Alabama's opener has special meaning for OL Emil Ekiyor Jr.
The Ekiyors always kept their son busy growing up, but Friday nights were reserved for Nana. Marjorie Sims would rush home from her job as a physical education teacher to prepare her house for movie night. She’d cook her grandson’s favorites like cubed steak and fettuccine — comfort food that mom and dad wouldn’t always allow.
Then the two would talk.
For Emil Ekiyor Jr., Sims was more than a grandmother, she was his confidant. The two shared the same kind and giving spirit but also the same fire when anyone had the misfortune of rubbing them the wrong way.
When Nick Saban recruited Ekiyor to Alabama, Nana was the one the head coach had to convince. Sims was brought up in rural Arkansas during the 1960s and was uneasy about her grandson making the move from Indianapolis to the Deep South. A handwritten letter from Saban explaining how much the Crimson Tide needed Ekiyor and how the team would take care of him in Tuscaloosa ultimately helped seal the deal.
During Ekiyor’s true freshman season in 2018, Sims made the 17-hour round trip drive from Indianapolis to Tuscaloosa, Ala. for each of her grandson’s games, even though he seldom saw the field. She was also a comforting presence over the phone during the offensive lineman’s first year away from home.
“She was there for him for everything from guidance to just being there to talk,” said Ekiyor’s father, Emil Ekiyor Sr. “She loved Alabama football. They would just have conversations about football, and she’d always be there to support him. They were extremely close.”
Sims was diagnosed with angiosarcoma during Ekiyor’s first year at Alabama. While the cancer was treated, it resurfaced again last year causing her lung to collapse. Ekiyor knew his grandmother was sick, but Sims sheltered him from the severity of her illness, asking his parents not to tell him of the second diagnosis. Instead, she kept things positive with her grandson. The two talked about Ekiyor’s college experiences and the promise of more playing time, something Sims was determined to see in person.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The two shared their final phone call on Aug. 27 of last year, the Tuesday before Alabama’s season opener against Duke. Sims passed away two days later.
The situation worsened when Ekiyor sustained a knee injury in the game as he landed awkwardly during a block in the fourth quarter. While he had to be helped to the Tide’s locker room, the pain was nothing compared to the hurt that was coming later that day.
Hours later, in the parking lot of a Starbucks, Ekiyor’s father broke the news of Sims’ passing to his son.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Ekiyor Sr. said. “It was my wife, him and me, we all just sat there in the car in tears for 20 or 30 minutes. For him, it was that he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Telling him that news, I haven’t ever done anything that hard in my life.”
Added Ekiyor’s mother, Andrea: “He was devastated. He just kept saying, ‘I love Nana so much.’ He just kept saying ‘No.’ It was very painful for him. It was very traumatic.”
The news of Sims’ passing weighed heavily on Ekiyor over the next few weeks. He felt frustrated and betrayed.
“Nana and I shared everything,” he told his mother. “Why didn’t she tell me? I would have wanted to be there with her.”
While Ekiyor overcame his injury in time to play in Week 3, his mental status suffered. Prior to Sims’ death, the Ekiyors notified Alabama of the situation in an attempt to help their son cope with her passing. Andrea spoke with Alabama director of behavioral medicine Dr. Ginger Gilmore-Childress who suggested the team set up counseling sessions and visits with the team chaplains.
“It’s just unbelievable the support he received, both the spiritual side and the mental side,” Andrea said. “Everybody at Alabama just wrapped their arms around him. I think that allowed him to become whole again sooner.”
Ekiyor was also reminded not to let go of the lessons instilled in him by his grandmother. Before sending his son back to Tuscaloosa, Ekiyor Sr. recited one of his favorite sayings: “Tough times go away, but tough people don’t.”
“I just told him that you have to stay tough through this,” Ekiyor Sr. said. “His grandma definitely wanted him to be successful. She wanted to see him graduate in three and a half years. She had several things that she expected of him as a young man.
“I just reminded him of all those things and all his dreams he shared with her. We wanted him to keep those good memories, but I also wanted to remind him why he can’t shut down.”
From there, the determined lineman submerged himself in Alabama’s process. While continuing to serve as a reserve, Ekiyor received his big break against Arkansas where he filled in for an injured Evan Neal at left guard. Playing a season-high 56 snaps, Ekiyor did not allow a quarterback pressure while helping the Tide rush for 4.7 yards per carry on the night. His next extended action came against Western Carolina when he earned a season-high 86.7 offensive grade from Pro Football Focus during a 66-3 win.
“I remember he turned to me and said, ‘Look, Dad, I’m not going to take anything for granted,’” Ekiyor Sr. recalled. "There’s no more ‘Wait till next year.’ He was like, I’m going to do this tomorrow. I’m going to attack everything.”
Hard work is nothing new in the Ekiyor household. Ekiyor’s father moved from Nigeria to Florida at the age of 15 in order to pursue educational opportunities. There he discovered football, working his way to a scholarship at Central Florida before carving out a five-year career as a defensive lineman in the NFL.
While he never pushed football on his son, he was determined to instill that same work ethic in him. Serving as the defensive line coach on Ekiyor’s high school team, Ekiyor Sr. would make life difficult for his son, calling for his players to go hard on him on every rep. While those tough practices sometimes resulted in angry nights at home, they helped sharpen the lineman’s drive on the field.
“The thing I told him is that the biggest irritant for a defensive lineman is an offensive lineman that doesn’t stop,” Ekiyor Sr. said. “Someone who just irritates the heck out of you, pushes you every play, someone who is in just as good of shape as a defensive lineman himself.”
The physical side of the game has always come easy for Ekiyor. A former basketball player, he has always been able to maintain his athleticism despite his size. The struggle has been developing consistency.
Ekiyor started at left guard during his freshman year at Cathedral High School. He then moved to right tackle his sophomore year before moving to left tackle as a junior and center as a senior. That constant shifting continued at Alabama where he has bounced around at both guard spots as well as center.
While the transition has added to the lineman’s versatility, it left him a bit raw in terms of technique. This offseason, Ekiyor focused on changing that, teaming up with former NFL linemen Trai Essex and Bob Whitfield to better fine-tune his skills at the position.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Ekiyor was unable to train with Whitfield in person. Instead, the former Pro Bowler evaluated the lineman’s clips over WhatsApp and held Zoom calls to break down film. Whitfield, who has previously worked with former Tide stars James Carpenter as well as Arie and Cyrus Koundjio, focused specifically on improving Ekiyor’s awareness leading up to the block, sharpening the lineman’s eye location and footwork.
“It was good because basically, it was the cerebral side of football where you are really honing in on the technical aspect and the fine details,” Whitfield said. “I think he understands what I call the blocking palette, the array of blocks that you use in the game. He not only understands all these techniques but he can now articulate when they are supposed to be used on certain plays.”
Ekiyor was able to meet with Essex in person as the two worked primarily on footwork and hand-placement drills at St. Vincent Sports Performance in nearby Carmel, Ind. Essex refers to Ekiyor as “abnormally mature,” stating his drive to improve exceeds most players his age.
“You can tell he was focused,” Essex said. “He’s always had that since I’ve been training him coming out of high school, but it was even more evident. He was very focused in all the drills. He wanted to get the most out of everything he did. He must have asked a million work questions. Knowing my history of playing multiple positions in the NFL, he wanted to pick my brain about any and everything. You can tell he’s ready to put on a show for Alabama this year.”
Earlier this week, that hard work paid off as Ekiyor was named as the starting right guard on Alabama’s official depth chart.
“He’s in really good shape,” Saban said last week. “He’s got very good power. He’s very smart as a player. He can play multiple positions, center and guard. We look at him as a starter and he can start multiple positions for us, and he’ll get a lot of playing time for sure.”
While his grandmother will not be in attendance Saturday, Ekiyor found a way to keep her close to him at all times, getting a tattoo of her birthdate on his wrist.
“He wasn’t going to get just any tattoo, he wanted it to mean something,” Andrea said. “He chose the inside of his wrist so that any time he takes a snap or any time he’s in his stance he can always see it and know that Nana is with him.”
This year, Sims’ birthday, Sept. 27, falls one day after Alabama’s season opener against Missouri. The Ekiyors believe she’ll be looking down and watching, just like all those Friday nights.