Overshadowed by a pioneering teammate at Missouri and overwhelmed at home, defensive end Kony Ealy is about to seize the spotlight and reap the rewards of his hard work
WHEN 28-year-old Nettie Jones gave birth to a baby boy on Dec. 21, 1991, she told one of her newborn's young cousins that he could pick the name.
The cousin made up a moniker: He would be called Kony.
Kony Ealy is not a name to be forgotten. It rings. It echoes. And now, 22 years later, baby Kony has grown into a man—a man who racked up 9½ sacks, three forced fumbles and a 49-yard pick six in his final year as a defensive end for Missouri. At 6'5" and 275 pounds, with an equally oversized personality, he fills up every room, welcoming friends with huge hugs. And yet he's an afterthought—not the most buzzed-about Tigers defensive end in the 2014 NFL draft but the second most, thanks to Michael Sam, who announced in February that he is gay.
May 12, 2014
To the 10 NFL teams that he visited in the past month, however, Ealy is no afterthought. He's the Mizzou defensive end (most scouts grade Sam lower), the one whose stock has surged since his season ended with two sacks in a 41--31 Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma State. He's the havoc-creating pass rusher teams will clamor for on Thursday, projected in SI.com's mock drafts to be chosen between No. 24 and No. 30.
Since December, Ealy has been shuttling across the country for workouts and visits. He has been in Atlanta for five sessions a week with his trainer, Chip Smith. And he has been back at his campus home base in Columbia, four hours away from the tiny town in Missouri's boot heel where he spent his teenage years. It can seem farther, though. On those days when scouts are sizing him up and his name is splashed across TV screens and message boards, it's hard to believe that a few years ago he was a kid majoring in agriculture who dreamed of working on a farm.
All Willie Ealy ever really wanted was for his son to be normal. Now 68, Willie says this with a laugh, because nothing about Kony's life approaches normal anymore. Nothing. But normal got him here.
IT WAS around the time his son reached middle school in inner-city St. Louis that Willie knew it was time for a change. He had retired after 18 years of service in various law enforcement offices, rising as high as police chief, but he still had his hands full at home: He had separated from Kony's mother at that point, and in addition to the rambunctious boy he had primary custody of Kony's older sister, Cierra, who was born with a chromosomal disorder that left her with limited communication skills (she interacts mostly through sign language) and an extremely fragile bone structure. Willie, who describes Cierra's chromosomes as being "mixed up," says that her condition is so rare that there isn't even a name for it.
On top of that, Willie dealt daily with the harsh realities of raising two children in a notoriously tough neighborhood. "I wanted them to have a normal child's life, where they could run and play and I wouldn't worry about stray bullets, stolen cars," he says now. "I believed I could make a better life for both of them."
So Willie packed up the family and moved to Lilbourn, Mo. (pop. 1,190), near where he'd grown up himself. There the father who had worried about his son's every move could let him go off down the street to shoot hoops with friends.
Sports quickly became Kony's release, and the better he got, the more Willie began to hope, silently at first, that the family might one day lean on his talents. As an older parent—he was 45 when Kony was born and is now on disability for his diabetes—Willie knew that it would eventually fall to his son to look after Cierra, now 23, who will need to be housed, fed and cared for the rest of her life. He explained this to Kony when he was in elementary school ("You can't look out for her if you're in jail or on drugs"), and the older the boy got, the better he understood. He couldn't let his sister down.
"When that hit me," Kony says, "I started taking sports way more seriously."
Kony was dunking by fifth grade, and fans trickled over from the high school gym to his middle school games just to see the show. (Frequently Willie was asked to produce his son's birth certificate.) In AAU ball Kony kept pace with the likes of Austin Rivers, Otto Porter and Ben McLemore—all future NBA players. And on the New Madrid County Central High football field he was named all-state, while Rivals.com graded him as Missouri's No. 3 senior.
But Ealy was stretched thin by playing two sports; it became a challenge keeping his grades up, especially because he has a learning disability. Here the community kicked in: Kony's teachers knew he couldn't afford extra tutoring, so they charged Willie whatever the family could scrape up. And James Clayborne, an Illinois state senator and St. Louis native, helped by raising and donating money for Willie to travel to his son's AAU games.
All the while, Cierra's was the voice in the back of Kony's mind—and his the voice in hers. Kony is one of the few words Cierra has mastered. When he talks about her, he doesn't stop. She never complains, he says; never cries, despite the pain, despite the difficulty of simply living life. And of that he's in awe. Even if he weren't about to earn millions of dollars, he says, he'd have found a way to take care of her.
Kony doesn't have questions anymore—not when it comes to Cierra's financial well-being. Football has answered those. Even years ago he'd begun to suspect it could.
IN THE spring of 2011, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel excused himself from an interview. A player had stuck his head through the coach's office door and asked for a minute. Pinkel went outside, said a few words and upon returning told the reporter, "That's a future first-round draft pick."
The player was Kony Ealy, and he had yet to play a down of college football.
In his final two seasons in Columbia, Ealy had 80 tackles. His 9½ sacks in his 2013 junior year were two fewer than Sam had, but six of Ealy's came in the Tigers' last five games, with the season on the line. He blossomed into such a versatile chess piece that NFL teams are weighing drafting him at both his familiar end position and as an outside linebacker.
Yet despite having had as much impact as Sam on the field, Ealy operated largely in his teammate's shadow during Missouri's 12--2 season—and certainly in all of the months that followed. He has been supportive of Sam's decision to come out; he and the rest of the team knew about Sam's sexuality for months. Looking back, he speaks admiringly of Sam's penchant to burst into song and of his ability to motivate, something that helped spur Missouri to finish as the No. 5 team in the country.
Ealy declared he was leaving school early for the 2014 draft hours after the Cotton Bowl; two days later he was on his way to Smith's facility in Atlanta. Smith has 20 years experience as an NFL trainer and a strong relationship with Missouri's strength coaches—he prepped defensive tackle Ziggy Hood, the 32nd pick in 2009, who's now with the Jaguars. But there was little consensus on where Ealy would go.
At first, Smith heard that Ealy would be taken as low as the second or third round. Scouts questioned his ability to drop into coverage and suggested that he'd benefited from a strong supporting cast at Missouri. That didn't sit well with the 22-year-old who had modeled his game after his predecessor at defensive end, Aldon Smith, the No. 7 pick (49ers) in 2011. With rapid escalation in mind, Ealy threw himself into Chip Smith's training regimen, doing extra individual drills on Saturdays, and then on Sunday mornings—while most of his friends at the facility slept in—running through entire mock combines.
"Everybody wants to talk about first-round draft picks," says Chip Smith, who played a huge part in getting Hood drafted in the first round by the Steelers, despite projections that he would be taken mid to late in the second. "I've had 18 straight years of first-round picks, but that alone is not impressive to me. First round is first round, whether I've trained the guy, you've trained him or my mama's trained him. Guys like Kony, who had a second-round grade, [then worked their way] into the first-round, that's what matters."
On Feb. 24, Smith was watching a broadcast of the NFL combine from home when he received a text message from Ealy, who was standing on the Lucas Oil Field turf in Indianapolis, surrounded by all of the football personnel he needed to impress. He had just run the 40-yard dash, his first drill of the day, and now he was asking, "How did I do?" As stopwatches click and the world watches on live TV, athletes themselves are often left clueless about the results. Viewers at home sometimes know first, and Ealy wanted to know.
Smith paused. During two months of working with Ealy, the trainer had learned that his charge responded best to positive reinforcement. "We're not going to worry about what you got," Smith texted back, vaguely. "We can't let it mess up your psyche."
The reality: Ealy had run a 4.92, which placed him among the lower half of defensive ends in Indianapolis. This was hardly ideal, but there were still more important drills to come, and Smith knew that bad news might affect the way Ealy attacked them. "We'll get the official times in a couple of days," Smith texted. "Just keep doing what you're doing and kill the other drills."
To Ealy, it seemed, no news was good news, and he carried on. Besides, he had little time to dwell on his 40—he still had skill drills, the vertical leap, the broad jump, the shuttle run and, most important, the three-cone drill. That exercise, a sort of back-and-forth run between an L-shaped arrangement of cones, is perhaps the most important test for players at his position; it quantifies agility and quickness. Without knowing the specifics of his poor start, Ealy performed with polish: His time of 6.83 seconds was the fastest among all defensive linemen and the third fastest of any defensive end over the past nine years. LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher in 2013, ran a 6.87 at his private workout in '09.
Scouts noticed. Ealy's 40 time became regarded as an outlier, to the point that he talked about forgoing the sprint at his March 20 pro day at Missouri. Then he reconsidered. Good thing; one month after his lead-footed sprint in Indianapolis, Ealy—eight pounds lighter and battling a 48-hour bug—ran a 4.57.
Chip Smith breathed a sigh of relief. "I've put about 1,300 guys in the league," he says. "But I've never had a player improve as dramatically as [Ealy] did between the combine and his pro day."
WITH THE NFL draft pushed back this year from the end of April to May 8, Ealy has had a few extra weeks to train following his team visits. And now comes the moment he's been waiting for since that day outside Pinkel's office, since those conversations with his dad about what it meant for someone to be entirely dependent upon him. Willie and Kony will also soon sign the papers that give them joint custody of Cierra.
The journey, in many ways, has ended.
"We got through it," says Willie. "A lot of things we had to do—I don't know quite how we made it, but somehow we did."
Somehow. Someway. Someday. Someday is now. This is Kony Ealy's moment, and he dares you to forget his name.
"You can't look out for your sister if you're in jail," Willie Ealy told his son in elementary school. "When that hit me," Kony says, "I started taking sports way more seriously."
Cierra speaks mostly in sign language. Among the few words she has mastered is her younger brother's name.
To find out where Kony Ealy and the rest of the 2014 class get selected, plus live analysis of every first-round pick, the lowdown on steals and reaches, and team grades, visit SI.com/NFL throughout the draft.