The moment that Ken Ekanem lives for is that split second right before he lands triumphantly on top of a cocky quarterback. First, there is the appetizer—the exhilaration of breaking through the offensive line. And then the main course—the blissful moment where he trains his eyes on his prey and sees the fear in their eyes, that terrifying recognition that they’re about to feel the blunt force of 250 pounds of fury.
“I love that feeling when you’re chasing them down,” said Ekanem, a junior, who plays football at . “You feel like you’re hunting prey or something, when they look at you and start running. That is awesome. Especially when you know you’re about to bring them down.”
The dessert is the silence that comes from opposing quarterbacks with no trash left to talk, no option but to acknowledge that Ken Ekanem really is that good.
So good, in fact, that he is becoming a wanted man. The 6’3” defense end, who can run the 40-yard-dash in just 4.6 seconds, has scholarship offers to attend Boston College, Duke, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Confronted with a copy of his player profile from Yahoo sports, which contains a list of 12 colleges that are recruiting him, Ekanem was asked if the list was accurate.
“It is,” he said, but then added, almost apologetically, “but there’s more, too.” Prodded to continue, he does. “Florida, Penn State, West Virginia, um, let’s see, Michigan, Cal, Oregon,” he said, before hesitating and adding, “I’m not sure, there might be a few more.”
Despite all the recruiting interest, he insists that at least 700 of his more than 1,000 Facebook friends are kids he knows, rather than adults trying to secure his services on the football field.
“I have had a lot of coaches friend me on Facebook, but you don’t see Coach Paterno (Penn State’s coach, who is 84 years old) there yet,” he said, laughing. “But I’m Facebook friends with his defensive line coach, Larry Johnson.”
Ekanem’s fortunes have risen in tandem with that of the Centreville football program. His freshman year the team went 1-9, the following year they improved to 3-7, and last year, under new head coach Chris Haddock, the team went 9-3, thanks in part to Ekanem’s 17 sacks, and stellar play on both sides of the ball.
But how did Ekanem tally 17 sacks in a league where teams seldom pass the football?
“It definitely helps to hate quarterbacks, and I do,” said Ekanem, laughing. “There are so many of them that have talked bad stuff about me, always off the field, nobody talks to me on the field,” he said. “Guys say, ‘Ken isn’t that good, he’s overrated, he’s not gonna touch me,’ stuff like that, and that’s the worst thing you can do, it fires me up.”
When Haddock was hired prior to the start of last season, Centreville’s principal, Mike Campbell, knew exactly how to fire up his new coach. The first person he wanted Haddock to meet was Ekanem, then just a sophomore.
“I thought that meant a lot, that here was the principal introducing me to a sophomore, and telling me, ‘this is the guy you need to meet first,’” Haddock said, noting that the meeting was “like a carrot to get me through the spring.”
Haddock soon realized that he had a ridiculous talent on his hands in Ekanem, but what he didn’t know was that Ken’s emergence would broaden his own job description.
“It’s a literature battle with all these schools sending him mail, and I’m kind of like the mailman,” he said. “Ken keeps me very busy, the people who deliver the mail joke, ‘you’re mailbox is full, but there’s none for you, it’s all for Ken.’” He added: “For every one letter I get, he gets 20.”
Not bad for a kid who got a late start in the sport due to his off-the-charts growth pattern.
“I wanted to play in 2nd grade- but they wouldn’t let me, because I was too big,” Ekanem said. “I think I was about 90 pounds, and the weight limit was 50 or 60. I drank lots of milk, plus I got a lot of protein- mostly burgers and steaks.”
Once he was finally allowed to play, he made an immediate impact and now Ekanem dreams about making a career in the NFL.
“It’s right up there,” he said of the NFL as a possible career choice, laughing. “$300,000 per year- at the least, you can’t beat that, can you?”
But he’s also grounded enough to know that he has a long way to go before achieving that goal, and he realizes how lucky he is to have a chance to play college football.
“Some of the other players don’t get the looks they deserve from colleges, so I’m grateful for all the attention I’m getting,” he said.
Ekanem’s a 3.0 student and would like to major in business and, if the NFL doesn't come calling, follow in the footsteps of his father, who was born in Nigeria and runs a number of successful businesses there. He visited the country three times in middle school, and the visits gave him a sense of what the world outside Fairfax County looked like.
For now, Ekanem spends each Monday afternoon holding court with coaches at the ever growing list of colleges that want him on their teams. Coaches can call, email or friend him on Facebook, but he only tweets for friends.
Ekanem plans to make his decision early next year, and until then, everyone will have to wait. But no matter what he decides, quarterbacks in the AAA Concorde division will have another year of being pursued by Fairfax County’s best big game hunter.