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Faith, Family Help Alabama OL Emil Ekiyor Jr. Overcome Adversity

Alabama offensive lineman Emil Ekiyor Jr. is once again turning to his faith to overcome adversity as he returns home to Indianapolis for Monday's national championship game.

INDIANAPOLIS — Two days after facing his latest bout of adversity, Alabama offensive lineman Emil Ekiyor Jr. received a call from his mom.

Andrea Ekiyor was in the stands when her son was forced to leave last week’s Cotton Bowl semifinal with a separated shoulder. She fell into her husband’s arms while initially fearing for Emil’s well-being and later felt her heart begin to sink as she imagined the despair that was creeping into his mind at the moment.

The night before, Emil had told his parents how he was finally feeling back to full health after undergoing multiple surgeries in the offseason. Moreover, the Indianapolis native was on the cusp of the biggest game of his life with this year’s national championship taking place in Lucas Oil Stadium, 20 miles away from his family’s home.

The fear of that being stripped away dampened some of the excitement surrounding the lineman’s much-anticipated homecoming. That is until a Sunday sermon provided a familiar source of encouragement.

“I talked with him Sunday and told him about the sermon that was preached that day,” Andrea told BamaCentral. “It was talking about having a reboot of life and going to the next step. I feel like he needed to hear that. He just needed to reboot after that shoulder injury and make sure it didn’t hold him back. Just reboot, restart and say, ‘Hey, this is another hurdle, but I’m going to overcome this.’”

Faith has long been a stronghold in the Ekiyor household. It’s what helped Emil cope with the loss of his grandmother during his redshirt freshman season in 2019. The Ekiyors have also used scripture to guide their son through other hurdles during his college career, including overcoming multiple injuries while fighting for a starting spot in a stacked offensive line unit.

“The one that we always keep in mind is Joshua 1:9,” Emil Ekiyor Sr. told BamaCentral. “It goes. ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’

“As an athlete, especially at Alabama, you’ve got to be able to compete and prepare yourself to compete at a high level just match the intensity that people are going to play you with. You just have to be courageous and know that whatever you are going through, you can overcome it mentally.”

The verse was used quite a bit this offseason as Emil was sidelined by a pair of injuries, stunting his development in what was supposed to be a breakout season. A sports hernia surgery kept the redshirt junior out of spring camp before a lingering knee injury required a scope in July.

Emil powered through his rehab, grinding past pain in order to be ready to retain his starting role at right guard by the beginning of the season. Still, frustration began to build as he felt he was failing to live up to the expectations he set for himself early in the year.

“He was so ready for this to be his breakout year,” Andrea said. “The sports hernia really put him in a bad space mentally because he wasn’t able to get that extra work in that everybody else got. He was a little bummed out about that, and it just kind of carried over. We just had to help him realize that it was OK. God, brought you this far.”

Along with providing guidance from afar, the Ekiyors took turns making the roughly eight-hour trip from Indianapolis to Tuscaloosa, Ala., staying with Emil in his apartment during the early months of the season.

While Andrea wasn’t allowed to make her son his favorite pasta dishes due to the team’s strict dietary guidelines, she was able to help out in other ways, making sure he had ice ready when he got home from practice while handling laundry to free up some extra study time.

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Meanwhile, Emil’s father was able to provide more guidance in on-the-field matters. A former defensive end at Central Florida, he spent five years in the NFL before seeing his own playing career cut short by an ankle injury. Able to relate to his son’s frustrations, he spent several late-night conversations reminding Emil to be patient in his recovery and never lose his faith.

“We live in a tough world,” Emil Sr. said. “You’re going to go through tough times, and things aren’t always going to go the way you plan. But when you have faith that everything is going to work out for the good, it helps you go through tough times. Emil has always known that whatever happens, the good times and the tough times, that this is part of his journey. This is what God prepared him for. He knows the bigger picture.”

Despite growing up a fan of his home-state Indiana Hoosiers, Emil’s college journey took him to Alabama as he flipped to the Crimson Tide after originally committing to Michigan. Rated as the top player in the state of Indiana, one of the biggest factors in the decision was to prove that a Midwest talent such as himself belonged on college football’s biggest stage.

Nevertheless, Emil hasn’t lost touch with his Indy roots. He still stops by the city’s famous Long’s Bakery whenever he’s back and town and tunes into Eastern Star Church’s virtual service every Sunday while away at Alabama. The latter has served as one of the biggest guiding presences in his college journey.

Emil was a member of Eastern Star’s youth ministry before leaving for college. It was there that he developed a relationship with associate pastor Jeffrey Johnson Jr., who has taken on a big-brother role in his spiritual development. 

Johnson still checks up with Emil routinely over the phone along with sending care packages and scriptures every month. He served as a shoulder to lean on while the lineman was dealing with the grief of his grandmother's passing. He also made sure to remind Emil of his strength as he fought to find his way at Alabama early in his career.

One of Johnson's favorite passages for Emil has been a line from John 4:4 which reads “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”

“Just because we’re believers doesn’t mean we won’t experience tough times,” Johnson told BamaCentral. “That’s one of the things I try to remind Emil and any young believer in the faith. People believe that when you give your life to Christ that everything is going to be good and perfect. It isn’t like that. You still have to experience real life. Whether that’s death in the family, getting through a setback, I try to remind him that God that’s within us is greater than he who is within the world. We can overcome any obstacle.”

Johnson hasn’t spoken with Ekiyor since last week’s injury but already has a new verse picked out for the lineman as he works to recover in time for next week’s homecoming.

“The scripture I’d send him is Psalms 30:5,” Johnson said. “‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.’ It’s like, he’s been through all this pain, all these setbacks, but he still has the opportunity to get the championship at home. That’s joy right there. It’s been hard, but we know he’s going to overcome anything.”

Earlier this week, Nick Saban did not provide much insight into Emil’s status for Monday night’s national championship game against Georgia, stating that he will evaluate how the lineman progresses during the week before making an assessment on his availability. That being said, Emil’s teammates know better than to count him out when it comes to overcoming adversity.

“He's a tough dude,” starting left tackle Evan Neal said. “He's the kind of guy you want playing next to you. I'm proud of him, the adversity he's had to play through. He's done it. He doesn't complain. He gives it his all. That's really all you can ask for. I'm extremely proud of him and extremely blessed to be able to play next to him.”

Rest assured, the Ekiyors aren’t ready to give up faith either.

“Knowing Emil, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the field,” Emil Sr. said. “They’ll have to tie him down to keep him off the field. We’re just in prayer right now, hoping that he’ll be able to heal up and be ready to play by Monday.”