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Ikem Ekwonu: Always striking the right note

Ickey Ekwonu

CHARLOTTE — Even before he was great at his job, Ikem Ekwonu knew how to fit in with a team.

Whatever the coach needed him to do, he was eager to do. Before he mastered a technique, before he was ready for the spotlight, he seemed to enjoy putting in the hours to be prepared.

That way, by the moment it was showtime, when he put on his uniform, you could tell he was comfortable in front of crowds of people, that he belonged on the big stage, and that he was ready.

And then, when the timing was perfect, he proved that he was a better singer than anyone could imagine.

Wait, singer?

Before the Charlotte native was drafted by his hometown team to anchor an offensive line, he stood out — among many other things — in honors chorus at Providence Day School.

"I loved having him in choir, he always treated it like a team, which it is," Providence Day choral director Libby Tilson said. "So many kids who sing want to do solos. And he could solo, he had a great voice. But he sang in a way that allowed others to find their roles and excel as well."

Ekwonu, as he is on the football field, is confident in his talents, noting that he has the range to sing either bass or tenor, two fairly different positions.

"Ickey could sing as a tenor, and even if he didn't hit the highest notes the way some can," Tilson pointed out. "He knew how to place his voice correctly with those around him, and how to fit in for the good of the group."

Ickey Ekwonu

When she says it like that, it sounds a little like football, and a lot like the reason the Panthers picked him sixth overall in the 2022 NFL Draft. They're expecting a lot from the first offensive player chosen this year, and the first tackle they've taken in the first round since 2008.

They believe he's going to be a star someday. They're even more sure he knows how to fit in right now.

Ekwonu grins when he sees a picture of himself at a choral competition at Carowinds, during his senior year at PDS. He laughed and said he remembered the rides that day as much as the songs he sang, part of the eyes-wide-open charm that draws people to him.

"My friends call me cheesy when I say this. But chorus is like a team," Ekwonu said this weekend, as he made his way through his new workplace in the Bank of America Stadium. "I mean, it's not a sports team, but we're still competing for one. And if one person messes up, it messes the whole group up. That sounds like a team to me.

"Same thing on the offensive line. If four guys are doing everything right and I mess up, the play's dead. Same thing, if I'm one of six guys in the bass section and I'm screeching, missing notes and everything, you're going to hear me and not the whole group. So there are a lot of parallels."

And still, he stands out.

Ickey Ekwonu

On the football field, people notice the way he puts defenders on the ground. On the stage, Tilson was always struck with the confidence he showed during concerts.

"When he was in his tuxedo at a concert, he had a pride about himself," she said. "He was not ashamed of his talent, and he was comfortable on stage."

Of course, it wasn't all tuxedos and polish and excellence when he was younger. There was also a phase when he might have eaten things out of the trash.

While the weekend was all about his football stardom, Ekwonu's older brother Chike was there from the beginning. So he knows all the annoying habits, the way an older brother does, and laughed when he recalled a younger Ikem as a rather impetuous — and hungry — child.

"He's fixed it now, but he used to be very 'do before thinking,'" Chike said. "If someone said, 'Hey, go eat an ice cream bar out of the trash can.' He'd be, all right, and it was already in his mouth without a second thought."

Ickey Ekwonu

(It should be noted that in the dynamic of families with multiple children, there's at least a slight chance that Chike might have been the "someone" to suggest his little brother should do such a thing.)

"A little bit of impulse-control, I had to develop that over the years," Ickey said with a laugh. "I feel like I'm at a good place right now. I think a little bit more before I act."

Speaking of acting, that was another part of a pretty wide-ranging resume.

At the combine, he charmed reporters with stories of his early days in musical theater, proudly recalling playing Pongo in a production of 101 Dalmatians. But he also competed in whatever sports were in season, and was a member of Boy Scout Troop 39.

"I was doing the backpacking, and the canoeing, and the fly fishing, everything under the sun," he said.

At a time when many parents think the path to success is to have their kid concentrate on one thing and do it maniacally, Ekwonu's parents made sure their four children were exposed to a variety of hobbies. Always the priority was on academics, but otherwise, it was about exploring their own interests.

"Life demands well-rounded human beings. Extremes are never good. And just being prepared for whatever comes," his mother Amaka said Friday as she joined her son at the stadium. "They were all very broad. We knew they loved every sport, but baseball was the one none of my children showed interest in, I don't know why. They did every sport in season, whether it was neighborhood swim team or something else.

"And the summers are long. You need to stay busy. Go find something, or I'll find it for you. So we found theatre, and they enjoyed it."

Any parent knows that scheduling so many things, especially for multiple children, can make days a logistical nightmare. But there's a calm sense of support from Ekwonu's parents, a simple expectation that this is what we do, and the resources will be provided for them to do it, so it should be done fully.

And when his father explained that it took some time to get his son to the point where he also understood how to strike the right balance, you can tell it was not without moments where they did not find it. Particularly with the twins, Ickey and his brother Osita, now a linebacker at Notre Dame.

"My belief is in education. Getting an education is very important. Sport is also good, but there is a balance there where you can do both, without affecting each other," his father TJ said. "That's what we tried to do. School, homework, play, that kind of thing. I would try to keep them busy. Summer, how do we keep them busy so they don't get in trouble? Swimming or football or soccer, or other activities.

"Sometimes you would have to stay on top of them, to make sure they do what you need them to do. When he was doing homework or errands, he can be a little loose with that. But when it comes to football, if the coach says I want to see you at 7 a.m., they're there at 7 a.m."

Ekwonu family

Over time, Ekwonu would develop into a leader on the football field, though he never lost that sense of mischief, that gleam in his eye and the quick smile. Football might be serious, but life is fun.

"If we ever had a kid who was struggling, we could send Ickey to go help him," former Providence Day football coach Adam Hastings said. "And he'd go from not knowing him to being his best friend.

"Now, he might steal his food, but he'd be his best friend."

"He has everything we want in a student," Tilson said. "He just has a joy about him, an empathy, a good humor that you love to see in young people.

"He comes from a great home, and carries it with him wherever he goes. He was always so good at observing others people and fitting in. He has a big personality, but he also has the ability to weigh that against others, and he also knows when to be gentle and quiet. He always had a feel for his surroundings."

His father smiles when he hears the stories from teachers and coaches, who consistently describe Ekwonu as a leader, as a helper. That was instilled in him at home. The light in his eyes comes naturally, it's inside him, that natural charisma that draws people to him.

"I think it as having a lot of energy," his father said. "He's always cheerful, he's always a leader, he's always the center of attention. Sometimes you want to say, 'This is not the right time.' There are times to have jokes, time to be boisterous, so they had to learn that. Which he did.

"He found a balance, and it worked out well for him."

Toward that end, Ickey acknowledged that the discipline required to play and be good at football helped him become more focused in other areas of his life (ostensibly, this would include giving up trash-can ice cream). But he also understands the value of being active in many other things, whether it was singing or backpacking or swimming or soccer.

"I feel like it helps in a lot of ways," Ickey said of his exposure to so many things. "And meeting lots of different types of people gives me a whole new perspective on life. Treating others the way you want to be treated, and everything like that. But discipline as well.

"Football is a tough sport. It requires you to sit back and think sometimes. You can't be impulsive on the field, because that's when you make mistakes. Having to think quickly instead of just acting on impulse is something I had to develop and learn from playing football.

Those kinds of traits can be learned over time. There's something innate about gratitude.

So for all the flair of Las Vegas, there was a point in the weekend when the time spent with his parents and older brother, whether in the green room before the draft or on a bumpy flight home, were special for Ekwonu. It was something he was savoring as much as walking into his new locker room for the first time. A quiet smile. A sense of place. A belonging.

Getting here took years. He understands he couldn't have gotten here alone.

"I've always said my parents have been my biggest supporters growing up," Ekwonu said quietly. "Throughout every passion I had, whether it was musical theater, Boy Scouts, and not to mention, football. Giving me their time and energy and obviously financial support.

"I guess my first way was earning that scholarship to N.C. State, and taking that burden off them. And now I was able to celebrate this moment of my life with them as well. They were always there."

View photos of first-round draft pick and Charlotte native Ickey Ekwonu as he comes to Bank of America Stadium and meets with fans, coaches and staff for the first time as a Panther.