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The B-Sides: Ezechukwu shatters Peter Pan Syndrome, thrives despite change

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More 'B-Sides:' Barron's life changed by adopted sister

About a month before Danny Ezechukwu stepped onto Purdue’s campus as a student in 2013, he said he wasn’t necessarily ready for that next chapter in his life.

He was experiencing a heavy bout of what he called “Peter Pan Syndrome.”

“I never really want to grow up,” he said then. “If I could stay 18 years old and in high school for the rest of my life, I would.”

Ezechukwu, flatly, said he wasn’t too keen on change.

He really had no choice, of course.

He had to leave Lithonia, Ga.

Had to leave the comfort of the house with his mom, Keziah, and younger sister, Chrystal.

Had to leave older sister, Amaka, who already was in college in Georgia, behind.

Had to dive into the expected hectic life of being a student-athlete at a rigorous academic institution — he was planning to major in engineering — that also had fierce, demanding Big Ten football.

Deep down, Ezechukwu knew he could handle it all.

Turns out, he adapts to change well.

Ezechukwu graduated in May with a degree in industrial management, currently is taking grad school classes, doing an internship, working out vigorously to become a better player for Purdue’s football team and spending as much time as possible with 6-month-old son Tariq.

“Life hasn’t really paused enough for me to sit back and reflect upon what I’ve achieved thus far,” he said. “I know graduating from college is a milestone. But I haven’t even realized I’ve done it simply because my life is still going. I’m super proud of it. I’m super proud of my school. I’m super proud of my degree. I’m proud of all the people I’ve met and the connections I’ve made and I know it’s going to do me well in the future, but as far as sitting back and taking it all in, it still hasn’t really hit me yet. Probably when it does, I’ll be doing something that Purdue prepared me to do, and I’ll be enjoying it and I’ll probably sit back and think about when I walked across the stage or what I did to earn a degree or being on the field or anything like that.”

It didn’t take long for Ezechukwu to realize college would require adaptability.

The projected academics path shifted early. In only his second semester at Purdue in the fall of 2013 — he took summer school upon arrival — he had Physics 172. It was an intro to modern mechanics, and it changed the course of Ezechukwu’s academic life.

Because it did not go well.

“Hardest class you’ll ever take in your life at Purdue University,” Ezechuwku said last week. “Never knew what was going on. I feel like they gave me a ‘D’ simply because I showed up to all the labs, I showed up to all the lectures and I did all the homework the best I could. It was definitely a weed-out course. That’s what it did to me. It weeded me out. So I had to find an alternate route because I knew engineering probably wasn’t going to be it. It was a hard pill for me to swallow at first.

"But now that I’m older, I’ve realized that things like that happen. Not just to me. But you have to be willing to realize that a change needs to be made and you have to go out and seek that change as best you can.”

Change?

By Ezechuwku?

Already, he was adapting, and it was only freshman year.

Ezechukwu knew he still wanted to have a connection to engineers and STEM majors, to be in the classroom with them. So he found another major in Krannert, Industrial Management. It had different tracks — math, science, etc. — and he chose a math focus and was in classes with math majors taking linear algebra and analysis.

“It probably wasn’t the best decision, but I’m happy I did it because I was in those classes and interacting with people. It kind of is amazing it bridges that gap between business analysts, if you will, and specialists, technicians, as far as engineers, math majors, people in that STEM field, because that’s something I could see myself doing is bridging that gap and consulting between the two for a living,” Ezechukwu said. “That’s something I could definitely see myself doing, if the NFL doesn’t work out because that is my first dream. I’m blessed to have found a major here at Purdue that provides that opportunity.”

The opportunity, though, was only fruitful because Ezechukwu attacked it. And the result, ultimately, produced a special day.

In mid-May, Ezechukwu’s mom and sisters came to Purdue for his graduation, the first time the family had been together as a group in at least a year. Ezechukwu’s father, Daniel, has been living in Nigeria for about 20 years, since Danny was 2, but, as he’s done for most of his life, Ezechukwu kept his dad updated via email and photos. Ezechukwu said it was almost as if his dad was there on the day.

Mom, siblings and a cousin who also attended were able to experience the day first-hand, though. It was the first time either of Ezechukwu’s sisters had been to Purdue.

“It was really cool for them to come up here and see me walk across the stage,” Ezechukwu said. “Afterward, we went home and cooked and ate a big meal and all fell asleep in my apartment, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was so happy to see them. It was really good to see all of them, and I enjoyed the experience of walking across the stage and turning the tassel. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

He hopes to experience it again soon, of course.

This summer, Ezechukwu is taking classes and interning as a financial analyst at the Wade Power Plant at Purdue under plant manager Albert Gilewicz. He’s currently in the Technology Leadership and Innovation program and is trying to narrow the focus of his master’s. He’s leaning toward Lean & Six Sigma but a project management focus also has piqued his interest.

Ezechukwu knows he’ll put the degree to good use, but he’s hoping he can put those plans on hold. Exploring the NFL is Option No. 1, but even his football experience at Purdue hasn’t been without change.

Ezechukwu came to the Boilermakers as a defensive end but wasn’t sure where he was going to end up. He played linebacker, then a “rush end” position, before moving back to linebacker. By his sophomore year, he was a full-time, 12-game starter at linebacker. But last season, a new coordinator and new scheme meant Ezechukwu often was the odd-man out for linebacker snaps in a system that typically played only two at a time. Heading into his final season, Ezechukwu may experience another tweak, potentially playing more of a hybrid, pass-rusher position (again) than true linebacker and (again) his snaps could be limited because the program has a newcomer with previous experience in the new (again) system.

But Ezechukwu has adopted each new spot as his own and latched onto each new coordinator — he’s had three of them in the last three years — and, simply, grinded to deliver the best version of himself as a player he can be.

Through all the changes, many of them not directly beneficial, Ezechukwu never complained.

It’s not in his nature, as Arielle Mabon quickly learned.

She’s been a witness to the most drastic change in Ezechukwu’s life during his time at Purdue: Mabon gave birth to Tariq on Nov. 30, 2016, forever altering the lives of both first-time parents.

The due date actually wasn’t until mid-December, which seemed like it’d line up perfectly post-finals. Tariq didn’t follow those plans, though, but Ezechukwu still was able to work with his professors and get all of his finals done.

“It was a smooth transition — not an easy experience — but a smooth transition,” Ezechukwu said of Tariq’s early arrival.

But becoming parents drastically changed Ezechukwu’s and Mabon’s relationship, as they learned more and more about each other throughout the pregnancy and, certainly, since Tariq’s birth. They’ve seen each other at their most vulnerable, Mabon said, but they’ve also shared incredible, blessed moments.

And Mabon has seen Ezechukwu shift focus, thinking more long-term than before the baby, she said, but also she’s seen the best of his traits strengthened, if not solidified. Ezechukwu is not a procrastinator, which is critically important considering all of the elements he’s balancing.

“If he knows something that needs to get done, he’s going to do it as soon as he gets the chance to. Really, he just doesn’t stop,” said Mabon, who also is pursuing a master’s at Purdue after earning her bachelor's in Science Industrial Technology. “Sometimes if the baby wakes in the middle of the night, we know he’s not hungry, he’s probably just waking up between sleep cycles and he’s crying, Danny will get up, he’ll change his diaper and still be up at 5 a.m. to go for a workout or something like that. I know Danny is tired, but he just never complains. He really just puts his head down and does it.

“He’s solid, period. He’s a solid individual. Everybody has their shortcomings. But I’ve seen him realize some things about himself and actively work to make them better, which is something you can’t say about a lot about of people. He really works to become a better person. I’m just grateful I get to be around him. They say you’re like the people you still spend the most time. So I think just us being together and parenting is making me a better woman as well.”

Ezechukwu is an all-in dad, too, Mabon said.

He missed only one prenatal appointment — and that was only because they couldn’t schedule it far enough in advance — and he doesn’t even want to miss any wellness checkups since Tariq was born.

He doesn’t shy away from changing dirty diapers, loves bathtime and, now that summer has arrived, he’s picking up Tariq from daycare.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Ezechukwu said. “I wouldn’t want to be away from him. I would feel like he wouldn’t know me, and when I finally came to see him, he’d look at me like, ‘Who am I?’ It’s different (living as a family), but I enjoy it. I enjoy coming home and seeing him all the time or going to go pick him up from daycare. It’s cool.”

Not just adapting to change … but enjoying what it’s produced?

That’s where Ezechukwu is now, at 22, and nearly five years removed from high school.

And it’s exactly where he should be.

“He may say he wishes he was (back) there at that point in time,” Mabon said of Ezechukwu’s recently reiterated stay-in-high-school-forever claims, “but I highly doubt it. I think Danny loves to learn and loves to realize what he doesn’t know and loves to see how far he’s come. I think he’s enjoying the journey of becoming a better person. So he may say that, but I know for a fact that he knows he’s a much better, more equipped person than he was at 18 coming straight out of high school.”

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