To say Sylvester Nzekwe’s journey to this point has been a long one would be an understatement.
Not only did the Seattle native travel more than 2,500 miles to get to Southern University four years ago, but he did so without knowing if he had a spot on the football team.
Nzekwe’s mother, who is from Lafayette and had several friends at Southern, convinced her son to make the trek to Baton Rouge, where he would join the Jaguars as a walk-on in 2008. Nzekwe faced NCAA Clearinghouse issues his first year on campus, essentially giving him a redshirt season and marking the first of many hurdles the running back had to jump.
Nzekwe didn’t record a stat in 2009, but saw action in all 11 games his sophomore season, chalking up 220 rushing yards and five touchdowns. He followed that up with a more production junior season, rushing for 545 yards and three touchdowns and adding 246 receiving yards and another score in 10 games in 2011.
Nzekwe’s efforts impressed the coaches enough to earn a scholarship for his senior season in what he called “a humbling experience.”
“It just felt good that you got something you earned,” Nzekwe said. “It wasn’t handed to me, I had to earn it. It’s just the feeling that I actually earned something. That feels pretty good. It just humbles you.”
Things seemed to be looking bright for Nzekwe entering his final stint at Southern, until he hit yet another bump in the road. In the heart of fall camp, Nzekwe sprained his ankle before getting a chance to take a snap as a scholarship back.
The injury caused him to miss three full games this season and limited his action in three other contests.
But it didn’t stop Nzekwe from fulfilling his dream of a successful senior season. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder continued to work and rehab into the start of the season and has fought back to become Southern’s leading rusher this year with 338 yards on 70 carries for a 4.8 yard average per touch.
Nzekwe never complained about his setbacks but instead harped on all the positives of his situation.
“I’m basically at 100 (percent) now, so I can’t complain,” said the ever-humble and modest Nzekwe. “I was trying to do a good job with the rehab. The ankle feels great. Everything is good now.”
It takes a special person to maintain that positive attitude throughout the strange path Nzekwe has traveled, which took another exotic turn in his final home game as a Jaguar.
When Nzekwe walked across the field at A.W. Mumford Stadium to be honored on Senior Night, he wasn’t accompanied by his mom, his dad or any other family member. Instead, he was joined by Kamilah Stroy, a teacher he had met just months before while working at the technology building at Southern University during the summer.
“I was really, really shocked and surprised that he asked me,” Stroy said. “But I thought that was a nice thing and very genuine of him. He’s a really good kid.”
Stroy, who was already a die-hard Southern football fan, grew close enough to Nzekwe that summer that he referred to her as “like family.” She suffered an ankle injury this fall and could relate to Nzekwe’s struggles, which was one of the reasons the two said they bonded so quickly.
Stroy said she had heard Nzekwe’s name from going to games the past few seasons but had never met him. When the two finally did meet, Stroy said she was impressed.
“He seemed very persistent,” said Stroy, who attends every game possible and critiques Nzekwe’s play. “He was like ‘I want to play, this is what I want to do.’ Even when I asked about his ankle, he said ‘It hurts a little bit but I’m going to be alright, I’m going to play, I’m going to play.’ And I said ‘Are you sure?’ I think I was more worried than he was. He enjoys the sport, I can tell.”
Stroy called Nzekwe humble, inquisitive and hardworking and said she wasn’t surprised in the least that he’s overcome everything to make it this far.
“He’s going to do very well and he’s going to be very successful in whatever it is he does,” Story said.
“I can tell.”