COLUMBIA — Kony Ealy couldn’t stop crying.
Ealy, then in sixth grade, was on his way from St. Louis to New Madrid, which would serve as his new home. Ealy’s father had seen enough. The violence and gang activity in the family’s St. Louis neighborhood was too much.
Ealy was in danger of going down the wrong path, like plenty of other people before him. But Ealy had a gift, and his dad recognized that. When Ealy stepped onto the football field or the basketball court, everything made sense to him. Sports were a healthier release of his anger than the streets of St. Louis.
The move to New Madrid made sense. Strip away the distractions for Ealy in a safer environment for the entire family. Ealy sees all of this now, and while he never pushed back against the move, the change was too much to handle on the 2 1/2-hour drive to Southeast Missouri on that day.
“It was a huge change,” Ealy said. “I cried the whole ride until I fell asleep. It was something different. I’d never been down there.”
Ealy noticed the differences between St. Louis and New Madrid right away. While New Madrid has a city area, farmland dominates the region. Instead of the tall buildings and crowds of people Ealy was accustomed to in St. Louis, New Madrid was filled with empty space and animals.
“I didn’t really think I would be into animals, but when I got down there, there wasn’t much else to do,” Ealy said. “I was appreciative of it. Not many people had that.”
The simple lifestyle suited Ealy well. He focused more on school and sports, where he was starting to blossom into a special athlete with the size and skill to dominate in basketball and football.
Most importantly, Ealy put more pressure on himself to take care of his sister, Sierra Jones, who suffers from a chromosomal condition that limits her ability to speak.
“We just got closer,” Ealy said. “We communicated more. Whether she needs me to do something for her, or whether she’s hitting me upside the head smiling when I’m in a bad mood to get me into a better mood.”
The older Ealy got, the more he realized how important he is in his sister’s life and the responsibility that brings.
“We grow tighter and tighter,” Ealy said. “I fight for her a lot more now because I know more now.”
Ealy has been focused on providing for his sister since he was in the fourth grade. That’s when his dad sat him down and made sure he understood his responsibility.
“It got embedded into my head really young,” Ealy said. “I give credit to my dad for that. He got on me early and made me realize, ‘You’re going to have to take care of your sister one day. I may not always be here.’”
Making it out
“I just had to prove everybody wrong, because they still believe that inner-city kids don’t stand a chance coming out of St. Louis. And I’m a testament to that.”
- — Former Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, discussing the stigma surrounding St. Louis at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. Richardson was drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the New York Jets.
The harsh reality of inner-city St. Louis is that not everybody makes it out. Gang-related violence is high, and it’s easy to get mixed in with the wrong crowd. It’s also true, in some cases, that those who make it out carry it with them. It’s a badge of honor as much as it is a chip on their shoulder.
Those who make it out don’t lose pride in where they come from, either. At the same time, they realize the need to realize their dreams and not get stuck in a dangerous pattern.
Ealy isn’t the first player to come from a rough area in St. Louis and play for Missouri. Sheldon Richardson, a first-round draft pick in 2013 and a distant cousin of Ealy’s, is a living example of what it means to overcome. Coming from Gateway Tech High School in St. Louis, Richardson earned the recognition he got.
“It took a while for me to get noticed,” Richardson said at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. “When I got my notoriety, it felt like I really didn’t have it because I was from an inner-city school, and we didn’t get a lot of publicity like that.”
It was never about playing college football for Richardson. He never planned on stopping there. He was set on bigger things — much like Ealy and his teammates from the same area.
Ealy still has aunts and cousins in St. Louis who visit as often as they can and watch his games on television. There’s no ill will toward those who make it out, just pride. Ealy knows he’s lucky to have found a way to channel his aggression.
“It’s about hard work and knowing where you want to be in life,” Ealy said. “I knew it was best for me to get out. A lot of people don’t make it out, or they fall into the wrong crowd.”
Not Ealy. His crowd is his family, who he said describes the 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive end as a “teddy bear” off the field. It’s that gentle nature that keeps him humble and grateful for what he has.
“It’s really a blessing,” Ealy said. “You have to be thankful for it and kind of humble. Life can be taken from you at any second. Most people don’t get a chance to do what we do.”
You need a ‘why’
Sports can serve as a way out, whether it’s for kids in inner-city St. Louis trying to make a name for themselves or for someone who just needs an escape. For Ealy, it was a little bit of both.
But sports took a bigger meaning for Ealy when he realized he could use his physical ability to provide for his sister and the rest of his family. He enjoys playing football, but none of what he does is for himself. It’s all for his sister.
“For something that means that much to me, I know I can’t mess up,” Ealy said. “I have to remember her and her condition. It’s more than me. I can’t be thinking about myself. I would be selfish if I did that."
Even though Sierra isn’t able to make it to most games because of her condition, Ealy knows she’s watching. She lights up when she sees him on television, and that keeps Ealy going.
“She’s my motivation," Ealy said. "She helps me get up in the morning. She helps me through the extra laps and helps me go hard in the game.”
Ealy's teammates get it, too. They see the hard work that turned a 215-pound freshman into the towering, 275-pound junior Ealy is now.
“He’s just a hard worker, man,” Missouri defensive end and St. Louis native Markus Golden said. “Everybody has problems. Everybody has a reason why they do this. If you don’t have a reason, there’s something wrong.”
“You have to have a ‘why.'"
Golden's "why" is his mother, who is still back in St. Louis. Ealy's is his sister. For other players it's something else. Regardless of the reason, those individual motivators are often unspoken, put to the side for the sake of team goals.
Those from St. Louis tend to bond over their similar upbringing and hardships, but they don't think they have things any worse than their teammates.
“I can’t really say it’s stronger because you never know how another person looks at their problems," Golden said. "I don’t think it’s any bigger than what another person has to do on the team."
A look to the future
On the weekend of Oct. 5 when Missouri was in Nashville, Tenn., to play against Vanderbilt, Ealy got a chance to talk to former Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden, who is in his rookie season with the Tennessee Titans.
Ealy wanted to pick Gooden's brain about his life, preparing for the NFL Draft and playing in the NFL. He wanted a glimpse into his future.
“Man, what is it like?” Ealy asked Gooden.
“’It’s great,’” Ealy recalls Gooden saying. “’Just going out there fighting for your job every day, fighting for that paycheck just like the guy next to you.’”
Players like Gooden and Richardson serve as motivation for Ealy, who submitted his name to the NFL Draft advisory board prior to April’s draft to gauge where he stood in the eyes of NFL scouts.
Ealy has always thought about being a professional athlete, ever since people started praising his physical ability as a child. It wasn’t until he was a sophomore in high school, though, that he started to seriously think about it.
He had the talent to pursue a future in either football or basketball. He started considering things such as how many players get drafted in each sport and how much money could be on the line.
“If I played football and started getting recognition, I knew I needed to leave basketball behind,” said Ealy, who played in AAU basketball tournaments against NBA players Austin Rivers and Brandon Knight. “Even in basketball, if you’re the most elite, you get paid well. At the same time, I took into consideration playing mad and stuff. That translates better to football.”
For Ealy, it translated into a college scholarship, pushing him one step closer to his ultimate goal of playing in the NFL and providing for his sister.
“It’s a chance to make money that not everybody’s going to make,” Ealy said.
A different Kony
Standing on Faurot Field in mid-August, Ealy discusses his past. He scowls at the statistics he put up in 2012 and Missouri’s 5-7 record. Then he makes a promise.
“You’re going to see a different Kony this year,” he says with conviction.
Two months later, Ealy is a different player, closer to what he and coaches have envisioned for him. Instead of getting pushed by offensive lineman because of his poor technique, he’s using his hands to keep blockers out of his chest. He's doing the little things.
Missouri has a rotation of four defensive ends this season. That helps keep Ealy fresh but also takes the spotlight off him. Michael Sam is getting the recognition among Missouri’s defensive ends, and Ealy is fine with that. After all, Sam already has nine sacks in 2013, 2 1/2 away from the school single-season record.
But quietly, Ealy has 3 1/2 sacks of his own, which matches his season total from 2012. He's played all along the defensive line and doesn't always have the responsibility of pinning his ears back and getting after the quarterback.
From afar, some may think the stats motivate Ealy. Or maybe they think it’s the money and fame that could come with a professional football career.
When Ealy is on the field, violently swiping his hands to maneuver his way through blockers and launch himself toward the quarterback, he’s worried about the task at hand, which is bringing down the ball carries and winning a football game.
Ealy knows he’s there for a purpose. That purpose is watching him on TV, shouting his name, one of the few words in her vocabulary.
“I know my sister is at home hooting and hollering,” Ealy said with a laugh.
And that's all he needs to motivate him.
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.