As National Letter of Intent Day hit in February, one of the most celebrated signings for Stanford Football was consensus All-American defensive tackle Ekom Udofia. But a dark cloud hung over the Cardinal catch of one of their most elite defensive linemen signed in the program's history. On October 15, 2004 he suffered a massive and complex injury in a game during his senior season, which left his left fibula broken in four places and his left ankle both torn and broken.
"The doctor told me it would take 12 months to get all the way back, it I even could get back to 100% where I was before," Udofia relates.
That prognosis was crushing for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) defensive lineman, as well as the Cardinal. His rare and freakish combination of size, power, explosiveness and athleticism would have made him a lock to play as a true freshman for Stanford. This collection of injuries in his lower left leg, instead, made it doubtful that he could see the field at all his first year. Even after a medical redshirt, he might not be the player he would have been pre-injury.
But Udofia became the dominant player he was at Chaparral High School not just on the back of his physical gifts. He carried an unmatched work ethic and focus in every manner which he treated his body - from weight lifting to speed training to nutrition. A downright fanatic when it came to his training. So perhaps it should not surprise us to learn that Udofia has shattered all expectations for his rehab and recovery.
His latest checkup by that same doctor has revealed that Udofia is now 90% recovered.
"He says I'm way ahead of schedule," the Scottsdale student-athlete excitedly proclaims. "He said he is really happy with the x-ray - it looks perfect. He does say that the last 10% will take the longest to come back. But he asked me when I need to go back to Stanford and start practices. I told him mid-August, and he said I will be fine. He's confident I've made the physical progress to be ready. He think the mental part is what will be the toughest. When you get back on the field, you may be hesitant or uncomfortable - he tells me. But I'm ready to tackle that, too."
"Honestly, the injury was a really terrible thing to go through, but it was really a blessing in disguise for me," Udofia proclaims. "I've found so much more in my body that I can tweak, that I didn't know about before."
One visible change in the 6'2" defensive lineman is seen in his weight. He has a wide frame and played football at Chaparral High School north of 300 pounds, but when he was confined to a wheelchair after his injury and lost his workout regimen, he ballooned to a peak weight of 356 pounds. If you attended Stanford's Spring Game in late April, you saw him at a trim and cut 320 pounds. But today he has sculpted his body to an incredible 300 pounds even.
"I was not even that light during the season," he remarks. "But I feel really good. I might even get down to 290, but after I've lost 55 pounds, every pound now is really hard to lose."
Udofia exited the rehabilitation phase of his recovery some ago and is now working on strength and conditioning. His weekly routine has him on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays start with 15 minutes on a specialized treadmill, followed by some stretching exercises. He then lifts weights and does some cardiovascular workouts. His ankle is the body part needing the most attention, and he has calf pops to help bring back that explosiveness. His workouts at one point were all on flat surfaces, but now he uses balance boards and uneven terrains to help push his ankle and its strength.
"Now my ankle is getting real solid, to the point I can balance my leg," he comments.
Tuesdays and Thursdays focus more on speed training. He starts out on a bike and does some core exercises before lifting weights. Then he runs a mile outdoors (in the summer Arizona heat). He follows that by running sprints, and then bleachers and hills. Finally he moves to agility drills, running shuttles, three-cone drills, ladders and hoops. Just in case he hasn't worked up a good enough sweat, he comes back inside for more lifting and ankle strengthening exercises.
Udofia has not just regained the power and strength he had before his injury. He has blown past it. The last max bench for him at the start of his senior season saw him put up 385 pounds. His last max bench two months ago was 460, and you can bet he is higher still now. A better test might be his squat, which he maxed two months ago at 520 pounds. He estimates he could probably squat 570 today, but he has not been able to find a suitable weight belt for his back to lift that weight.
"I feel a lot stronger in my back and legs. I should be back where I was, and actually a lot stronger," Udofia offers. "I'm probably in the best shape I've ever been in my life. I just need to continue to strength my leg and work on cutting. Running straight forward is fine, and I feel good. I feel real fast pounding down the track right now. It's the cutting, like with defensive line hoops, that I'm working on. I can do it, but I want to be able to make those cuts without even thinking about it."
One thing Ekom Udofia is thinking about is where he will play on Stanford's defensive line this fall. He was recruited by Dave Tipton and Tom Quinn with an emphasis on playing as an end in Stanford's three-man front, but the post-spring depth chart shows that there may be a variety of needs for the pass rusher.
"They are talking now about needing me to be versatile and maybe play all three positions," Udofia explains. "I feel like I have the power to play the nose, but the quickness to play the three- or even four-technique. I can still be big inside, but also lean and quick enough to play outside."
The possibility of playing different DL positions is not the only surprise Udofia experienced this off-season. Several months ago he traveled to North Carolina as one of the five honored Finalists for the Watkins Award, which is a trophy given to the nation's most outstanding African-American student-athlete. The Arizona athlete was in some elite company, and he had the disadvantage of an injury-shortened senior season.
"The whole weekend, you're trying to get a read on people," Udofia recalls from the event. "Then when it came time, we weren't told who was going to win. We all sat at the front table in the banquet room. Some photographer came in to take a special picture and asked who Vince Oghobaase was. Then they took Vince's picture, so we all were thinking in our head, 'Oh, he won it.' When they announced my name, I was shocked."
Udofia is the third Watkins Award winner in the last five years to attend Stanford University, joining 2002 winner Marcus McCutcheon and 2001 winner Michael Craven. J.R. Lemon (2001), Jason Evans (2003), Emeka Nnoli (2003) and Allen Smith (2004) were also finalists who are still at Stanford.
"It's a huge honor," Udofia says of the award. "All the football honors were nice, but this is the biggest thing for me because it's not just football. The Watkins Award recognizes the total person. Off the field, you have to take care of business in the classroom and in the community. It gets to the character of the person."
The more you learn about Ekom Udofia, you get to the character of this standout student-athlete. And the best times are yet to begin, when he starts his four years on The Farm this fall.
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