Sep 4, 2021; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State Cyclones defensive end Eyioma Uwazurike (58) and defensive back Greg Eisworth II (12) celebrate a stop against the Northern Iowa Panthers in the second half at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa State sixth-year senior Eyioma (a.k.a. Enyi) Uwazurike has an incredible story to tell.
That’s what people in the program have repeatedly told me, so I asked him about it in fall camp. The 6-6, 320-pound Swiss Army knife of a defensive lineman smiled, laughed a bit, then spoke.
“My story is what I know,” said Uwazurike, who will make his 36th career start for the No. 14 Cyclones when they take on UNLV Saturday at 9:30 p.m. at Allegiant Stadium. “It’s normal to me. But, you know, everybody walks a different path in life. So the people hearing mine and it might be different and they assume, like, ‘Oh, wow, you’ve had a hard life.’ Really, I think of reality as everyone has their own reality. So everybody feels a certain way about their path and that might be equal no matter what path each person has taken.”
So vital elements of Uwazurike’s story will remain a mystery. His personal saga remains a work in progress, but the primary plot points are on full display each Saturday on the football field — as well as every other day as he pursues a master’s degree in the classroom.
Uwazurike’s story hinges on both perseverance and perspective; a yearning to learn and a willingness to lead. It’s been a long road from his redshirt season of 2016 to now, but the path he’s chosen serves as its own story line if you play close enough attention.
“His story’s incredible,” ISU defensive line coach Eli Rasheed said. “Growing up and being with his dad in and out of his life and coming to us just as a young, big kid, you know what I mean? He’s had so much growth in the aspects of life, and being a leader and doing the right things off the field, and for him to have a college degree, being that he came to us as an academic redshirt, and then graduating and now working on his master’s (degree), is incredible. That’s what you love as a coach. You love that.”
Do yourself a favor when you turn on the game late Saturday night. Whether you’ll be watching from home on the CBS Sports Network, or — like tens of thousands of other Cyclones fans — in attendance, commit to watching Uwazurike play. What he does. How he does it. Where he does it. How often an offensive lineman may or may not get away with a hold (*cough, cough*). Trust me, it’s a worthwhile exercise — and adds another element to his “incredible” story.
You’ll see that Uwazurike — who has packed on roughly 60 pounds of muscle since graduating high school — has worked assiduously to offer ISU a great deal of positional flexibility. He can play splendidly anywhere along the line, whether standing up or with his hand on the ground.
“It’s a lot of film,” Uwazurike told me on media day when asked about his versatility. “A lot of things I’ve seen on film as a three-tech or a zero-tech. I already played five-tech, but as a zero or three-technique, I just look at it on film and know I can fit those positions. Those look like something I’ll be able to do so I communicate with coach and he’s like, ‘Hey, can I use you at this? Can I use you at nose, at three-tech?’ I’m like, ‘Sure. I’m open to learning.’ Honestly, really that’s the first step. Just being open to trying new things, not being closed-minded to new positions. They can all help. It’s nothing but a benefit. It’s all a plus, something you can add on. It’s like adding new things to your resumé, so there’s no way I would turn down something like that.”
Just like that, Uwazurike added a new chapter, a plot twist to upset the ordinary narrative. Take last week’s stinging loss to fifth-ranked Iowa in particular. Uwazurike shined both inside and outside, offering the Cyclones one of a handful of bright spots on an otherwise dour day.
“I think mindset. I think attitude. I think his sense of purpose and why — he’s a guy that came back for a reason,” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “You see it every day in practice. No nonsense. Before games, during the game, he’s locked in. Shoot, he went in and played nose and defensive end last week against a really good football team, so really pleased, again, just with his mindset. I think his mind is what has allowed him to do what he’s doing.”
Uwazurike is the author of his story. No author shares his work with virtual strangers until it’s finished. Glimpses may be provided, but the guts of the story? That stays locked inside, even as outer clues reveal themselves.
“Enyi has such a fascinating story,” Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell said. “It’s probably not my job to tell the entire story, but what he’s come from, as a 17-year-old young man out of Detroit, he loses his father during his time in high school and then he loses his father for the rest of his life three days before we leave to go play Notre Dame (in the 2019 Camping World Bowl). His father passed away. He’s an incredible brother/father figure to his younger brother who has autism. Enyi is a pillar of strength for him and his mother. He’s one of those guys where it’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s a great player.’ If you watch his game on Saturday and want to talk about big-time football, the guy is playing nose guard half the game and dominating. Then he’s playing defensive end half the game and dominating there, too. He decided to come back here to better himself but he knew he could also enhance our team from a leadership perspective.
“I think he’s a natural born giver,” Campbell continued saying. “We talk all the time about giving more than you take from the whole. He’s a pillar of excellence. His story is one of the great stories we’ve had since I’ve been here. What he is, who he is, what he stands for, what he’s about. You ask, ‘Matt, why do you love coaching?’ I love coaching college football because of guys like Enyi. Here’s a guy that changed his life, his family’s life and his future forever. It’s awesome to lead with young men like that. You ask, ‘Why do you think you’re going to be alright, coach?’ It’s because of those kinds of guys in the locker room. He has an incredible story and I couldn’t be prouder of who he is as a human and now with what he’s become as a dominant figure on our team. He’s a completely different football player than he was even a year ago. It was a really good decision for him to come back because he’s playing at an elite level.”
He’s leading that way, too. After the Iowa loss, he was one of a few players who came in the locker room for interviews. He stood up and testified to what matters in both life and storytelling. It’s not necessarily the words that matter. It’s the non-verbal response; it’s the action.
“Just a lot of lessons,” Uwazurike said. “Every time we go through adversity, it’s a new lesson that we learn and something for us to correct; something for us to push to move forward on. So adversity is nothing but help for us. That’s how we look at it.”
So much for stories. That’s simply the truth. And during Campbell’s weekly news conference, I told him how Uwazurike chose to describe his ongoing “incredible story.” Campbell nodded slightly, then spoke.
“It’s the humility,” he said. “It’s what Enyi has always stood for. He’s quiet until poked and once poked, you better look out. That’s one of the things I have such a great appreciation for about him. There’s elite humility in that human. Even after the game and meeting with the seniors on Sunday, he’s the first guy saying, ‘I have to be better. We have to get the ball turned over and we have to help the offense so (it’s) not starting inside the 10-yard line.’ That’s the kind of guy Enyi is.”