CHARLOTTE — When new Panthers tackle Ikem Ekwonu describes his game using words like "violence, physicality," it's a football coach's dream.
But the things that make Ekwonu special transcend his ability to flatten defenders, and when you get coaches talking about them, you start to realize why they love him so much.
As Ekwonu was in the green room in Las Vegas, waiting to hear his name called by the Panthers with the sixth overall pick to begin his professional career, he asked for a favor. So he sat down next to his former high school coach at Providence Day, Adam Hastings, and asked to see his iPhone.
"We're sitting here at the NFL Draft, we're in Las Vegas, he's about to go to the NFL, and he asks me if we can FaceTime my son, A.J.," Hastings said. "I mean, that's the kind of person he is. This is his biggest moment, and all he wanted to do was talk to my son.
"For a kid of that character, who cares about his community, to come back home is a special thing. He's going to flourish in this city, because it's his city."
If it's not already, it's about to be, as the former musical theater star at Providence Day — he had a lead role as Pongo in 101 Dalmatians — has the kind of personality to energize any town. He just happened to grow up in this one. As he recalled favorite restaurants growing up here — breakfast at Le Peep, barbecue from The Improper Pig, football team dinners at the Pizza Peel — you could see the gleam in his eye. As he recalled going to Matthews Alive festival as a kid, you could see that he belongs here, and that he's part of the fabric of this city already.
But he also has the kind of personality that can energize an entire team, as his new coaches are anticipating based on their much shorter relationships with him.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Ekwonu brought "a bolt of energy" to his visit here earlier this month, and it was easy to see how excited they were to get the top offensive lineman on their board with the sixth overall pick.
"Just really a special person to go along with his physical style of play," Rhule said. "There is no doubt that he can pass set, that he can run block, he's got all those tools. I also believe in the person that he is. He's from right here in Charlotte, he went to Providence Day. This is going to be a special place for him. We talked everything from favorite restaurants, to blocking the three‐technique.
"He's a person that is going to step into this locker room, and our players are going to respect the way that he plays but also who he is. I think that visit was, I mean it was one of the best things that I've ever been a part of. We walked away like, wow, that's a grown man."
If Rhule sounds excited, he is.
"We're trying to be cool, calm, and collected," Rhule said at his press conference, moments after high-fiving and hugging co-workers. "But we're pretty fired up."
When new Panthers offensive line coach James Campen realized what he was being given to work with, he was equally thrilled. But he's also going to be the guy who is on Ekwonu's case every day, who has to drill him on the finer points of technique.
"He just plays hard, he plays physical, he's a worker, he's very smart, very cerebral kid," Campen said, rattling off a laundry list of qualities you look for in the position. "His upbringing is obviously very good. He's very well-mannered. He just checks all the boxes. But he also brings a physical presence, and a play-style that not only elevates the room, but elevates everybody.
"To play with that type of temperament, . . . He's a very driven guy, who has room to grow."
Asked what he thought Ekwonu could get better at, and Campen had a quick answer.
"Everything. And I bet he would say that," Campen replied. "I don't think he'd be one to accept that he had made it in any area of his game.
"He's a very very driven person. I bet he'd say everything. To have a player like that, you can really push people over the top."
Those who have seen him work on a daily basis know that well.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren, who was also in Las Vegas with the Ekwonu family, said he could tell from the moment Ekwonu stepped onto the field there was something different about him.
"It's just the way he finishes people, more than anything," Doeren said. "The number of people he puts on the ground is hard to compare to other players.
"I wish I knew how he flipped that switch; I would tell every player to do it the same way. Some people just have a competitiveness about them, and he does. As a player, he's just such a violent finisher.
Doeren marveled as he thought back on the highlights from pancaking multiple Wake Forest players in one of his first starts at guard, to a trick play against Miami later in his career in which he "put about three or four guys on the ground on the same play."
"But to get where he is here tonight, his level of humility never changed," Doeren said. "You want all the kids you coach to be successful, but to see someone as grounded as he is, is really cool to watch."
Campen could barely bear to watch, as he saw five defensive players come off the board to allow Ekwonu to fall into his lap. For a guy who will let a profanity slip from time to time, you'd forgive him if he had a few Thursday night.
"In my opinion he was the best lineman in the draft, And when someone like that starts to fall down to you, it's like 'Holy smokes.'"
"I'm getting better at the mic," Campen laughed.
And his room got better as well, as the Panthers now have the ability to move Brady Christensen inside to guard, to go along with newcomers Austin Corbett and Bradley Bozeman to give them talent like they haven't enjoyed in years.
"It's special, when you get the best player at his position in the draft, it's extremely exciting," Campen said. "At the same time, we have 13 guys that were on the roster, and now he's number 14. At the end of the day, he's going to come in and take a seat just like everyone else and work and perform, and do the things that are necessary to get him better."
And Campen is sure of that, because every coach he's had along the way has a similar story.
That may be why several of his old coaches were around him Thursday night. And it might be why he was there to begin with.
View photos of Ickey Ekwonu with the Commissioner on the draft stage in Las Vegas.