Emeka Nnoli has been playing with pain in his hips for some time, though the tough and determined Stanford fullback has kept it to himself. His preseason physical a week ago finally unearthed the concern, and the Stanford medical staff ordered an MRI examination. The darkest of fears were realized when Nnoli was diagnosed several days ago with avascular necrosis in his hips. The same condition that infamously ended Bo Jackson's career has now unexpected cut short that of Stanford's fifth-year senior starting fullback.
"This thing was lingering in the back of my mind, and I just wanted to get it checked out," Nnoli says. "I didn't think it was going to be as big of a deal as it was, but I think it's the best choice for me to stay out and let it heal on its own."
"We love Emeka. He's still a big part of our football team," offers head coach Jim Harbaugh. "He's been dealt a blow where he won't be able to play football again. We know that it's in God's hands, and things happen for a reason."
"We don't always know what that plan is, but here is a guy who going into his senior season was definitely going to be an NFL guy," the coach continues. "He was an experienced player who was an excellent blocker. He proved that in the spring. He could catch the ball in the backfield. He could run with the ball. He's really the all-around everything you're looking for in a fullback."
Nnoli broke into the starting lineup a little less than a year ago, when 2006 senior starter Nick Frank was diagnosed with a congenital spinal condition that ended his playing career. Then a redshirt junior, Nnoli started 10 games at fullback. The new Cardinal coaching staff reviewed film of Nnoli's play this winter and coached him this spring to upgrade some of areas of his game and the attitude with which he approached the fullback position. A tougher and nastier Nnoli came out of the spring and was ready to enjoy a breakout year as one of the Stanford offense's best players.
That makes the timing of this diagnosis all the more difficult to swallow for Nnoli, who today left campus to be with his family in Sacramento (Calif.).
"It's an unfortunate situation, because I was looking forward to having a big season this year. The coaches were high on me after spring ball and going into summer workouts," he explains. "It's unfortunate, because I've played with these guys for five years. I know they're going to do big things this year and go to a bowl game. I was looking forward to all of those things this season, but I'm definitely still going to be around the team doing as much as I can and helping out the young guys. I know that they will welcome me to still be part of the team as well."
"He still wants to be a part of the team and help the younger guys. He's just a beautiful guy. I love him," Harbaugh says.
The Cardinal head coach also has offered Nnoli some perspective on how this medical hardship does not have to cut short the great things he is due to enjoy after Stanford.
"Like I told Emeka, when he goes to look for a job in six months, he'll have that Stanford degree," Harbaugh counsels. "That's why those eggs aren't all in one basket."
Stanford fans will share the tremendous disappointment and pain in this news, for Nnoli has endured far more than his share of medical and injury issues since the first day he arrived on camps. Late in his senior year of high school, he was diagnosed with Nephrotic syndrome, a blood disorder that affected his kidneys and created high blood pressure. The Stanford doctors would not clear him for contact as a true freshman until they found medicine and dosages to successfully treat him. He missed the entire season. Several ailments and injuries have followed, some of which have been related to his condition.
When the initial diagnosis came earlier in the week that Nnoli had career-ending bone death in his hips, we asked a Stanford teammate of Nnoli's how the fullback could possibly have quietly played and practiced with his condition.
"He has that high of a threshold for pain," the player responded.
Nnoli came to Stanford ranked the #1 fullback in the nation, but medical misfortunes have conspired to keep him from realizing his full talents on the field. The Cardinal will now have to move forward with the rest of this preseason camp and with the 2007 season absent one of their senior leaders and top offensive talents.
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