CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Being drafted by his hometown team has advantages for Carolina PanthersPick in the first round Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu.
The mammoth left tackle has already established a list of favorite Queen City spots and restaurants like Le Peep, The Improper Pig and other eateries. And he is only a short drive from his mom’s Nigerian recipes that include goat meat over jollof rice.
There are also some disadvantages.
“On Wednesdays, he still has to take out the trash,’’ his mother, Amaka, told ESPN.com with a laugh.
Trash isn’t a word you use about Ekwonu’s game, unless it comes from trash talking, at which, according to former coaches, he excels. Analysts projected him to be the top pick in last week's draft because of his outstanding skills and measurables.
The Panthers were shocked to see that the former Providence Day (Charlotte), Star was on the board at No. 6. They went through about 50 draft scenarios on Thursday morning, and “not many,’’ according to coach Matt Rhule, had the 6-foot-4, 320-pound Ekwonu available.
When you are New York GiantsThe selection of an Oregon defensive player continues the defensive players' run Kayvon ThibodeauxAt No. 5. It was just a matter minutes before Ekwonu noticed the familiar 704 code flash on his mobile phone.
The flash of the biggest smile was then followed by the Las Vegas Strip's most famous moment.
His mother, who was a track star in highschool and moved from Nigeria to the United States during the 1980s, was the most happy. She “really, really, really’’ wanted her son playing for the Panthers, a team he grew up cheering for as a kid.
“It could not have been scripted any better,’’ she said.
Playing at home can add extra pressure. Ekwonu thrives in pressure. Former coaches insist he played his best games in against the best competition, and the pressure of performing for the home crowd won’t bother him.
“He’ll look at it more as a blessing,’’ NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “He’s got a huge family, and the fact that they can all continue to be a part of his journey, he’ll look at it as an opportunity.’’
Left tackle vs. quarterback at Number 6
Ekwonu was seated in the end zone seats in January 2016 with Osita, his twin brother. Cam NewtonThe Panthers won against the Texans. Arizona CardinalsThe NFC Championship game.
He was a huge Panthers fan, Newton especially, and pictures often show him with a No. 59 Luke Kuechly jersey.
Scott Fitterer, general manager, could have easily reached for the sixth overall pick Thursday to find the next great quarterback. Liberty’s Malik Willis or Pittsburgh’s Kenny PickettThese would have made for more sexy picks.
Fitterer chose to go with the certain thing, and made Ekwonu one of the first Carolina linemen to be selected in the first round since 2008. They met Friday. traded up in the third round to get Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral.
Fitterer stopped the hemorhaging at the left tackle that had been causing havoc since Ekwonu's return. Jordan GrossAfter the 2013 season, I was forced to retire.
“He is the tone-setter,’’ Fitterer said. “He is a smart guy. He's physical. He’s tough. He’s got every trait that you want in an offensive lineman.’’
This story is even better because Ekwonu was born 30 minutes from Bank of America Stadium.
“This is more motivation for him, playing for his home team in front of his classmates from Providence Day,’’ said Ekwonu’s father, Tagbo (T.J.), a former Nigerian basketball player who moved to Charlotte in the 1990s and works as a family doctor.
Ikem vs. Ickey
Ikem is short for Ikemefuna, which in Nigeria means “my strength is not in vain.’’ He was dubbed “Ickey’’ by a youth coach because he reminded him of former Cincinnati BengalsIckey Woods running back
Back then, running back was Ekwonu’s dream position.
A few growth spurts later, it was apparent Ekwonu’s future was as an offensive lineman and instead of running through holes, he would create them. That ultimately earned him the nickname “Pancake King’’ for his blocks.
But what makes Ekwonu effective as a blocker isn’t just size. It’s what his mother and high school coach call the “switch.’’ Ekwonu goes from “Mr. Nice Guy’’ to what he describes as a mode of “violence, physicality, strain.’’
“I tell people all the time there’s Ikem and Ickey,’’ former Providence Day coach Adam Hastings said. “Ickey is the player. Like, it’s in your face, I’m going to drive you to the ground.
“Ikem is aAlways a smile on his face, always joking — always joking around — just loves life.’’
704 Area Code
Everyone within eyesight of Ekwonu’s phone began celebrating when they saw the 704 area code appear Thursday night.
“We were all so happy, just the thought that he’s staying home,’’ Hastings said. “He’s going to be a success, not because of the great player he is — and he is — but because of the person he is.’’
Amaka was happy because her mother would now be able to see Ekwonu's play just like she did in high school.
“It’s gonna be amazing,’’ she said. “She couldn’t do the travel [to Raleigh to watch him play at NC State]. Traveling was tedious. So now she can start seeing him play again.’’
Ekownu is also grateful for that, even though chores are still a part.
“Every time I come home I have to take the trash out and do the dishes,’’ he said. “It looks like that will never change.’’