KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Brad Ekwerekwu is serious.
A smile isn’t peeking between his cheeks. No laughter. Not even a smirk.
Here, in the Arrowhead Stadium locker room, the former Missouri wide receiver talks about a journey that has forever changed his life.
Did he really just liken his attempt to make the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster to ... a jungle warrior?
“I compare it to the golden days of the tribes,” he says. “They sent their young men into the forest and told them to come back when they had slayed a lion or a jaguar. This is kind of like becoming a man — going into the jungle, into the unknown, and seeing if you can come out with a lion’s skin draped over your shoulder. That’s basically what this means to me.”
Ekwerekwu is serious, all right, and he’s about to find out if he has earned his skin: A roster spot. “Ekwerekwu” stitched across that No. 14 red-and-gold jersey on Sunday afternoons. His red. His gold.
The realization of his professional football dream.
Ekwerekwu must wait to see if a dream born on the fields of Arlington (Tex.) High School, that matured at MU, will become reality.
If history is any guide, he’s a long shot. He’s one of 16 undrafted free agents signed by the Chiefs on May 7. Last season, two players (wide receiver Chris Hannon and center Rudy Niswanger) made the Week 1 roster as rookie free agents. Ekwerekwu understands the odds. NFL rosters usually aren’t a place for dreamers like him.
“It’s tough,” says linebacker Nick Reid, who joined the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2006 but was reassigned to NFL Europe. “You get limited reps, so you’ve just got to make the most out of every opportunity.”
The Chiefs are in the process of finalizing their 53-man roster for the Sept. 9 season-opener at Houston. In three preseason games, Ekwerekwu has caught three passes for 27 yards. By Saturday, when the regular-season roster is set, he will receive word that will change the course of his young professional life in one of two ways:
First Scenario — It all pays off. The adjustment from college life in Columbia to new coaches and unfamiliar schemes. Those quiet nights thinking about his future in a River Falls, Wis., dorm room during training camp. The hard times when he dug into his Bible to read Proverbs 19:21 — a verse about how God’s purpose always prevails — to find comfort amid fear. He joins the practice squad, or if Coach Herm Edwards think he’s good enough, signs for at least the NFL rookie minimum of $285,000.
He makes the team.
“There have been days when I’ve had missed assignments, mental breakdowns,” Ekwerekwu says. “And at those times, it feels like I’m cast out because of the position I am in. I’m an undrafted free agent. That doesn’t look too good in the coaches’ eyes.
“Sometimes you’re like, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I can make it to tomorrow.’”
Second Scenario — The fantasy ends. No more swallowing his breath whenever Tony Gonzalez jogs into the huddle. No more having his eyes dart Larry Johnson’s way after running wind sprints together in Kansas City’s brick-oven heat. No more wondering just what the heck goes through Ty Law’s mind before the snap when he glares into the opposing quarterback’s eyes like a cheetah zoning in on its prey.
No more dreaming.
“You kind of have to catch yourself sometimes,” Ekwerekwu says. “That’s been the high — just being here.”
Ekwerekwu finished with 95 catches for 956 yards in 44 games at MU. His physical 6-foot-3 frame made him an attractive option for the Chiefs coaching staff when his name wasn’t called during April’s seven-round NFL draft.
Before draft weekend, he visited with Chiefs officials to check out Kansas City’s facilities and to make contacts. From upper-management on down, Ekwerekwu talked to everyone. It paid off. Shortly after the draft, he received a call, asking him if he would be interested in making the two-hour drive west on Interstate 70 to try to earn a spot on the team. Ekwerekwu bit.
Over the past three months, he has learned a lot about himself. He says the journey has refined his will. His strong Christian faith has helped him through the low points of a grueling summer. Without blinking, he says he has the skills to succeed in the NFL. He talks to family every day after practice, and his girlfriend has been supportive as cut time nears. He says, no matter what happens, the lessons gained from this experience will stay with him.
“I’ve been praying for happiness — that whatever happens, I’ll be happy, whether it’s in Kansas City or somewhere else or in the real world,” Ekwerekwu says.
If football doesn’t work out, he plans to put his finance degree to work. He wants to become a financial adviser and is a few classes short of earning his certification. He doesn’t have a destination in mind, but he says he wants to work in a fancy skyscraper someday.
Until then, Ekwerekwu says he’ll put his resume on Monster.com and take a wait-and-see approach with his future. After cracking helmets with Pro Bowlers and potential Hall of Famers, what trouble is a job search?
“It’d be a transition,” he says. “Every day, you get up and think about going to football practice and how to maintain your body. (Instead) you’d wake up thinking about the meetings you have that day or the report you would have to have in by the end of the week.”
One last look around Ekwerekwu’s locker serves as a reminder that his time in the NFL isn’t guaranteed.
Could he soon sit on that wood stool with the Chiefs logo carved on the seat for a final time? Could his days slipping on those red Reebok gloves be numbered? May that plastic equipment bag with a circle “14” logo tucked away on the top shelf soon stand empty?
“I’m going to feel rewarded regardless,” he says. “Because the journey has been here. It’s changed me regardless of the outcome. I’ve learned a lot about myself.
“But, man, making the team would be a great skin to drape over my shoulder.”