From West Africa to West End: Ejike Obinna’s remarkable journey to Vanderbilt


Photo via Vanderbilt Athletics.

Simon Gibbs, Senior Writer

Ejike Obinna’s path to Vanderbilt is unlike any other.

To tell this story it in its entirety, we must begin with ex-NFL wide receiver and Super Bowl champion Antwaan Randle El.

Since his retirement from the NFL in 2010, Randle El has founded The El Foundation and now serves as the athletic director and basketball coach of Virginia Academy, Obinna’s alma mater. 

The El Foundation’s mission statement is “to mold a generation of young leaders who carry on the tradition of supporting their communities with caring and love.” Of course, most of the El Foundation’s influence comes through sports, namely their “Do Good Through Sports” campaign.

Meanwhile, Randle El was trying to fortify a relatively new and unproven athletic department at Virginia Academy. In the midst of the recruiting process, he received a phone call about “Ej.”

“I had the chance to talk to Ejike and his mom, and the young man was so impressive at age thirteen,” Randle El told The Washington Post in February. “I was like, man, we really do need to take a shot on this kid. My foundation, the El foundation, along with Virginia Academy, was able to bring him over here.”

“Bring him over here?” Where was he coming from?

Basketball promo shoot 2017. Photo by Joe Howell//Vanderbilt University.

Obinna had never picked up a basketball prior to 2013, yet he shined at a camp back in his hometown of Enugu, Nigeria, well over 5,000 miles away from Virginia. In fact, “Ej” played so well at the camp that he received recognition, and shortly thereafter, the call from Randle El. Randle El took a chance, and with the help of a host family, he was finally able to bring Obinna to Virginia.

Years later, Obinna was part of Virginia Academy’s very first graduating class, and what once looked like a risky decision for Randle El had paid its dividends. Ej finished his high school career averaging 16.6 points (scoring over a thousand points total), 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1 steal and 1 assist per game before committing to play at Vanderbilt University. His progression from a raw athlete to a force to be reckoned with is truly unheralded.

The Transition

If you couldn’t tell by the weather here in Nashville, Winter is coming. As frigid mornings loom over the Vanderbilt University campus, tip-off for a brand-new SEC basketball season approaches.

While the transition from Nigeria to America was no crystal stair, one of the greatest discrepancies between the two countries, the climate, didn’t phase Obinna.

“Moving from Nigeria to Virginia was tough, but some parts were simple,” Obinna told The Vanderbilt Hustler. “When I got to Virginia, it was very cold. It’s not as cold where I’m from in Nigeria, so I had to adjust, but I really like the cold. So that worked out well.”

Ej cited the culture, school system, and our tendency to speak fast-paced English as some of the harder adjustments he had to make.

MBB Practice in Memorial Gym Practice Gym. Photo by Joe Howell//Vanderbilt University.

“The school systems are very different, and it didn’t help that I already had to adapt to how people speak here,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t used to people speaking English so quickly.”

Just months removed from high school, Obinna has been tasked with another huge transition. While he was a high school student in Virginia just last year, he must now acclimate to fast-paced SEC basketball, all while trying to settle in as a college student in a brand-new state.

Thanks to the support system he’s built here at Vanderbilt, Ej made the transition appear seamless once again. According to Coach Bryce Drew, the team played a big role in this process.

“The team has certainly helped him,” Drew said. “I think the players all get along really well, and the camaraderie they have together has made this transition smoother. With that being said, he deserves all the credit he can get. He’s made it look easy.”

Ultimately, Ej’s transition could have an impact on Vanderbilt’s international recruiting moving forward. He is certainly not the first Commodore born in Nigeria–notables include NBA champion Festus Ezeli and Women’s Basketball prized recruit Blessing Ejiofor–but Coach Drew knows Obinna’s story, and more importantly, his potential impact.

“Vanderbilt has a great name worldwide,” he said. “I really think Ejike’s success here will allow him to go back and help his home country, leading to other international players wanting to come here to do the same thing.”

Why Vanderbilt? Why Coach Drew?

Obinna received countless offers from major Division One programs all over the country. Eventually, he narrowed his search down to four schools: Clemson, Florida, Oklahoma, and Vanderbilt. According to Ej, no other school could boast a system that fits him as well as Drew’s, and no other school had a coach as lively or as personable.

“Every school had so much to offer, but I felt at home here,” Obinna said. “I always say I came here because I wanted to play for Coach Drew. Really, he is only part of it. His system here is better than anywhere else, the fans are amazing, and Nashville is amazing. I really couldn’t ask for anything more.”

MBB Practice in Memorial Gym Practice Gym. Photo by Joe Howell//Vanderbilt University

Ej isn’t wrong. Heading into just his second season as head coach, Bryce Drew has made a name for himself. Coach Drew’s ability to speak so highly of his players both on and off the court is indicative of his own persona.

Drew didn’t hesitate in describing what Ej can bring to the team in just his first season as a Commodore.

“He can certainly contribute great size, he’s aggressive, he rebounds very well, and he plays really hard,” he said.

Likewise, Obinna is just as valuable of an asset off the court, as Coach Drew couldn’t hold back laughter and excitement while describing Ej’s personality.

“He’s got an electric personality, people are drawn to him,” Drew said. “He’s really a great ambassador for both our school and our program.”

Family First

Obinna is a family man at heart.

Whether it be his family back home, or his second family in Virginia, he is grateful for all they’ve provided. When asked about his host family, his face immediately lit up with a big smile and his words carried a contagious sense of excitement.

“They’re great and they have always been so generous to me,” Obinna said. “There’s so much positive stuff to say about them. I even went to see them two weeks ago over fall break. They’re really like my family and I love them so much and it’s just a process that worked out so well. I didn’t know what I was doing when I got here, I had not even been playing basketball for that long. They gave me everything I needed to succeed.”

With the help of his family from home, his family from Virginia, a Super Bowl Champion and a lively coach, Ejike knows he has always had the tools to succeed. In the next few weeks, we will see how these tools will translate to the big stage.

Featured photo via Vanderbilt Athletics.