E.J. Ejiya Recently Identified With His Nigerian Roots, Focuses On Giving Back
The Mean Green roster is comprised of 113 players, 84 of which hail from Texas. Redshirt junior linebacker E.J. Ejiya is not one of those. He is the lone member of the team from Minnesota and grew up in the small Minneapolis suburb of Blaine.
Ejiya’s path to North Texas saw him matriculate through Minnesota high school football and then through North Dakota State College of Sciences.
“One major thing for me when I got to Texas was adjusting to the heat,” Ejiya said. “Coming from Minnesota, it is cold for six months out of the year, so adjusting to that was a pretty big deal. That first day of conditioning down here, I almost passed out. Eventually though over time I adjusted. When I was being recruited by North Texas, I saw it as an opportunity to experience a different culture. I figured why not come to school and play in the best state for football.”
In addition to the chance to play in Texas, one other aspect of that transition stood out for Ejiya when deciding to come to Denton: a chance to be a part of completely rebuilding a program.
“I saw that North Texas had gone 1-11 in 2015 and was talking with my junior college teammates about coming to Denton,” Ejiya said. “They were all telling me not to go there because the team wasn’t that good, but I could see the determination in the eyes of coach [Seth] Littrell and coach [Mike] Ekeler, who was my primary recruiter, when they visited with me and my family. I really believed in coach Littrell and his plan. I really wanted to be a part of that and say I was a part of turning this program into something great. It would be one of the best feelings in the world to know that my team’s contribution made an impact to completely shift the culture. To be a part of that, you’re are part of that foundation.”
The team’s second-leading tackler describes himself as pretty laid back, funny, caring and positive off the field. That switch to lock in between the white lines is easy to switch for him, however. He learned that at a young age, around the time of third grade.
His love of football came from watching Minnesota Vikings games with his father. After being put in soccer at a very young age, something Ejiya attributes to his African roots, he immediately gravitated to the other football.
Despite not knowing how to hold a football properly or how to throw it, Ejiya was determined to pick it up and use his size and speed to his advantage. He credits one of his childhood friends, Antonio, with teaching him the basics.
“As soon as they gave me the ball, I just started running and no one could catch me, Ejiya recalled, laughing. “I started at running back and eventually transitioned to linebacker my freshman year of high school. I hated the idea at first, but when I started tackling people, it became fun.”
Both of Ejiya’s parents hail from the same tribe in Nigeria, a place and a culture that Ejiya is extremely proud of. It was a culture that he was somewhat resistant to identify with until recently. That connection was really forged in the summer of 2015 when Ejiya traveled to Nigeria. He was able to get a feel for what life is like for his relatives and the people there through living it.
“I was never really into my culture growing up,” Ejiya said. “A few years ago I really started to get in tune with it and that never fully kicked in until I experienced it first hand in Nigeria. People there always dream of coming to America because it’s the land of opportunity, which it is. When I went to Nigeria and saw how life was over there, it instantly made me appreciate what I have here. It gave me a whole different perspective on my culture because I went to a village and saw their day-to-day life. Not everyone is as fortunate as people over here.”
Returning to Nigeria is high on Ejiya’s list of things to do after football to help give back. His uncle owns a construction company that builds homes and hotels. Ejiya plans to follow in his footsteps by purchasing land in Nigeria and helping to build the area up, providing hospitals and hotels to aid in the community’s growth.
Ejiya is not alone in Denton in his Nigerian heritage, as linebacker Joe Ozougwu, safeties Patrick Udofia and Nnamdi Umeakuana and running back Joshua Adebayo all have family backgrounds from Nigeria.
Towards the end of his football career, which he hopes takes him to the National Football League, Ejiya plans to get the ball rolling in giving back to his family’s native land. Starting in the offseason at the back end of his playing career, he hopes to transition to land development to really help improve the way of life for those back in Nigeria.
His heritage is a source of pride for Ejiya, and something he carries with him each and every day. His work on and off the field in Denton are steps towards his ultimate goal of giving back.