MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Sit down and talk to Dozie Ezemma for a few minutes and it seems as if almost every question elicits the same type of response."You know,'' he'll say, "that's actually a funny story.''There's the one about how his college choices were based on school colors. If they weren't blue and gold, well, see ya.There are his earliest recollections of West Virginia, which - once he discovered it wasn't in the western part of Virginia - were "hot and hilly.''
There's the walk-on tryout he missed and the highlight tape he and his brother put together to make up for it.And that's not even to mention his complete and utter lack of interest in keeping track of college football. For instance, he says the only thing he knew about WVU was Pat White. Yet he truly believed that Pat White played for - wait for it - Michigan.It takes a while to sort them all out, but eventually all those stories have combined to lead Chidoziem Ezemma - Dozie for short - to where he is right now, which is the early leader in the race to become West Virginia's starter at the Buck position, a hybrid linebacker/end in the Mountaineer defense.If you're not familiar with Ezemma, you're not alone. He arrived in Morgantown late in the summer of 2011 and essentially begged for a chance to join the football team. He did manage to emerge a year ago as a special-teams player who got a few shots at playing defense, but in 12 games he had just five tackles.Still, he's not only managed to earn a scholarship, but he could be a key part of a defense that needs a few new parts after last season's disaster."Yeah, it is kind of amazing, isn't it?'' Ezemma said. "Coming here out of nowhere as a walk-on to a full scholarship and [a chance to] start? It's a [great] world, right?''So how did Ezemma, a son of Nigerian immigrants who grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., just north of New York City, wind up here? Well, the full tale would be rather complex, so here is the Reader's Digest version.As a 177-pound senior at Pomona High School, he drew some faint interest from Syracuse and Connecticut, but not nearly enough to warrant a scholarship. He looked into Temple and "they wanted nothing to do with me.'' So it pretty much came down to New Haven, a Division II school that offered him a partial scholarship.He played there for two years as a defensive end, but he didn't even start. A lack of playing time, though, was secondary to his real issue.
"My main reason for leaving was because I couldn't afford it,'' he said. "It wasn't like I knew where I was going or that I wanted to play Division I. My family just couldn't afford it anymore.''So he went back home in the summer of 2011, where his mother worried what he would do with himself. Ezemma told her, "Don't worry. God's got me.''
He worked three jobs - including Toys R Us and Babies R Us - and wanted to send out emails to prospective schools. By this time he was up to 200 pounds and, despite not even starting at New Haven, was convinced he was a Division I athlete.The trouble is, he really didn't know where to start in his search. He'd never so much as sat down and watched a full college football game on TV in a home where the sport was alien."If anything, they were watching soccer on TV,'' Ezemma said. "I just couldn't watch it. I liked football. I liked playing football. But I couldn't watch it. I still don't that much. I can't even play Madden [video football]. Give me Mortal Kombat or something.''Eventually, though, he was at least steered into a direction. He had no idea if it was the right direction, but it was the only one he had."This is going to sound crazy, but a girl that I know - I actually call her my little sister - she said she had a dream that I was playing in blue and gold,'' Ezemma said. "So because of that I applied to all blue and gold schools.''
So Ezemma looked around and sent a handful of emails to blue and gold schools. Those that showed any interest at all, he applied for admission. He wound up applying to West Virginia, Kent State and Pitt."If they showed interest, I applied,'' Ezemma said.He was accepted as a student at West Virginia and Kent State. Pitt was scratched when he was denied.But how to choose?"I never watched college football on TV, so I didn't know anything about West Virginia,'' Ezemma said. "The most I knew about West Virginia was Pat White. And I actually thought Pat White played for Michigan or something because all I saw was the colors.''Now understand, too, that when Ezemma said both West Virginia and Kent State had replied to his initial emails, that's pretty much all they'd done. At WVU, recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester had responded that he would be welcome to try out if he came to school here. Then again, anyone who is enrolled is allowed to try out. By now it is August of 2011 and the start of school in nearing.Then fate stepped in again."The week before school starts, I still don't know what I'm going to do, Kent State or West Virginia. I don't even know which one is better football-wise,'' Ezemma said. "So I'm out buying a birthday gift for the leader of my church and I meet somebody going to West Virginia to walk on [Kelvin Owusu, who has since moved on]. And I thought, 'All right, there's my answer. I'll go to West Virginia.' ''Again, really? Then all he had to do was find out where it was."I had no idea what West Virginia was. I thought it was western Virginia,'' Ezemma said. "When you're in New York, there's nothing else. I can promise you, the majority of people in New York don't even know West Virginia is a state. I didn't know West Virginia was a state. We learned it in school, but nobody ever talks about it or pays attention to it unless you watch college football.''And, of course, Ezemma never watched college football.That's not the end, though. By the time Ezemma made his decision, school was ready to start. Remember, Dorchester invited him to come to school, but with no guarantees. He would still have to go through those walk-on tryouts that are held for the student body just after classes begin each year.But because he was so late, the paperwork for his financial aid wasn't ready. He arrived late and missed the walk-on tryouts as a result, and was at first told he would simply have to wait until next year."So I called up Coach Dorchester and said, 'What if I send you a highlight tape of my high school to college career? Would that be all right?' '' Ezemma said. "He said it would, so that night me and my brother made a highlight tape with three game tapes. I had two college tapes and one high school tape and maybe an all-star game. I made a little highlight tape and sent it to him."He looked at it and liked it, I guess, so he told me to come to school and they'd see what they could do. They saw me, liked my size, worked my class schedule out and I was on the team.''By that time, the 177-pound high school kid had grown to 198 pounds. A year on the scout team and he was up to 220 pounds by 2012 and he started to get on the field. Now he's 230 pounds with an eye on 240, and as West Virginia goes through its final two weeks of spring drills, he's running with the No. 1 defense at Buck.Oh, and he's also on track to graduate with a degree in chemistry next May and, believe it or not, has his eye on playing beyond this season, which is his senior year."If I was going to play college football, I was going to try to go all the way,'' Ezemma said. "Otherwise, it's a waste of time for me. I'd rather be in school just for academics if I wasn't going to try to go all the way.''That might sound preposterous, but is it any more so than his journey so far?Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.