Overcoming adversities, Detroit native Uwazurike knocking on NFL's door
Indianapolis — Eyioma Uwazurike wears his Detroit roots like a badge of honor and his heart on his sleeve. The former Iowa State defensive lineman has overcome personal adversity after personal adversity and now stands on the threshold of achieving his dream of playing in the NFL.
At the scouting combine on Friday, Uwazurike wore a necklace, a reminder of one of his greatest tribulations. The diamond-encrusted piece is a framed picture of his father, Roland, who passed away in 2019.
"That's not only my dad, (but) my best friend," Uwazurike said. "I wear this around because it's like everywhere I go, he's with me. I feel comfortable here, in this setting, because I know I'm being watched over."
Only 48 years old, Roland died in his sleep days before Iowa State's bowl game against Notre Dame. Uwazurike woke up in the morning to what he estimated was 30 missed phone calls from his younger brother. It was a devastating blow for the young lineman, but he leaned on his network of support at the school to get him through that difficult time.
In past interviews, Uwazurike hasn't gone into depth about his father, although it's been casually noted that Roland was in and out of his life. The reality is more complicated. In 2010, the Nigerian national was convicted of smuggling in large quantities of heroin into Michigan, worth more than $150,000, through high school text books.
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Football allowed Uwazurike to break free from that cycle, but the path was still far from easy. Despite ranking among the top-50 local players by the Detroit News while attending Southfield-Lathrup in 2015, he struggled to generate much buzz as a recruit. Additionally, academic struggles contributed to both the University of Michigan and Michigan State taking a pass.
In a show of loyalty, Uwazurike decided he would accept the first scholarship offered. That came from University of Toledo and coach Matt Campbell. And when Campbell took the Iowa State job the following year, Uwazurike followed.
There, academics remained a hurdle. Uwazurike had always struggled in school and didn't know how he'd make it through at Iowa State. And at first, he didn't, being ruled academically ineligible as a freshman.
But as impressive as any on-field accomplishment during his five years at the school, Uwazurike turned it around through sheer dedication. By his senior year in 2021, he was named to the academic all-conference team and became the first in his family to graduate college. He's since enrolled in a master's program at Iowa State.
"I had to re-learn how to love school," Uwazurike said. "In Detroit, it was hard to get through school because it was almost a free-for-all.
"I was in the (Iowa Sate) academic center late nights, every day. My first year, when I was academically ineligible, I had 18 credits. I had like nine classes and I was doing that and football at the same time, really learning how to love school and that part of it. They made it fun and it wasn't fun before. I feel like that's what really changed my whole opinion on school.
"It started off rough, but it's always about how you finish. I finished in the right way."
On the field, he also made impressive developments. He packed on more than 50 pounds, mostly muscle, and became a versatile piece up front for the Cyclones, lining up all across the defensive line. To go with those all-academic honors in 2021, he was also a first-team all-conference selection by the Big 12 coaches after racking up 9.0 sacks.
That's some impressive pass-rush production for a 320-pounder and it's something he's looking to port to the next level.
"I love (playing) the 3-technique," Uwazurike said. "I feel like I thrive at that the most because my pass rush there works a lot. I also like being lined up wide, me being a 4i (technique) sometimes and getting to rush against a guard, I feel like it's a mismatch with a lot of people. I feel like I'm just scraping the surface with my potential there and I can't wait to see what that will look like in the future."
For maybe the first time, the path is clear for Uwazurike. Even though it's uncertain when and where he'll be drafted, it appears highly likely he will be selected this April. His drive and ability to overcome obstacles will undoubtedly impress any decision-maker who considers adding him to their team's roster.
Uwazurike doesn't bemoan those obstacles he's traversed coming out of Detroit. They've molded, shaped and motivated him to reach this point.
"It means everything," he said. "It's where I started playing football, where I gained my love of football, just inner-city Detroit and Detroit PAL. Growing up in Detroit, it's really rough. It makes you the tough person you are. I'm grateful for walking down that path, going through that path in life because it's made me who I am today."