Faith Ekakitie, 2017 CFL Draft, first pick by Winnipeg Blue Bombers. (Photo by Darren Miller)
Faith Ekakitie’s journey to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers began in Lagos, Nigeria, has its foundation in Brampton, Ontario, and included prominent stops in Lake Forest, Illinois, and Iowa City.
The Bombers made Ekakitie – a 6-2, 304-pound defensive tackle from the University of Iowa – the first-overall selection in the 2017 Canadian Football League Draft Sunday night.
“This is really cool,” began Ekakitie in a telephone interview from Iowa City with bluebombers.com.
“I’m extremely, extremely honoured. There aren’t many guys who can say they’re going to get an opportunity like I’m about to get. I feel really honoured and really blessed.”
Ekakitie’s tale isn’t all that different from so many other CFL prospects who hear their names called on draft Day.
It’s about sacrifice, commitment and opportunity.
But it’s also about parents who made a life-changing decision for their son by opting to pick up and leave their home country for a fresh start in Canada when he was just two.
It’s about a young man who left his home in high school in pursuit of a dream, who had to deal with racism on the field at the college level and a life-threatening incident with police as an innocent bystander – all of which helped shape who he has become today.
It also explains, in part, why the first word GM Kyle Walters used to describe the No. 1 draft choice was ‘mature.’
So Ekakitie’s story, as you can see, has enough layers and depth to make it movie material.
And oddly enough, the athletic component of this tale began on a basketball hardwood…
Ekakitie was born in Lagos, Nigeria on April 5, 1993. He hasn’t been back to Africa since, and has virtually no recollection of his birth place.
He can remember, however, growing up in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Brampton (a Toronto Star headline from 2013 ‘Jane and Finch: Toronto’s most dangerous place to be a kid?’) and racing his mother down the hallways of their apartment complex.
“My dad always claims he was athletic, but there’s no film to prove it,” said Ekakatie with a chuckle. “So until he can prove it to me, I don’t know if I believe it.
“But my mom said she did track and field in high school. I remember as a kid she’d pick me up from school and go back to our apartment in Jane and Finch and we’re race from the elevator to the apartment door at the end of the hallway. She’d always beat me.
“Granted, I don’t know how fast you have to be to beat a seven year-old kid, but back then she’d beat me so I figure she had some athleticism.”
Ekakitie’s first love was basketball, even if his beginnings in the game were hardly the stuff of legend.
“I went out for the basketball team in the fifth grade and I didn’t make it at all,” he said. “I remember them saying, ‘Everybody get into a layup line’ and I didn’t know what a layup was, let alone a layup line.
“But I went out again in Grade 6 and was about six-feet tall… they put me in the post and after playing a little bit I excelled in it. As I got older I stopped growing vertically and still kept putting the weight on. I still played in the post because I was able to muscle everybody around.”
It was around then that folks started to notice this growing beast of a man wasn’t just powerful, but had quick feet and a ferocious desire to learn.
He attended St. Marguerite d’Youville Secondary School in Brampton, playing football in his freshman and sophomore years but…
“It wasn’t anything that I really took seriously at all. It was more, ‘Hey, I need something to do while basketball is in the offseason so I’ll join the football team and run around a little bit.’”
Ted Stewart was on a recruiting trip to Canada from Lake Forest Academy in Illinois when he spotted Ekakitie. He knew this prospect’s first love was hoops and so he offered him a deal.
“He said, ‘You can come to Lake Forest and play basketball, but I also want you to play football for me,’” Ekaktie recalled. “Even before that, I remember in the eighth grade a CFL player was brought in to put us through some warmup drills and stretches. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but I remember him telling me, ‘You’re a big kid. You’re going to end up playing football one day.’
“Back then I looked at him like he was nuts, like he was out of his mind. I was playing basketball and one of my teammates’ parents at the time said, ‘Hey dude, you’re going to play football one day and you’re going to be good at it.’ I said the same thing, ‘You’re out of your mind. I’m going to play basketball in college.’
“Apparently, everyone else could see it but me.”
(Faith’s basketball highlight tape from 2010-11)
Ekakitie and his family decided that his best route to a college scholarship was through the U.S. and so he reclassified – he moved south to Lake Forest and did his sophomore season a second time – and the move paid off in dividends.
He had multiple offers, including from Northwestern, Oregon, Boston College, UCLA and Stanford before settling on Iowa.
Ekakitie grew to love the game at Iowa. And with a better understanding of his role along the defensive line, his game grew too.
He appeared in 13 games as a senior in 2016, recording 39 tackles, two tackles for loss, two knockdowns and a fumble recovery en route to earning the team’s ‘Finish Strong Award’, as voted on by his teammates.
“You guys up there are going to love him,” said Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz. “He’s a guy that just kept getting better in his career. He’s a class young man.”
“He came in here, worked hard and I think two years ago, as a junior, he really turned a corner. We started to rotate three players into defensive tackle and they really played well together.
“He was a raw prospect when he got here with good size and ability. But he really gained confidence in the ’15 season, and like most good players, he just kept getting better. He’s a willing learner and listener and it starts with him being such an intelligent guy. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
Interestingly, that’s how exactly Ekakitie described himself. It was a self-scouting report with heavy doses of humility, a big part of what made him attractive to the Bomber brass.
“I know I have a lot of room to grow,” Ekakitie said. “And personally, I think that’s my biggest selling point. I’m an athletic guy who picked up the game later on in my life and I think there’s a lot I have yet to know about the game and a lot I can learn. It was the same way for me in basketball: I had all the tools, but didn’t really start playing until I was 13 years old. As the years went on I caught up with everyone.
“Even though I’m an older player, I still think of myself as in the early stages of my development right now.”
Type Faith Ekakitie’s name into a Google search and two news items pop up instantly: an incident from last July in which he was held at gunpoint by Iowa City police while they were searching for an armed robbery suspect, and a game last November against Nebraska in which he said a Cornhusker player called him a racial slur.
“It was just one of those things,” said Ekakitie of the racial slur incident. “I’m not going to say I wish I hadn’t said anything because I felt I had to bring it up and address it. It was a situation where the player was being a punk. If I had my way I would have retaliated on the field, but that wouldn’t have benefitted our team. There was no way for me to get back at him so I figured the least I could do was bring it to the surface and shed some light on it.
“Trash talk is part of the game. But as players, you know there’s a certain line you don’t cross. There’s getting under a guy’s skin and then there are times when it’s a little more personal. Then it’s not about football anymore.”
The episode with police, meanwhile, was simply a case of mistaken identity. Ekakitie was playing Pokémon Go in an Iowa City park and had his headphones on when police, on the hunt for an armed robbery suspect fitting his description, approached him with guns drawn because he couldn’t hear them and wasn’t responding to their commands.
Ekakitie, who has a flair for writing – he wrote a blog in high school during his college recruiting process – decided to detail what happened in an articulate Facebook post that went viral after teammates insisted he share it.
“In the moment, I was scared. Looking back on it, I was terrified, actually,” said Ekakitie.
“That day, I really thought my life was over.”
“The sad part is I should never have felt or thought like that. But with what was going on with the media and you hear about a kid being shot here or another kid being shot there… it’s sad that was the first thing that came to my mind while interacting with the police officers. They all had their guns pulled and asked me to turn around. The first thing I did was say a prayer and say to myself, ‘All right, if this is how it’s going to end, then so be it.’
“But when I have kids, I don’t ever want them to think that when they interact with police they have to fear for their lives. I look back and know I shouldn’t have been scared, but in the moment things are amplified a lot more than what they actually are.”
Ekakitie’s post drew the attention of national media outlets like USA Today and The Washington Post. He was praised for his honesty in the blog and for also including why he thought the police approached him the way they did.
“The biggest thing I took from that had nothing to do with the police and the interaction, it was with social media and how powerful a tool it is,” he said. “I kid you not, I watched the Facebook post I wrote go from me just sharing my experience by getting my thoughts on paper to it blowing up into this huge, viral controversial thing and another way for people to s—t on the police again and for people to be angry.
“I wrote the post and made it very clear to outline my point of view and the point of view from the police. I watched some media outlets take one point of view and publish that only and pick and choose to report what they wanted. It’s why things get taken out of context. I wasn’t looking for that kind of attention.”
Hearing his name called out first Sunday night means a lot of things to Ekakitie. It closes a chapter on his days with Iowa and starts another as a professional with the Bombers.
It also means his journey will now feature a new destination, in a city he admittedly knows little about.
Most of all, it means the sacrifices his family made to help get him to this point have more meaning.
“I’m from a family full of immigrants,” said Ekakitie. “My two little brothers (David Joseph is a defensive end on Penn State’s football team; Love Joseph played basketball at Guelph) and sister were born in Canada, but my parents and I are from Nigeria.
“Growing up I didn’t really realize the magnitude of what they did when my parents made the decision to leave Nigeria. Looking back at it now, I’m extremely grateful for what they did. They got up and left their home country, immigrated to a new country in the hopes of providing their kids better opportunities down the road.
“They were thinking about me. I haven’t been back to Nigeria since, but they thought this would be better. Lo and behold, it’s paid off for me and our family. They struggled, they worked their asses off to be where they are today and I’m going to be forever grateful for that.
“We were living in a one-bedroom apartment for a while, but they made it work. Both my parents went back to school as older adults and got their college degrees. They’ve made pretty good lives for themselves.
“All you can ever ask for is a shot and the chance to get your foot in the door,” Ekakitie added. “I have my foot in the door now and I’m extremely blessed to even have that opportunity.”
“I came into college with a lot of guys who all had the same dream of playing pro football one day. A lot of those guys either had those dreams cut short or just aren’t going to get that opportunity. I’m thankful.
“My wife (Mikaela) and I are excited to start a new chapter in our lives. We’re just ready to get there.”