive, they push people down, they hurt people.’ I didn’t understand it.

“But now I love it. I enjoy going to football games because (my son’s) in them.”

Since the beginning of last season, Ndukwe, a fifth-year senior on the Northwestern football team, has started every game at left guard.

It isn’t a glamorous job. Ndukwe is constantly wedged between two 300-pounders and charged with the duty of pushing big men who push back.

It wasn’t always that way. In seventh-grade, Ndukwe was a running back, but he moved to tight end as he continued to grow. Adding strength to his size, he became an interior lineman. And when he grew even more in high school, colleges came calling.

Ndukwe, who lives near Columbus, Ohio, was heavily recruited by Ohio State, but he said the Buckeyes weren’t one of his top choices. He chose NU from among the likes of Stanford and Michigan because it offered the perfect blend of academics and athletics.

“Academics are very important to me,” Ndukwe said. “So as long as you did the right things in school you could get by.”

Ndukwe’s parents always have pushed him to focus on his schoolwork, and they set strict rules, such as no television on weekdays.

But Ndukwe’s parents gave him more than a work ethic. They gave him a story of perseverance and pride.

It begins in Abia, a small state in southern Nigeria — the place of Ndukwe’s heritage.

It was there that his dad, Stephen, traveled on unpaved roads and fetched water from a creek. It was there that Stephen fought in a civil war and competed with several suitors for a woman’s hand — the woman who would become his wife.

When the couple left Nigeria, they also left loving relatives. Their first years in the States were not happy ones, but they hung in there and eventually made new lives for themselves.

“They have been very successful, even though the odds were stacked tremendously against them,” Ndukwe said. “They are definitely my biggest influences.”

Ndukwe’s siblings — two brothers and one sister — also are very important to him. His younger brother, Chinedum, plays defensive back for Notre Dame. On Oct. 2 the Ndukwes drove to South Bend, Ind., to watch Chinedum Ndukwe and the Fighting Irish play Purdue.

Immediately after the game, the family drove more than 100 miles to Evanston. They arrived at Ryan Field a few minutes into the first quarter of NU’s 33-27 overtime win over Ohio State.

For the Ndukwes, the best part of the victory was getting to celebrate together. Stephen Ndukwe said he and his wife have missed only one of their son’s games since he started playing at NU, and that was because road conditions made the trip impossible.

Ndukwe rewards his parents’ dedication with hard work on and off the field. Last spring, Ndukwe earned a degree in communications studies. He will add a history degree later this year, all while pursing his goal of playing professional football.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” Stephen Ndukwe said. “I think he learned a lot of lessons from me and coach (Randy Walker) and applied those lessons. I think he will continue to apply those lessons in life.”

And as far as that growth spurt’s concerned, Ndukwe has no regrets.

“I can’t see myself being a small guy,” he said. “I’ve grown to love being big.”

Reach Anthony Tao at y-tao2@northwestern.edu.

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