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Renaissance man: Godwin Igwebuike marches to own beat

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EVANSTON, Ill. -- In the last row of an empty auditorium inside Northwestern's football facility, Godwin Igwebuike motions with his arms like he's trying to wrap his heart in a hug. He's explaining why he's still playing in the Big Ten instead of the NFL.

Wearing black workout clothes, he sits forward in his chair and speaks slowly and softly after a morning practice, like a man with plenty of time, even though he keeps a schedule so busy that his roommate says he's rarely at home.

It's cold, gray and misty on this fall day, but Igwebuike is all warmth. He's genuine and relaxed discussing his decision to return to Northwestern for his senior season rather than entering the 2017 NFL Draft, a decision based partly on the feedback he received from the league's advisory board.

"It was lower than I wanted to go," said the 6-foot, 205-pound hard-hitting safety, referring to the NFL grade he got back. "That's one of the factors. The other factor was it didn't sit well with me, leaving. I took my time with it. Talked to my family, talked to some coaches, talked to my boys and prayed about it a lot. ... I wasn't done with this chapter yet. I felt like that's what God was telling me. There was a lot more to do football-wise, personally, spiritually."

He returned to get better, and not just on the field. While the game appears to be his primary focus, it's not the only thing that makes his heart beat.

He's a Renaissance man. He paints in his free time. He enjoys singing and is the vocalist in a band. He says performing in a high school musical is one of the best things he's ever done -- and he appears to mean it, pounding his fist into his other palm three times as he recounts the experience.

Clearly, Igwebuike doesn't follow the pack, and his teammates past and present love him for it. But will NFL teams, who tend to prefer their players sleep, eat and drink football 24/7, feel the same way?

In a football culture that often favors uniformity over individuality, Igwebuike breaks the common jock stereotype. He's thought about whether being so well-rounded off the field might be viewed by scouts as a negative rather than a positive. Either way, he has no plan to change who he is.

"I don't think anyone should put themselves in a box," he said. "I don't think you should limit yourself, but I do believe in priorities as well. Right now, football's the priority for me."

IF IGWEBUIKE NEVER CHANGES, that'll be just fine with Broncos rookie tight end Jake Butt. They don't share all the same interests -- you won't find Butt singing, at least not publicly, anytime soon -- but you also won't hear a much stronger endorsement of a person's character than Butt offers for his close and longtime friend.

"He's one of the best guys, down to the core," Butt said. "Obviously, he's a great football player. But when you speak about a guy at his inner core, who he is as a man? He is a rock-solid dude."

Igwebuike and Butt have been tight for as long as they can remember, attending elementary school together and starring (along with Minnesota Vikings center Pat Elflein) for the Pickerington North High School football team in suburban Columbus, Ohio.

In their high school days, Igwebuike (pronounced ig-weh-BYU-kay) was a running back/defensive back who also sang in the high school choir and in theater productions.

It would have been easy for one of his teammates to make fun of him for stepping outside of athletics to show a different side of himself, but Butt said no one ever did.

And Igwebuike wouldn't care if they had tried. He was just doing what his mother had always told him.

"One thing that I always wanted to communicate to him was that he needed to be well-rounded," said Ebony Igwebuike. "Nobody just wants a football head they can't talk to. No girl wants that. They want someone who can talk to them about football but also can go to a play."

Even as a teenager, Godwin wasn't going to allow anyone to pinch him into a certain social group.

"Some people might try that and just get terrorized by the rest of the team," Butt said. "When Godwin does it, it almost motivates you to want to do it, too.

"He goes about it in his Godwin way that inspires and raises up the people around him."

Indeed, Igwebuike's long been comfortable in the role of motivator, whether he's firing up his team in a locker room or preaching to a congregation from a pulpit. His drive to go outside of his circle to engage in a new one is part of the reason why his teammates swear by him. They don't just look at him as a friend; they see him as someone who has affected their lives in a meaningful way.

Northwestern senior cornerback Marcus McShepard said Igwebuike pushes him outside of his comfort zone in the best way possible, and that he's grown from new life experiences away from football, ranging from going to see musicals and country music concerts to attending meetings of a campus Christian group.

"People automatically just respect him," McShepard said. "Not only because he's a good player, but because he just has that character, that charisma that people like to be around."

Kyle Queiro, Igwebuike's roommate and fellow starter at safety, said it's almost as if his teammate can do no wrong.

"When we were young guys (at Northwestern), he had branched out in so many different groups that we as football players were welcomed at frat parties or with theater kids -- any group," Queiro said. "If we had Godwin, we had entry."

That includes attending a burlesque dance performance on campus, a tradition started by Igwebuike that has become an annual event for some members of the football team.

"It could be uncomfortable for some people because the (performers), you start off clothed and you end up almost totally naked," Queiro said. "This is with groups, with males, females, non-binary-identifying, hetero, homosexual, asexual. It really doesn't matter. ... Godwin just gets us out of our circles."

Northwestern

BUTT CAN'T REMEMBER if he called Igwebuike or if Igwebuike called him, but it felt great for him to hear Igwebuike's voice the day after the former Michigan tight end tore his ACL. Playing in his final college game, Butt suffered the injury after making a catch along the sideline in the second quarter of Michigan's heartbreaking 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Igwebuike felt his friend's pain as he watched him walk off the field that December night.

"That hurt, seeing that on TV," he said.

Butt wasn't surprised that at one of his lowest moments, his friend was there for him.

"He has a rare and special ability of making those around him feel special and wanted and needed and loved and cared about," Butt said. "No matter who it is. That's just the kind of guy Godwin is."

Ten months since suffering the injury, Butt has yet to make his NFL debut, and this week he was placed on injured reserve, ending his season before it began. He slid to the fifth round of the draft but has said he has no regrets about playing that night in the Orange Bowl, even though some other draft-bound players like Christian McCaffrey elected to sit out their team's postseason, sparking a debate about whether it makes sense for top prospects to partake in bowl games with so much on the line.

Igwebuike doesn't plan to become part of that conversation. Northwestern is bowl eligible this season, and Igwebuike says he fully intends to play in the bowl game to close out his Wildcats career. There's no way he would choose not to take the field with his teammates one last time.

He has to hope it's as unforgettable as his first career start for the program.

* * *

IN HIS 24TH SEASON at Northwestern defensive backs coach Jerry Brown has coached at every level, including as an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings from 1988-1991. Having personally coached hundreds of players, he's not easily impressed, and he knows the difference between a player who's ready to play and one who's not.

The day of Igwebuike's first start in 2014 with the Wildcats, Brown sensed his redshirt freshman wasn't quite ready for the job, but he was the team's best option with starter Ibraheim Campbell (now a safety with the Browns) sidelined due to injury.

"He ended up having a pretty good game," Brown said.

That day against No. 17 Wisconsin, Igwebuike had three interceptions, including a pick in the final seconds that preserved a 20-14 Northwestern victory. When he's reminded of that debut, he plays coy before wrapping himself in the glory of it all.

"I forgot about that ... psych, I didn't forget about that," he said. "I'll probably tell that to my grandkids one day. 'You thought you were doing something (special); I had three picks in my first game.' I can already envision myself on that."

On the field with him that day was teammate Jaylen Prater, a linebacker who graduated from Northwestern last year. They didn't know it at the time, but the football field wasn't the only stage they'd take together.

Prater, who taught himself how to play guitar, knew he shared a taste in music with Igwebuike from listening to hip-hop, soul and folk recordings together. He knew his friend had talent from their late nights making music together on Garage Band. Back then, it was just messing around, but this past winter, Prater began putting a band together, and he asked Igwebuike to come out and sing with the group. Igwebuike joined, bringing his own lyrics.

Prater had found the missing piece.

"Once I heard (Igwebuike sing), I was like, 'Yeah, this is it. This is what was supposed to fill that empty space,' " Prater said.

He describes Igwebuike's voice almost like a scout describing a quarterback: "Good tone. Good delivery. He sits in the pocket and kind of rides the feel of the music."

The band blends different genres, but Prater describes their style as alternative soul. Igwebuike's first day with the group is the same day they recorded a performance of their song "Losing Touch", and their band, Graffiti Lake, launched from that point.

In that song, Igwebuike sings about heartbreak.

Been a while since I saw your face
Flow like a flame you were my hiding spot inside this place
Five years all accounted for nothing
... Feelings are emotions of passion I guess
I have to wait for another, seek me another lover
I'm lost in this world I can't uncover
The things that we used to have, my lover

"With his influence, it gives (our music) a lot more soul," Prater said. "He gives it that bounce, that rhythm it needs."

They opened for The Freddy Jones Band at a sold-out show in Chicago in July with the help of a well-connected former teammate, Danny Vitale, a fullback for the Cleveland Browns and former teammate of Prater's and Igwebuike's at Northwestern. Graffiti Lake went silent with the start of the season, though, as Igwebuike put his focus squarely on football.

Prater's football eligibility ended after last season. He's currently a grad student at NU and sees Igwebuike regularly, but he won't even bring up the band with him to avoid infringing on football. Prater said the goal is to get the band back together after the football season ends and to get into the studio to record a short album.

If Igwebuike is going to be a part of that, and Prater intends for him to be, they might have a small window to fit in the recording session. Igwebuike will probably begin training for the NFL Scouting Combine right after Northwestern's season ends, but he still looks forward to getting back to the band when he has more free time.

Prater isn't about to give up on making it work, but he knows it's possible the demands of life in the pros might get in the way for Igwebuike.

THE NFL BECKONS, but Godwin Igwebuike has been training for this moment since he was 6.

His father, Leo, a second cousin of former All-Pro running back Christian Okoye, built a basement workout area for Godwin and his friends in their home and coached them in peewee football.

Football might be Godwin's first love, but it wasn't exactly love at first sight. Leo recalls watching Godwin tear up before a game in his first year of organized football. He was scared. His father intervened.

"I said, 'What's going on with you?' He didn't say anything. I said, 'Listen here. You've prepared. You've had training, all the advice I've given you,' " Leo said. " 'Just go out there, OK?' "

Godwin never looked back, although there was a slight speed bump on his road to Northwestern.

His father decided it would be best for Godwin to transfer from Pickerington Central to Pickerington North after his freshman year. Leo said the coaching staff at Central wasn't going to give Godwin a chance to play running back, and that didn't sit well with the proud father. Godwin had to sit out his sophomore year upon transferring, a time of family turbulence. His parents were going through a divorce, and his dad -- who a few years earlier was diagnosed with leukemia -- moved to Florida.

"It wasn't easy," Godwin said.

Ebony looks back on the school transfer as an obstacle her son had to overcome.

"That was extremely challenging for him. He really didn't have a choice in the matter," she said. "His friends from his old school were mad at him (for leaving) and some of the people were mean. You would be amazed at how the high school rivalry was that serious."

He practiced with his new team, but wasn't allowed to play in games and watched while his friends were getting recruitment letters from colleges. With no game tape, Godwin wasn't getting any looks.

That changed quickly once he took the field as a junior.

The first scholarship offer came from Buffalo, then came Boston College, followed by Pittsburgh, Nebraska, North Carolina State, and many more.

Eventually, Godwin whittled down his options to three colleges -- Northwestern, Wisconsin and Duke -- and then one. He chose Northwestern for its reputation as the Big Ten's Ivy League school and because coach Pat Fitzgerald told him he could pick the position he wanted to play, running back or safety.

Godwin still hadn't made up his mind when he reported for camp as a freshman, but he eventually chose safety. He had the NFL in mind even then -- safeties last longer than running backs in the pros, he reasoned.

He's coachable and has improved in each of the five seasons at Northwestern, Brown acknowledges.

"He's like a rock," Brown said. "Some guys are what you call heavy hitters. He's probably that heavy hitter. When he hits you, he jolts you. You feel it."

Now he's viewed as one of the best safeties in college football, and he might just be getting started.

"I think Godwin's best football is still ahead of him," Fitzgerald said. "I think he's going to play on Sundays for a long time and be a very productive player."

Scouts expect Igwebuike to be a standout at the NFL Scouting Combine and run the 40-yard dash in around 4.5 seconds. A 4.5 would've been the sixth-fastest time among safeties at the 2017 combine.

He has a chance to be Northwestern's earliest draft pick in more than a decade. No NU player has gone earlier than Round 4 since 2005.

* * *

IT MIGHT COME DOWN TO how fast he runs to determine if he does snap that streak, or it could be determined by whether he can reassure any skeptical scouts he's committed to being a great player above all else. If it does come down to the latter -- those who prep prospects for interviews with NFL teams expect he'll face questioning about his love for the game in part because of his many interests -- he should have no trouble putting their concerns to rest.

It's not news to Igwebuike that some scouts prefer prospects to be more one-dimensional than him.

Yes, the thought has crossed his mind that his eclectic ways, endearing him to so many on his road to this point, might not endear him to evaluators.

"It's definitely something I've thought about," he said. "No doubt about it, if we're going to be real. I don't think about it too much because when you turn on the tape, I think you see how I attack the game. I think that speaks for itself, but if someone wants to read into it that in depth, it's a possibility."

By all accounts, Igwebuike is a football player first and foremost. If scouts have questions about his love for the game or if he's soft, they'll be reassured well before it's time to start picking players in April.

Ultimately, his message to NFL teams is he's not intimidated by whatever they have in store for him.

"I'm a guy who's just going to attack. I attack life," he said. "I'm a grinder. I'm a go-getter. Ain't no soft. Ain't no fear."

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