Janice Williams didn't want Germain Ifedi to see her cry, so after a hug from the 6-foot-6, 324-pound offensive lineman, she politely urged him to leave.
The Seattle Seahawks' first-round pick, Ifedi was flying out for rookie camp the next day. He was on campus at Texas A&M to thank those who have helped him the past four years.
Williams is the receptionist at the academic center for athletes, and she got goosebumps just thinking about Ifedi's visit.
"It was very emotional for me because I’ve been at Texas A&M for 18 years, and all the student-athletes that have come through here and gone, I have never had a student-athlete come back and thank me personally and bring me a gift," she said. "I’ve never had one come back and thank me and tell me what an impact I’ve had on them when they were here. It was just very, very thoughtful of him and very moving."
Ifedi's gift was an autographed Seahawks football with "thank you" and "whoop" (a Texas A&M rallying cry) on it.
"I went and bought one of those nice glass boxes to put it inside," Williams said. "And I will cherish that for the rest of my days here on earth. That was awesome."
As is the case for many players in the NFL, Ifedi's story is about the challenges he overcame and the people who helped him make it. It wasn't that Williams did anything out of the norm, but when Ifedi sought advice or needed a hug or had a question, she was there. Before he began the next step of his journey, Ifedi wanted to make sure Williams knew he appreciated it.
"Just had the opportunity to go back and talk to a lot of people that contributed to my success and really helped advance me through college," he said. "Everything wasn’t always smooth sailing through there, but to be able to take that time and have that opportunity to not only be thankful for getting drafted but to thank those people that helped me along the way [was important]."
'I can't believe he remembered that'
Troy Kema and Seahawks general manager John Schneider never met before the past August. Kema, now the director of player personnel and student services at Kansas, previously worked at Texas A&M. Schneider was in the area for the Seahawks' preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs and wanted to visit with Kema.
The two walked around the Kansas campus and got to know each other. As they were watching a Jayhawks practice, the conversation shifted to Ifedi.
"We were talking about players at A&M, and he asked me about Germain," Kema said. "I said, ‘Let me tell you something, man. You guys need to take a serious look. We can talk about the guys here. We can talk about anybody at A&M, Kansas, but this kid, if you don’t jump on this kid, man, y’all don’t know what you’re doing.'
"I was kind of half-joking, but not. I can’t believe he remembered that."
Earlier this month, the Seahawks chose Ifedi with the 31st overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Plenty of variables led to the selection, including the Seahawks' trade back from No. 26, other players going off the board and the offensive line losing two starters in free agency. But meeting Kema speaks to Schneider's thoroughness.
"That was our first conference, and I was like, 'I guess we’re drafting Germain Ifedi,'" joked Schneider, the only GM in the league to talk to Kema. "So this whole last couple months, we knew exactly what we were doing. We’ve just been waiting to take Germain Ifedi."
Some view Ifedi as a developmental prospect, but the Seahawks disagree. He has been penciled in at starting right guard for 2016, and the organization views him as a cornerstone right tackle down the line. With his size and length (36-inch arms), Ifedi fits the prototype but is far from a finished product. Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable called Ifedi "raw fundamentally," and that might be why no other team took him in the first round.
But the draft is about what prospects can be -- not what they currently are. The Seahawks were as attracted to Ifedi's intangibles and capacity to learn as they were to his raw measurables.
'I thought she was super woman'
The son of Nigerian immigrants, Ifedi is the youngest of four boys who grew up in Houston. His mom, Victoria, works as a parole officer and a nurse. His dad works for United Airlines.
Education was stressed growing up, but Victoria wanted to make sure the boys kept busy and stayed out of trouble outside of school hours. She remembers working Friday nights, coming home, downing a few cups of coffee and then shuttling them to track meets with no sleep.
"She worked herself ragged taking care of us, and even with her hectic schedule, she would always find time to be at my football games and, when I did play basketball, to be at my basketball games," Ifedi said. "She never really let fatigue from all the work show to us. As children, I thought she was super woman because she’d be here, there and everywhere at the same time. She was amazing. She sacrificed for us our whole lives, really showed us the value of hard work and perseverance."
Ifedi's oldest brother, Ben, is a doctor working toward a career in sports medicine. Valentine graduated from the University of Houston and is pursing a career in physical therapy. Martin was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, after being drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round last year.
"Our parents always made sure that no matter what you do, get that education," Ben said. "That’s going to take you far. All of us were fascinated by sports. We’d watch whatever sports on TV until odd hours of the night. My mom would always get on us, like, ‘Hey, these people have made their money. You need to go to the books and get your own.'"
On draft night, Victoria cooked a Nigerian feast of Jollof rice, suya and meat pie. Germain is proud of where his family came from and thankful for the sacrifices his parents made to give him the life he now has.
"I’m always really proud to be a Nigerian, to be a first-generation Nigerian-American," he said. "But I still honor my American roots. ... I feel like I get the best of both worlds when it comes to that."
Jomaul Mason remembers the exact play when he knew Ifedi flipped the switch. Now the head coach at Westside High School in Houston, Mason was the offensive line coach/offensive coordinator when Ifedi played there.
Family and friends say Ifedi can get along with anybody. But at the time, Mason thought Ifedi was a little too nice on the football field.
During the spring of his sophomore year, though, Ifedi started getting into more scraps at practice. In one game the following fall, the offense had an inside-zone run called from the opponents' 8-yard line. That's when Mason witnessed something he hadn't previously seen.
"He blocked the kid and pancaked him out of the back of the end zone, about 18 yards," Mason said. "They [flagged] him for unnecessary roughness when the kid is just doing his job."
Ifedi remembers the play vividly.
"I just latched onto the guy, and I wanted to put a spectacular highlight on film," he said. "A lot of things had been said about the way I played. I wanted to prove that I was a different type of player, a special type of player, to be mentioned up there with some of the guys that were getting all of the acclaim in our junior class."
Ifedi's highlight reel led to a scholarship offer from Texas A&M, but his first year was a struggle. Like most kids his age, he didn't have great eating habits. Ifedi entered college at 344 pounds and struggled through workouts his first spring. However, Ifedi recognizes challenges, seeks advice and comes up with plans to overcome obstacles. In this case, that meant cutting down on fast food, getting educated on nutrition and figuring out where he needed to be, from a physical perspective.
"It was a really difficult process, and a lot of that was self-inflicted," he said. "As a young person, not really knowing how to take care of yourself, I came in overweight and kind of out of shape.
"I just really had to work hard that freshman year to mature to be able to be a player who could make an impact. Going from the June of my freshman year to December my freshman year, I was a totally different person mentally, physically and emotionally. I matured so much."
Said Ben Ifedi, "From a doctor’s perspective, you can work out 10 million times a day, but if you don’t put the right things in your body, it’s all for naught. I think it took a little while for him to get that discipline, but I think he recognized that if he wanted to reach the goals he wanted to reach, that’s what he had to do."
Germain got down to 325 pounds, and that's what he expects his playing weight to be in the NFL. During the pre-draft process, he tested well and showed high-level athletic traits, and that is part of the reason the Seahawks are excited about his ceiling.
Playing the role of policeman
Ben calls Germain a gentle giant, and those around him say he's more likely to lead by example than with words. But when situations have called for him to take on a bigger leadership role, he has shown no hesitation.
"He's been a guy they consider, for lack of a better term, the policeman in the locker room," Berry said. "They have a lot of different characters down at A&M. You guys have seen guys getting in trouble and stuff. He's the guy that cleans up the locker room. They trust him to be a team leader. He's a juice guy for them. If something's going on in practice, he's the one that handles it."
Added Kema, "When the new kids came in, he’d sit down with them and go over film, teach them technique, teach them how things were done in study hall. I remember specifically times when guys were goofing off, and he’s like, ‘Hey, you guys need to calm down and get to work so we can get to the next part of our day.’ This was his first semester at A&M. So then I knew, 'OK, this guy, he’s a little different. He’s going to be a leader.'"
When Ifedi got the call from Schneider, the family celebration received plenty of attention. After a night of waiting, the moment wasn't just Ifedi's. It belonged to everyone who helped him get to that point.
"I think it meant everything to her," Ifedi said of his mom. "She prayed for me diligently, day in and day out. And I just knew coming into that day, even after 30 picks, when I had to have my name called, I was like, ‘You know what? If she said it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.’ And it did."