As wide receiver Ikey Chuku lay cringing on the practice turf, pain shooting through his right knee for the second time in less than a year, he couldn’t help but feel some doubt.
The 11-month rehab following his first knee surgery had been for nothing, he thought. All the patience of the coaching staff, all the attention from the trainers and the medical staff at NovaCare, and all the support from his family had been wasted.
He felt he had let them all down.
“I felt like the hard work wasn’t enough,” Chuku, now a sixth-year senior, admitted to thinking as he laid there, teammates and medical staff milling around him.
“Doing all the rehab and everything, I thought I had strengthened it up enough that I could come back and perform to the level I had before,” he said. “It was a big disappointment. I felt that I just didn’t do what I needed to do.”
That was in Temple’s preseason football camp in 2002. Now, the 6-3, 196-pound Chuku is the starting slot receiver in the Owls’ spread offense. A high ankle sprain injury to Buchie Ibeh against Maryland forced coach Bobby Wallace to push Chuku to the outside, beginning two weeks ago against Florida A&M.
Chuku responded by catching five passes for 115 yards and a touchdown, earning Offensive Player of the Game honors for the second time in his career.
“Honestly, it’s not any surprise to us that he stepped up,” senior wideout Phil Goodman said. “He’s always stepped up. He’s the one with the most experience here, so when he had to step outside to take Buchie’s spot, we really didn’t think we were skipping a beat.”
The rest of the Owls echoed Goodman’s sentiments.
Wallace seemed incredulous that Chuku’s position change would be anything but smooth. Even former teammate and current Pittsburgh Steeler Zamir Cobb likes to call Chuku, “The General.”
Chuku, for the most part, laughs at the nickname. But he takes the concept of it very seriously.
It is a reference to his long tenure as an Owl and the comprehensive understanding that comes with being a converted high school quarterback.
“That comes from my many years of being here,” he said, chuckling when asked about his nickname. “They call me ‘The General’ because when we’re in practice I’m basically like another [offensive coordinator David] Brock on the field.”
The Largo, MD, native came to Temple on a track scholarship in 1999 and walked onto the football team that fall.
He already had a decent grasp of the game, having been an all-State quarterback at Largo High School, but he knew he had to do more.
The only way a slender walk-on with no major experience at wideout was going to make an impact, he told himself, was to know the ins and outs of the offense better than any coach.
Back in 2002, his battered body had hardly been removed from the field when he decided to go back to the football classroom.
“I always tell other people, when you’re injured it’s time to expand your knowledge of the game,” he said. “You’ve got to look at the little, itty-bitty things. You know the total scheme of the offense? Okay, now start reading the defense.
“Since you can’t be on the field, you want to increase your mental weapons.”
Whether on the field or off of it, few can reasonably question Chuku’s mental arsenal.
He already owns a degree in criminal justice and political science, and is taking graduate courses with his eyes on a career in law if the NFL doesn’t come calling.
His on-field intellect, then, is a reflection of his academic acumen.
“I just try to utilize any knowledge I have, whether from previous players who’ve played in college or family members who value having a degree,” he said. “You can’t play but for so long. If you could play to 100, a lot of people would play to 100, but due to physical constraints you can’t.”
Now healthy and doubt-free in 2004, Chuku can focus on each weekend’s game without being concerned with how his knee will hold up.
When the pads are off, though, his mind switches gears from athlete to bookworm.
“I’m just working to pursue this Master’s [degree],” he said, “to get that piece of paper.”
Ben Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.