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'The Diamond That Withstood Pressure': The Story of Emeka Nnaka

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The ball was booted into the air. He shed the first tackle, then ran through a block. The returner was next in line, facing him and coming full speed. Crack. The sound of the collision reverberated throughout the entire stadium. The play was over.

“I remember the impact…,” Emeka Nnaka said with his eyes closed. “Right then and there I felt in my head a change in direction, but I couldn’t feel my body drop.”

Nnaka and two of his teammates on the football field

He glanced away from his television, where Notre Dame was playing Northeastern University in the NCAA tournament, and pointed to a massive poster on the wall. The image was of him and teammates walking onto the field during his last football game.

“That was about eight minutes before the injury,” he said. It was the last time the 6-foot 4-inch 240-pound defensive end played a game of football.

Born of Nigerian descent but raised in Macon, Georgia, Nnaka grew up just like any other kid. He loved playing football but never really saw himself playing the game professionally.

Once he got to college, he figured he could try out for a team, but those plans were seemingly shot down when his parents insisted he go to Oral Roberts University, a private Christian university in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“I initially didn’t want to go,” he said. “They didn’t have a football team, and I really wasn’t focused on what they had to offer.”

While working an on-campus job at the Aerobics Center, Nnaka bumped into a guy that would have an impact on his life immensely. Paul Willemstein was watching an intramural basketball game at the gym when he saw Nnaka’s massive frame and approached him with the proposition for Nnaka to play football for a semi-pro team.

Nnaka got in touch with the Oklahoma Thunder football squad, and after a rigorous tryout, made the team. By his second season, Nnaka made a name for himself, and was known for his punishing tackles. Then, June of 2009 came.

“The whole day started off weird. I didn’t ride the team bus and I’d forgotten a lot of my gear,” Nnaka reminisced. “I remember before every game my mom and I would pray and read Psalm 91 together. But this particular day, Mom was unavailable.”

Nnaka began describing feelings of confidence going into the game, despite not following his game-day rituals. “As I ran onto the field, I just felt confident,” he said, flashing his wide, contagious smile.

Then, in a flash, everything changed.

Nnaka laid on the ground motionless, not knowing what was happening but still conscious of his surroundings.

“My teammates kept saying, ‘Meka, get up, the play is over.’ I told them to just give me a second, I’ve got a stinger,” said Nnaka. “The feeling you get when you hit your funny bone… imagine that, but all over your entire body. That’s what it felt like.”

The chaos of the moment caused frenzy amongst the trainers and coaches on the field. Meanwhile, Nnaka was stuck to the cold, hard turf, unsure of why his body wasn’t responding to his commands.

The field was silent in hopes of the defensive beast jumping up and continuing his rampage on the field, but not this time. The clocked ticked slowly as the ambulance made its way to the field from the neighboring town.

“I waited on the field for an hour and eighteen minutes before the ambulance arrived,” he said, gritting his teeth. “When they arrived, they put me on the stretcher and…”

He suddenly stopped talking and looked away. There were no tears in his eyes, but he’d become somewhat distant.

“…This part was hard for me. I remember growing up seeing professional players, when they got hurt, put their thumb up to show the crowd they were OK. I wanted to do that, but for the life of me I couldn’t get my hand to do it… I just couldn’t move anything.”

Three weeks prior to the injury, Nnaka received some interest from a collegiate recruiter interested in him playing for their team.

“I received a call from Missouri State University saying they were interested in my skills, having been mentioned by a former player,” he said with a glazed look in his eyes. “I was so excited I went to the mall, bought some new shoes and called all my friends and family. I was going to finish the season and go play for MSU. I was…”

After he spent a few weeks in the hospital, Nnaka was transferred to Kaiser Rehabilitation Center, where he experienced the constant ups and downs of daily therapy.

“They pushed me.” He sighed for a second. “They asked me to do things I should have been able to do, but my body was telling me I couldn’t do it. I was so frustrated with my body and the physical therapists,” he said in a monotone voice. “I just felt like I was living in a nightmare. I felt like my masculinity was taken from me.

Since the injury, the Nnaka of old is gone, replaced by a strong, courageous and confident man of God. In Nnaka’s life, the biggest trial he’s ever faced has turned into a blessing. He doesn’t regret his injury at all.

“I’ve been able to reach so many more people through my injury than I ever would have simply playing football,” he said. His smile began to light up his face again.

“I’ve learned so much about myself and others that only being humbled by my injury could have taught me.”

After the injury, Nnaka found himself growing closer to God. Today, Nnaka is a motivational speaker, life coach and advocate. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in Rehab Services from Langston University and is currently studying to receive his master’s in Human Relations from the University of Oklahoma. He is heavily immersed in helping the community, making sure he doesn’t let his injury deter him from chasing his dreams.

Nnaka works out in the gym while sitting in his wheelchair

“I am heavily involved with the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges where I work out and meet other people with disabilities,” he said proudly. “I also work with the youth because I’m highly interested in their future and what they’re learning.”

Nnaka lives every day with an optimistic outlook on life. His attitude and perspective on life are what keep him driven toward success.

“My injury doesn’t define me. It’s not who I am, it’s just something that happened to me. I’m defined by how I have responded to my injury,” he said boldly. “A diamond is a piece of coal that withstood great amounts of pressure. I am that diamond.”

Nnaka giving a motivational speech while sitting in his wheelchair

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment someone changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 24, 2016
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