January 04, 2011

There is no controversy surrounding Chimdi Chekwa's final game for Ohio State.

No self-reported NCAA violations. No conspicuous suspension. No fresh vow to remain a Buckeye.

For the senior cornerback, this is it. Tuesday night in the Superdome, with the attention likely focused on his more famous and infamous teammates, Chekwa will play his final game as a Buckeye. He'll play it in front of 15 family members and a gathered horde of friends, about seven miles from where he grew up.

Chekwa is the Buckeyes' only Cajun. He's also their only All-America this season.

The Sugar Bowl will mark the end of a career that began when Chekwa was a raw and unheralded recruit and will end in his hometown with a BCS bowl game on the line. Chekwa has progressed steadily throughout his career, from a redshirt, to a nickel back, to a fringe starter, to one of the nation's top lockdown corners.

"He has such an understanding of the game," Ohio State cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said. "You never have to tell him anything twice -- a lot of times you don't even have to tell him once. So he's constantly getting better."

Ohio State allowed 156.3 passing yards per game this season, leading the Big Ten. When asked how to be successful against OSU's pass defense, Arkansas quarterback and Sugar Bowl opponent Ryan Mallett said, "First of all, by not throwing the ball. That's the main thing." But Mallett's unit is no slouch. Arkansas fields the nation's third-most prolific passing attack, and Chekwa figures to play a prominent role in Tuesday's meeting.

It's a wonder, though, that he'll even play at all.

Chekwa's life has been marked by tragedy escaped and opportunity seized. There have been near-misses and happy coincidences -- signs of "God's plan," his parents said -- that have pushed the 6-foot, 190-pounder to his place among Buckeye greats.

The story starts in Nigeria, or more specifically Biafra, the small Christian-dominated region that seceded from its largely Muslim country in 1967. Biafra's secession sparked a Nigerian civil war, and Charles Chekwa, then a professional soccer player engaged to marry Eunice, served as a captain for the rebel side.

The secessionists lost the war, and Chimdi's parents lost friends who were captured, maimed, decapitated by the Nigerian army. Charles wondered, what if it had been him? What if his family's story had ended before it ever began?

"I was no better than those people who died," Charles said. "They did not deserve to die any more than I did. I could have just as easily been killed."

But Charles escaped unharmed. He went to America once the war ended, and when they saved enough money Eunice followed. Charles expected to arrive in the America he'd seen in the movies -- the America of skyscrapers and mansions and uninhibited opulence.

"In other countries, you see the pictures, and it's very glamorous," Charles said. "It seems like people walk on gold. But instead, I got there and saw the reality."

He got there and saw Starkville.

Charles arrived at Mississippi State University intimidated and lonely, desperate to return home. But soon Eunice joined him, and the Chekwas began life anew. They went on to earn a total of five degrees -- Charles has a doctorate in business and Eunice a master's in mathematics -- and they moved to Louisiana and together raised six children. First there were three boys: Uche (in Igbo, "God's will"), Chima ("God knows best"), Ikechukwu ("God's power").

Their first daughter, Blessing, was the only child not to be named in Charles' and Eunice's native tongue. But they returned to form with another daughter, Nonye ("God is with me") and again with their final child, Chimdi ("My God is very good").

Their home was marked by a bicultural duality: Charles and Eunice with their English names and African traditions, the children with their Igbo names and distinctly American identities. Eunice tried to teach the children Igbo, but the kids spent more time laughing at their Mom's accent than learning her language. (When Chimdi speaks now, he sounds like his heritage is more Cajun than African.) They laughed at Charles when he refused to toast his bread, instead preparing it as the English colonialists had, buttered but cold.

But on one point, there was no room for negotiation. The children would study and they would excel in school, or they would face steep consequences. The ultimatum worked. These days, the older kids are in graduate school -- one studying to become a physician's assistant, others studying information technology and public policy -- and all excelled in college. Chimdi, the only OSU football player who majors in accounting, made the Big Ten's all-academic team and graduated in December. While a student, he would study at traffic lights and recite concepts learned in class while on his way to football practice.

"I don't know if I would have this drive to succeed academically if not for my parents," Chimdi said. "They want to see me graduate with a good GPA."

If the kids proved themselves in school, then and only then they could play sports. All six played and all six excelled, each eventually earning a Division I scholarship. The oldest ones starred in basketball and track, dabbling in soccer along the way. They could play any sport -- except for football.

"It was too violent," Eunice said. "Too many injuries."

But when Ikechukwu -- the third-born, known as "Ike" -- reached high school, the coach took one look at his filled-out body and enormous hands and insisted that he play wide receiver. Ike begged, and eventually his parents relented. He went on to play at Texas State.

So when Chimdi wanted to play tackle football at 9 years old, a precedent had already been set.

"By the time I came along, they had already been broken down," Chimdi said. "By the time my brother got to play, it was almost too late for him, but they couldn't say no to me."

So Chimdi played and slowly progressed, becoming a late-blooming high school prospect who caught recruiters' attention largely because of his speed (he would go on to be a part of the Big Ten champion 4x100 relay team at Ohio State). Mid-tier ACC and SEC programs wanted him, but Ohio State was the only elite-level program to offer a scholarship.

Chekwa surprised coaches by earning a spot as the Buckeyes' nickel back in his redshirt freshman season. As a sophomore and junior he emerged as one of the Big Ten's top corners. Now, he's among the nation's elite. He earned national defensive player of the week honors after the Buckeyes' Sept. 11 win over Miami, when he intercepted two passes and had six tackles. For the season, he has 42 tackles, a sack and three interceptions. On top of the All-America selection, he was also named a semifinalist for the Thorpe and Bednarik awards.

"The biggest difference in him is just his confidence," said Buckeyes safety Jermale Hines. "He's never been outwardly confident until now. Now he knows he's one of the best."

The Buckeyes never doubted Chekwa could reach this level.

"Because of his physical skills, because of his football smarts, we knew the potential he had," Johnson said. "Everyone else is just finding out."

All it took for them to find out was Chekwa's father surviving a civil war, his mother joining her husband in America and his siblings pressing and pleading their parents for the chance to play football.

"My family's story is almost unreal," Chekwa said. "I can't imagine going through the things they went through. It speaks volumes to who they are. It touches me when I think about it."

With their struggles long-passed, their perspective on football now changed and their son a graduate and soon-to-be NFL draftee, the Chekwas can savor their son's Sugar Bowl homecoming.

"Besides making it to the national championship game," Charles said, "you could not script a better ending than this."

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