PULLMAN – Four years ago Chima Nwachukwu and Hallston Higgins both made the decision to leave Texas – Nwachukwu from Allen, near Dallas; Higgins from Magnolia, near Houston – and head north to Washington State University.
Drawn by the lure of playing Pac-10 football, enticed by the soft sell of former Cougars assistant Leon Burtnett and sold on the college atmosphere, they made the 1,500-mile trek north and met each other.
They grew close even while their careers grew apart.
Nwachukwu has been a starter since stepping on campus, first at cornerback and the past couple of years at safety. Outgoing and personable, he’s a leader on the field and off, serving as president of WSU’s Student-Athletic Advisory Council and as a member of the Pac-10’s same board.
Higgins made just his second start last week, filling in for an injured Mike Ledgerwood at middle linebacker. Quiet and studious, he’s watched most of the past three years go by from the sideline, making an occasional play on special teams.
They both will make their last trip to Texas this week, leading the Cougars into Gerald J. Ford Stadium against SMU on Saturday afternoon.
Both expect large contingents of friends and family members in attendance to watch, though Nwachukwu sat out practice Wednesday with a neck strain, suffered after hitting the turf hard while defending a pass Tuesday. He’ll be evaluated again today to see if he can play this weekend.
“It’s a homecoming I’ve had marked on my calendar for a while,” Nwachukwu said this week, adding his best friend from high school, defensive back Chris Castro, will be in an SMU uniform.
“This Saturday is a homecoming,” echoed Higgins. “It’s been a long time since I’ve played football in Texas.”
This year is Higgins’ last chance to play football anywhere – he wants to return to Texas to teach and coach after he graduates in May – and just about his only chance.
The Greater Houston-area 5A defensive player of the year coming out of high school, Higgins played consistently on the special teams as a freshman. But that was Bill Doba’s final year in Pullman and Burtnett, who had brought a series of Texas recruits north, left as well, joining the staff at Houston.
With a new staff came new expectations.
“Actually, it’s probably one of the easier things I’ve gone through since I’ve been here in college,” Higgins said. “It was definitely a transition, but we’re football players. And football is football no matter who is coaching you.
“It was just different coaching styles, and that’s the main way we had to adjust.”
“Their whole philosophy is different,” Burtnett said when asked if he was surprised Higgins hadn’t played more. “He’s probably good enough he should have played special teams at least.”
That was pretty much where Higgins has played, until this year.
“It’s been difficult, I’m not going to sit here and tell a story, it’s been difficult for me,” Higgins said. “But, along with that, me, sitting here on the sidelines, being disappointed about it, not being able to play as much as I would like to, I embraced this last year.
“I said, whatever they asked me to do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
“He’s really made a decision, took it upon himself, to make himself a better football player,” said Chris Ball, WSU’s co-defensive coordinator.
Against Montana State, a leaner, faster Higgins showed that improvement, with a career-high six tackles, including one for loss. That was four more than Nwachukwu recorded, the first time that’s happened at WSU.
Of course, Nwachukwu has 197 career tackles, 159 more than his friend.
“He was a real good football player coming out of high school,” Burtnett said of Nwachukwu. “He had chances to go to quite a few places.”
But he tripped to WSU in basketball season, attended a Cougars game against Oregon and was sold. The academics fit his needs. He wanted a challenge and a place where he could start right away.
He did, starting at cornerback in every game, making a career-high 73 tackles and intercepting a pass. Then came the coaching change.
“It hit me pretty hard,” he said. “Being so far away from home that second semester when I didn’t know who the coach was going to be, didn’t know anybody out here, really, except Hallston, it was really tough. … I got kind of depressed.”
But not for long. He met his position coach, Ball, and that turned everything around.
“I love, love my position coach, he’s an awesome guy,” Nwachukwu said. “He took me under his wings like I was his own son.”
Nwachukwu’s father, a former college instructor, died when he was 13 and his mom, Ngozi, supported him and his brother Uzoma, now a receiver at Texas A&M, as a nurse.
While in Pullman, Nwachukwu discovered his future – he wants to be a federal prosecutor, so he’s headed to law school next year – and matured.
“I built my character here,” he said. “Having a couple losing seasons does that for you. It helps you figure out who you are in trying times.”
That’s also what happened to Higgins.
“Just like any other player that comes from that far, to come in and sit on the bench for a couple years, it’s really tough,” Nwachukwu said. “But he’s been working his butt off and he’s stepped up. He’s in there.”