No Pain, No Gain
By Michelle Smith
STANFORD, Calif. - Ekom Udofia can't remember the last game he played in where he didn't hurt.
Not the garden-variety aches and pains that come with the territory in college football. But real, honest-to-goodness hurt. Torn biceps. Bad shoulder. Broken ankle.
There have been days, after a game, where he's walked off the field unable to lift his arm, but rarely a game where he hasn't played.
Udofia doesn't hurt right now. And that's a very welcome change.
The 6-foot-2, 315-pound nose tackle from Scottsdale, Ariz., began his senior season at Stanford in the best physical shape of his career. He had no offseason surgeries, no extended rehabilitation. He was in the weight room, with his teammates, going full speed toward the final year of his college career on the Cardinal's defensive line.
'Injuries are part of the game,' Udofia said. 'But having a full offseason to work with the team, I've been able to get in peak condition. I'm ready to go out here.'
Stanford has been part of the Udofia family legacy. His older sister graduated with a Stanford degree, as did older brother Udeme, who played football from 2003-07.
Now Ekom would like to create a new legacy with his name attached, one in which Stanford finishes the season with a bowl invitation.
'He's done a really conscientious job with his offseason training, putting in the work,' Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. 'He's improved his conditioning, his weight, his strength. He should be proud of that. The goal is to get him to be an every down guy.'
Udofia's many injuries - he's had three surgeries in his college career -- presented physical limitations, as did conditioning issues that left him standing on the sidelines more than anyone would like. He's rehabbed injuries, missed offseason training time and spring practice sessions, and it all takes a toll.
'You spend a lot of time taking care of school and rehabbing and it's a big time commitment and you just want to put your all into getting better, but you are restricted from things and you never get a chance to be as good as you can,' Udofia said. 'I've just tried to keep my head up about it.'
In the offseason, for the first time, Udofia passed his conditioning test on the first try. Stanford co-defensive coordinator Ron Lynn said Udofia is working as hard as ever.
The coach and player sat down during spring workouts and mapped out a best-case scenario: Udofia on the field as much as possible.
'We function better when he's on the field,' Lynn said. 'He's made a concerted effort to be in better condition. He's working himself into a position to go full speed.'
Udofia is a key to Stanford's ability to stop the run. He's big and strong and moves well. And he's experienced, with three seasons as a starter under his belt.
'There are a lot of big, heavy guys that play in the middle (of the defensive line),' Lynn said. 'He has the ability to run from number to number. We can use him in the right way if he's in good condition. When he's hurt, he can't move his feet as well and that leads to bad body positions.'
Udofia came to Stanford out of Chaparral High, announcing his commitment to the Cardinal on national television. At the time he was still recovering from a devastating leg injury sustained during his final high school season. Udofia broke his lower leg in four places, as well as dislocating his ankle.
He had shoulder surgery following his redshirt freshman season in 2006, and sustained a broken ankle in week nine of his redshirt sophomore season in 2007. Yet Udofia has made 26 starts in three seasons.
'He's a guy with a big heart,' Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. 'He's about the team. He's about having other guy's backs.'
As the Cardinal finished another practice in preparation for the 2009 season, the players were stretching and cooling down. Udofia's pads sat off to the side, while he sported a t-shirt that read: Focus and Finish.
It's an old team shirt, but one that has particular significance for a senior looking for a happy ending.
'When you get tired or things get tough, you've got to focus on the task at hand,' Udofia said. 'Personally, and as a team, this is a really big year.'
Udofia already knows about the hard road to the next level. Udeme is hard at work at home in Arizona in the hopes that at some point, he may land on an NFL roster. Ekom has the same goal.
'I feel like people haven't been able to see near my best,' Udofia said. 'Lord willing, I'll be healthy all year and I'll be able to do big things.'
Lynn said Udofia is a player with potential to play professionally.
'And the guys who come in to evaluate him think so too,' Lynn said. 'I think he's like a lot of kids who get to the point where they realize, `Geez, it's almost over.' I think he sees the writing on the wall, that he has to get going to get where he wants to be.'
Udofia said he's motivated to finish strong 'on so many different levels.'
'As a senior class, we've had a lot of change,' Udofia said. 'We've been through a lot, but we've overcome it. We have the opportunity to be the class responsible for turning this thing around.'