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Mom prepares for the worst, gets the best from San Jose State sons

10/23/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
If it had been left up to Edith Ihenacho, there wouldn't be a story to read here.

There would be no fabled tale about two brothers with little football experience defying odds to become two of the nation's best defensive players at their respective positions.

No, if it were left up to Edith Ihenacho, the mother of San Jose State defensive stars Carl and Duke Ihenacho, who lead the nation in tackles for loss (Carl) and interceptions (Duke), her sons would have never played football.

"We tried to persuade my mom to let us play Pop Warner because all our family members were doing it," said Carl Ihenacho, a junior defensive end for the Spartans. "We went to one practice. We didn't even get to suit up. We just went to go watch a practice, and she'd seen a head-on collision by two younger kids, and she just walked us home and we never went back out to play football again."

Carl and Duke followed their love of baseball, which turned into basketball as they got older and were satisfied with flag football games with relatives. But as they got into high school, the urge to play football surfaced again.

By the time Duke was going into his junior year, he realized that he wasn't going to get a scholarship to play basketball at a major college. Steve Garcia, Duke's gym teacher at Serra High School near Los Angeles, was the defensive coordinator on the football team and urged Duke to try out based on his athleticism.

He was tired of pleading for his mother's permission to be a part of a sport he longed to play, so as a 16-year-old, Duke just threw caution to the wind and tried out.

"When you're 16, there's not much your mom can say to have you not play football," said Duke, now a sophomore linebacker. "If she let me play basketball, I didn't see why not let me play football. I was old enough and strong enough to withstand the physical contact of football. It was a decision I made by myself. I didn't ask her, I just told her. She said she didn't like it."

Had it not been for that decision, and later Duke's deft persuasion of his older brother Carl, who was a senior at the time, to join him, the Ihenacho brothers might not have realized that football was their calling. San Jose State assistant Charles Nash might not have recruited Carl and Duke, who have become the anchors of the nation's 13th-ranked total defense.

And the nation would not have the opportunity to see them play in the biggest game of their careers to date against No. 13 Boise State on ESPN this Friday.

"I sit down with my brother and talk to him saying, 'Five years ago, would you picture us playing football together and leading the NCAA in a statistical category,"' Carl said. "We just laugh about it."

Carl came to San Jose State as a project and ended up playing as a freshman because of a lack of depth on the defensive line. After his freshman season, he bragged about the school to his younger brother and encouraged him to join him. Duke had several offers after just two years of football, but decided to trust his older brother and follow in his footsteps.

After all, Duke had convinced Carl to play in the first place, it seemed only fair that Carl make the next call.

"My brother was not going to lie to me," said Duke, who also played as a freshman. "He's going to tell me the good and the bad things about a school and a football program. I can't trust any one coach or recruiter more than I can trust my brother. I knew if he said he was comfortable here and liked it here, I would like it, too."

Both Carl and Duke said their flag football experience helped them understand the basics of football, and their love of learning -- both express a love of school -- helped them pick up plays and patterns quickly.

As the two have become more acclimated to San Jose State's system and teammates, they started to realize their potential in football. Teammates started to realize it, too, often teasing the "Nacho Brothers" (because no one can pronounce their last name) by calling them big-timers and poster boys for San Jose State.

But there's no denying that the presence of the Ihenacho brothers has helped turn the San Jose State football program around.

Duke already has shown his athleticism and versatility this season. He started his career as a safety, but moved to linebacker this season and leads the nation with five interceptions. He's returned an interception for a touchdown in each of the past two games.

Carl leads the country with 14 tackles for loss and he ranks 10th in the country with seven sacks.

Although there have been many notable brother teammates throughout college football history, San Jose State reports that the NCAA was unable to find any that led the country in separate statistical categories at any point in the season.

The Spartans (5-2, 3-0 WAC) are off to their best conference start since joining the WAC in 1996. A win against Boise State on Friday would not only knock the Broncos out of BCS bowl contention, but it would give the Spartans a tight grip on the WAC title.

And it's a safe bet that Edith will be watching with fingers crossed for the safety of her two boys.

"It's something really unique," Duke said. "The fact that we're brothers and we start on the same defense and lead in statistics, I think it magnifies the situation. If you take away the stats, I think it would still be as special as it is."