Sticking to his instincts – Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
When everyone told him it’d be foolish to pass up the NFL for another year of school. When everyone was in his ear saying he shouldn’t play at Chino Hills High. When everyone said he’d be a better free safety than cornerback. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu thought otherwise.
The Ducks’ senior two-time All-American will politely listen when given advice. But unless he’s taking orders from his coaches, outside opinions won’t have much influence on the decisions he makes.
Ekpre-Olomu knew early on that he wanted to play football just like his only brother, Kesena. “He was one of the best players so I always looked up to him,” Ifo said. The youngest of four children, Oregon’s veteran cornerback credits Kesena as his role model, but for a time he was also his rival.
Soon after Ifo first laced up his cleats, he made it his mission to outperform his brother on the football field. Despite being separated by about eight years of age, the two were each other’s biggest competitors. “If he had four touchdowns, I’d have to score five. He just made me work harder,” Ifo said.
The sibling rivalry goes deeper than that, though. Kesena played his high school football a few minutes from home at Chino High. Ifo, however, took a different path. “I was supposed to go to Chino, but I decided to go to the rival high school across town, Chino Hills High, because I thought It would be a better opportunity for me,“ he said.
His buddies and neighbors weighed in on the decision and urged him to follow his brother’s footsteps. But Ekpre-Olomu knew that wasn’t in his best interest. “Everyone wanted me to go to Chino, because that’s where I’m from,” he said. “Then I ended up going to Chino Hills and everyone thought I was being a traitor.”
Making new friends and learning to play with new teammates was a tough adjustment, but the unpopular decision he made a few months prior was validated during his first season. “Freshman year of high school we played against Chino and I had one of my best games against all of my old friends. That’s something I’ll always remember,” Ekpre-Olomu said.
The three-year letterman dominated on both sides of the ball as a running back, defensive back, and returner. Yet throughout most of high school, he wasn’t at the position he knew he was meant to play. “My coach thought it’d be a better idea to put me at safety, but I always knew that corner was the position I wanted to play,” he said.
Ekpre-Olomu set his school’s single-season interceptions record with eight by the time he was a sophomore and capped his high school career with five more interceptions, 171 tackles and nearly 4,000 all-purpose yards. The Chino, Calif.-native’s stellar performance had powerhouse programs including USC, UCLA and Stanford, begging him to attend their school.
But he knew his best opportunity to break out at cornerback was further north, so he committed to play at Oregon. Ekpre-Olomu was well aware of how difficult it would be to earn playing time right away, but he embraced the challenge. By the end of his freshman season, he had risen to the top of the depth chart and was poised to replace All-America cornerback Cliff Harris.
“Cliff really helped me when I first got here. Instead of being one of those guys who looks at it like, ‘Oh, they’re playing the same position as me, I shouldn’t help.’ He was the guy who was the first one trying to help me after practice,” Ekpre-Olomu said.
In his first season as a full-time starting cornerback, Ekpre-Olomu not only filled Harris’s shoes, he outgrew them. The sophomore ranked second and seventh nationally in forced fumbles and passes deflected, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors and third-team All-America recognition. Last season, he was named a first-team All-American by ESPN.com and Fox Sports and finished as a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award and Bednarik Award after posting a team-high 53 unassisted tackles and tallying the team’s second-most interceptions and passes broken up.
Some considered him the best cornerback in college football and NFL.com had the Ducks’ lockdown corner projected as a first-round draft pick. But the son of two Nigerian-born immigrants who came to the U.S. for a better life didn’t think it would be wise to ditch his degree.
Ekpre-Olomu is equal parts student and athlete. He’s as dedicated to his studies as he is to football. That’s why, contrary to what most expected, he decided to return for his senior year. “There’s times when you consider yourself more of an athlete, but there’s other times, especially once you get later in college, that you realize you’re a student first,” he said. “Maybe you can have the opportunity to play in the pros, but who’s going to manage that for you? I needed to be able to know what I was doing so I could have a successful life after.”
Recently, Ekpre-Olomu graduated with a degree in social science. He’s still projected as a first-round pick and is the most complete cornerback in the 2015 draft class, according to NFL.com. But his decision to come back for a final season is part of his long-term plan. When he hangs up his cleats for good, Ekpre-Olomu wants to return to school to pursue a Master’s degree.
He’s not exactly sure what he’ll study—right now, he’s leaning towards sports science or sports marketing—but just as he’s always done, he’ll trust his instincts and make the right decision.