By Jerry Briggs
UTSA’s Michael Egwuagu will feel the nostalgia. The Roadrunners’ gregarious strong safety might even shed a tear or two during Senior Day activities set for Saturday afternoon at the Alamodome.
But once the game kicks off, his emotions are expected to change.
The senior from the Austin area is expected to get extremely serious about beating the Charlotte 49ers in the regular-season finale for both teams.
“I mean, if you think about it, from a senior perspective, if you lose this game, you’re done with your college career,” he said.
A victory would make UTSA bowl eligible for the first time, and, quite frankly, Egwuagu doesn’t want to think about leaving school without taking the postseason trip.
He’s been through too much in four years to miss out on it.
In fact, only a year ago, Egwuagu was on a surgeon’s table having his undeveloped right kidney removed. He bounced back to play in 11 games this fall.
In that regard, it’s understandable that he would want to make the most of his last game at the dome.
“There’s something to be said about going out with a bang, you know,” Egwuagu said. “We haven’t capitalized on every game that we wanted to. But, there’s still something right in front of us that’s very tangible, something that we’ve wanted for a long time.”
Win or lose against Charlotte, Egwuagu is destined to be remembered as one of the most dynamic players and personalities in UTSA’s six-year history.
Off the field, he has excelled with a rap music career. He has also inspired optimism that he one day could find success in either business or politics.
“He’ll be a difference maker,” first-year UTSA coach Frank Wilson said.
Earlier this fall, the loquacious Egwuagu narrated a rhyme from one of his songs, “Hiraeth,” during an interview session with reporters covering the football team.
He did it all from memory, without notes, with video recorders rolling.
“You live by the sword that you die by, and I’m a white horse in my mom’s eye,” Egwuagu said, beginning to recite the rough draft of a song that he penned this summer. “Leading us to battle when the time’s right, cause I got my mind right, ready for the limelight.”
On the field, the 6-foot, 225-pounder has proven to be more than ready for the spotlight.
He played in all but five of the team’s 47 games since joining the program in 2013. He made 25 starts in 42 appearances, posted 202 tackles and intercepted six passes.
The former star at Austin-area Pflugerville Connally High School also scored three touchdowns, including a school-record two interception returns for TDs.
This year, battling through nagging injuries less than a year after his surgery, Egwuagu registered 74 tackles to rank third on the team. He also returned a blocked kick 82 yards for a score at Louisiana Tech.
As a recruit coming out of high school, Egwuagu carried with him a reputation not only as a talented musical artist, but also as a focused athlete who was fully expected to make an impact on the next level.
Few, however, could have expected the drama that ensued upon his arrival. His career nearly ended prematurely twice since the start of his sophomore year.
In August of 2014, Egwuagu inexplicably quit the Roadrunners for a week and went home to attend to personal matters.
After missing UTSA’s season-opening road victory at Houston that year, he eventually changed his mind and returned to the squad, but not before his coaches and teammates weighed the decision on whether to accept his apology.
Last offseason, his career hung in the balance once again. The story all started when he was involved in a car accident on the day before UTSA’s 2015 season-finale against Middle Tennessee.
A day after the accident, Egwuagu tried to play, but he was extremely sore and finished only about half the game. A few days later, a visit to a doctor for evaluation turned into a nightmare.
Eventually, it was discovered that his right kidney was not fully developed.
“That next Monday (after the final game), we go and get an MRI,” Egwuagu said. “They see something like a rock, like a stone. They thought it was like a cancerous something. So, we went to get a CT scan. Turns out, it was my right kidney, that (it had) never developed, since birth. Just a sack of fluid. They said that’s what’s probably causing my back pain.”
Though tests for cancer proved negative, the next step was surgical removal of the kidney. The operation was performed in Austin by Dr. Eric Giesler. Understandably concerned about his future, Egwuagu remembered asking himself troubling, rhetorical questions.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“(In) talking to God, (I asked) ‘What are you trying to tell me?’ ” Egwuagu recalled.
Looking back, he said he is fortunate on several levels.
First, he was lucky that the kidney issue was detected. Also, that Giesler was able to perform the surgery with the idea that Egwuagu could return to football.
Giesler removed the organ with a surgical “robot,” Egwuagu said.
“It comes in, and there’s five different incisions,” he said. “They move the organs around. They suck the fluid out of the kidney. They flatten it. And then they pull it out where the belly button is.”
Even with the successful operation, only half the battle was won.
By January, all the coaches that recruited Egwuagu, including head coach Larry Coker, were fired. A new staff, led by Wilson, took charge.
Egwuagu was nervous while sitting out spring practice, even though he knew he had the ability to play at a high level.
“Honestly, I hadn’t showed them anything yet,” Egwuagu said. “I couldn’t show them anything all spring, all summer. I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ It was like, ‘When am I going to get my shot?’ “
After sitting out for so long, Egwuagu started to question whether his final year at UTSA might be a washout.
“It was a tough time,” he said. “There were a lot of games being played in my head. I had to block out everything and really zone in.”
Finally cleared to practice, Egwuagu started to work his way back in August.
By the end of fall camp, he had regained his spot on the first-team defense. But he also ran into another hurdle by the season opener against Alabama State.
Egwuagu suffered a sports hernia that affected his groin. It’s an injury that continues to bother him, though he said the pain has lessened over the last three weeks.
“He hasn’t been 100 percent all year,” Wilson said. “(But) he has showed that threshold of high pain tolerance. He’s pushed himself and has become a leader. You couldn’t ask for a better leader for our program than Michael.”
Egwuagu credited Wilson for bringing out the best in him, and in the team, at large.
“I’ve been here through the evolution of this program,” Egwuagu said. “But I’ve never seen exponential growth like this year. Our record may not show it. The close games we’ve played against the big teams (from major conferences) may show it.
“But what’s really going to show it, is what’s happening in that locker room and in the meeting rooms (with) the maturity of the younger guys.”
Teammates said that Egwuagu has had a positive effect himself, leading UTSA (5-6, 4-3) into its regular-season finale against Charlotte (4-7, 3-4).
“He’s a great leader, always there for you,” quarterback Dalton Sturm said. “Always right there by the offensive huddle, trying to hype everybody up, trying to be the hype man.”
No doubt, the UTSA “hype man,” will be missed next season. Who else would dare sit in front of reporters and narrate, without notes, from his own hip-hop song verse?
Quoting from Egwuagu’s “Hiraeth,” the UTSA senior intoned: “Do I have what it takes? Am I scared to make mistakes?
“Will I fail, and if I fail, will you compare me to the fakes? I mean, I’m insecure about a lot, and I’m unsure about it all.
“But I swear to God, if you pass the rock, that’s on everything -- I’m gonna ball.”