ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) – Playing football never crossed Isaiah Ekejiuba’s mind.

He joined the soccer team as a boy in his native Nigeria. As a teenager living in the United States, he played basketball and competed as a sprinter and jumper in track and field.

He had size and speed, but football was an American game he knew little about.

Then in the spring of 2002, an advertisement in the student newspaper at Virginia caught his eye: football tryouts. There began a most unlikely road to the NFL.

“A little backdoor into football,” Ekejiuba said with his friendly smile, sitting in the Oakland Raiders’ locker room before a recent practice. “My dad always used to watch football and I didn’t really understand the concept. I just wanted to see what it was like.

“I was already studying electrical engineering. The thought of football was just something to do after classes.”

Little did he know it’s a sport that demands all your time – practice, weight training, team meals and meetings, weekend travel, study sessions.

Ekejiuba is now an NFL rookie, contributing on special teams for Oakland. Even he is surprised at his career route considering academics were always No. 1 in Ekejiuba’s family.

Born in Benin, Nigeria, Ekejiuba came to the United States for good in 1995 for his late mother’s job. His mom, Felicia, received her doctorate at Harvard. A sociologist and anthropologist, she worked for the United Nations heading the Africa section of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, whose purpose is striving to eliminate violence against women in third-world countries and helping them gain equality.

“She always pushed academics first before anything else,” said Ekejiuba, who speaks the Nigerian dialect Ibo and is two classes shy of an electrical engineering degree he plans to finish soon.

So, when he started playing football, everyone in the family was understandably shocked.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said his older sister, also Felicia. “It wasn’t like he had a background in that. My mother was kind of skeptical, too. Isaiah’s like her baby. We all supported his decision. I knew if he put his mind to it and worked hard he would achieve whatever he wanted.”

Ekejiuba joined the Cavaliers’ football team as a walk-on receiver during the spring of his sophomore year at Virginia. He suited up for eight games in 2002 but didn’t see any action until the following season. He shifted to defense and became a special teams standout in 2003, appearing in all 13 games. And as a senior last year, Ekejiuba earned a scholarship and received a team award as the school’s top special teams player.

“I am so happy for him,” said Corwin Brown, one of Ekejiuba’s college coaches who now works for the New York Jets directing the defensive backs. “It was something. I kind of remember it. He came at me, a tall, gawky guy. He could run and he had good size. You couldn’t help but think, How come he hasn’t played and why is he just now coming out?’ I thought, I don’t care if he’s never played before, if he could learn a couple things, he could be pretty good.”‘

Ekejiuba signed with Arizona as a rookie free agent in April after the draft and spent training camp and the preseason with the Cardinals before they released him in late August. He joined the Raiders’ practice squad Sept. 6, then got promoted to the 53-man roster last month to help Oakland’s injury-depleted defense when safety Derrick Gibson went on injured reserve.

Ekejiuba made his NFL debut against the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 30. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the 24-year-old Ekejiuba is a physical presence on special teams – too fast for some of the larger players to stop, and big enough to knock down the smaller ones.

“He’s an absolute rare specimen,” Raiders safety Jarrod Cooper said. “You don’t find people like that very much. We saw him when he was in Arizona before he got here. I watched game tape every year from the last five years on people in the NFL and I was like, Who is this?’ He just came in like a beast. About three weeks later, he was sitting in our meeting room. I wouldn’t want to go up against him.”

His college teammates called Ekejiuba “T.O.” because his frame resembles that of embattled Eagles receiver Terrell Owens.

“We put him in the spot he could be most disruptive,” Brown said. “He was a big kid and he could run. He started lifting, and if you look at him now, he’s a worker. He worked hard at everything he did. He’s not a kid who’s going to give you a lot of back talk. You hope things work out for kids like that.”

For Ekejiuba, football has been a positive outlet that helped him cope with the loss of his mother two years ago. He spoke to her on a Wednesday night and she told her son she was feeling fine, then died the next morning of an apparent heart attack.

That came after Ekejiuba and his four siblings already dealt with the death of their father, Benedict, from diabetes in 1996.

“It was a shock,” Ekejiuba recalled. “It was actually crazy because my mom at that point was all we had keeping our family together. It was really tough on the family. My mom supported me with everything I did, which is why I feel like I’m so successful. I’m trying to pick up her work ethic. She never saw me even play college ball.

“I feel like she’s always with me. Her positive attitude, that’s why I feel I’ve come this far.”

Her photo is on his cell phone and he looks at it in the locker room each day before heading to the field for work. And Ekejiuba has been learning more about her work by researching his mom on the Internet – “I’m getting an understanding just what she’s done,” he said.

Those who knew Ekejiuba in college were impressed by how he managed to get through all of his sadness without missing a beat as an athlete.

“It’s one of those pleasant surprises,” said Evan Marcus, the Virginia strength coach. “He played special teams here and did a great job, but you know chances of making it in NFL are slim. He wasn’t an every-down player. To his credit, he kept working. The one thing I always think about when I think of Ike is he was a high-energy, positive, guy. He’s one of nicer kids I’ve run into, and I’ve been doing this 15 years.”

Ekejiuba is not one to campaign for more playing time. He’s content for now.

“That’s what I love doing – covering kicks and being on special teams. I feel very blessed to be in the position I’m in,” he said. “It’s been a very long road. When I look back to a couple years ago, I’m always amazed at how far I’ve come.”

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