In a football culture that favors uniformity over individuality, Godwin Igwebuike is breaking every jock stereotype. But Northwestern's hard-hitting safety has a warning for NFL scouts: Don't call me soft.
By Dan Parr | Published Nov. 8, 2017
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. 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."