Samson Ebukam is a long way from home, a long way from where his journey began.
Now he’s in Atlanta, right in the middle of the glitz and glamor of the Super Bowl, which is quite far from Portland, where he grew up, and from Cheney, where he played four years of college football at Eastern Washington.
“It’s kind of crazy. You get to take a step back and realize how much work is put into it,” Ebukam said of the Super Bowl and all that surrounds it. “There’s a lot of light being shed to the sport.”
And there’s a beam of it shined on Eastern Washington, from which three Rams players hail: the linebacker Ebukam; injured wide receiver Cooper Kupp; and practice squad member Aaron Neary, an offensive lineman.
All three will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday , when the Los Angeles Rams play the New England Patriots, but only Ebukam will play.
That he is there certainly means a lot to Ebukam and his family, who immigrated to Portland from Nigeria, a place Ebukam hasn’t visited since he left it at 9 years old.
“I mean, I just feel like it’s a blessing,” Ebukam said. “And I’m just trying to win. My goal was to get here, and now that I am here I gotta win it, because I don’t have these opportunities often.”
Now in his second year in the NFL, Ebukam is slated to start in a Super Bowl, something no other Eastern Washington player has done.
And it is a little remarkable to Ebukam that he’s doing it, considering the places he comes from.
“For sure, it’s a smaller school,” he said of EWU, “but again, it wouldn’t have really mattered where I came from (in college), because I came from humble beginnings.”
Like so many Eastern Washington recruits, Ebukam was a raw talent coming out of high school in Oregon.
But his talent was obvious, Eagles coach Aaron Best said.
“He’s well put-together physically,” Best said of the 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker who played more of an edge/end position at Eastern. “When you mix the level of talent (he had), he was only going to get better and more fearsome with coaching. … He flourished in our system.”
Ebukam had plenty of opportunity to play at Eastern. As a true freshman he played 15 games in 2013, and as a sophomore he became a starter. He was named to the Big Sky’s second team as a sophomore and as a junior, and then as a senior he was named team captain and earned a flurry of All-America distinctions.
By the time he left Eastern, he had started 38 games and played in those 15 more as a freshman, accruing 24 sacks, which is sixth most in program history.
When the scouts came – mostly to see Kupp – Ebukam’s consistency stood out.
Whether it was the fourth play of practice, the fourth rep in the weight room or the fourth day of classes, Ebukam did it all at the same pace, Best said.
And his pace was really fast: a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at the Eastern Washington pro day that was better than Kupp’s time.
That drew the eye of the Rams, who drafted Kupp in the third round and liked Ebukam so much that they traded up in the draft to take him in the fourth (125th overall) when many projections didn’t have him being selected by anyone in any of the seven rounds.
Now he’s starting in the Super Bowl.
This week has been a bit less football focused, Ebukam said, as most of the preparation and planning happened last week when they were in California. There is lots of media, he said, lots of attention.
“We got a lot of it knocked out last week,” he said. “Now we’re just fine-tuning.”
He said some of his family is there with him in Atlanta, and they are happy to have someone in the family able to make it to something as grand as the Super Bowl.
“I always think back to where I came from, and I would’ve never thought in two years in the NFL I would be in this spot,” Ebukam said. “But I’m gonna make the best of it.”
This week, Ebukam is making fresh memories on the sport’s biggest stage. When this is all over, though, at some point Ebukam still wants to get back to someplace a bit humbler.
“I’m trying to go back to Nigeria any time I can with the family,” he said. “I’m trying to get back to my roots a bit, to remember what it was like. I want it to be fresh, not just memories.”
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