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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Faith Ekakitie made history Sunday evening when Winnipeg selected the University of Iowa defensive tackle with the first pick of the 2017 Canadian Football League (CFL) Draft. Ekakitie, a native of Brampton, Ontario, is the first Hawkeye ever taken with the first pick in a CFL draft.
“It’s an honor and it didn’t happen just because of me,” Ekakitie said. “I have God, my friends, family, and parents to thank. They made this whole process possible — and the University of Iowa, of course. This is not just about me, there are a lot of people involved in this — anyone who has helped me in any way, shape, or form throughout my career, I have to give a huge thank-you to all of them.”
The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Ekakitie played in 13 games for Iowa last season, finishing with 39 tackles and two tackles for loss. He had two pass breakups and two quarterback hurries.
Ekakitie came to the Hawkeyes from Lake Forest (Illinois) Academy, where he was named first-team all-state by the Chicago Sun Times and Chicago Tribune. He took a redshirt in 2012 and did not play 17 of Iowa’s 26 games when he was a freshman and sophomore.
“If you told me four years ago I would be the No. 1 pick in the CFL Draft I would have looked at you and said, ‘I don’t know,'” Ekakitie said. “With that being said, the past 4 ½ years have been valuable playing under coach (Kirk) Ferentz. He runs his program the way a professional football team is run, so in that regard, I will be well-prepared to get acclimated into the pro lifestyle.”
As a junior in 2015, Ekakitie was in on 12 tackles with four coming against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. Last season he had three-or-more stops in eight games, including a career-high six against Wisconsin on Oct. 22.
Ekakitie was not selected in the National Football League Draft from April 27-29, although he was invited to mini-camps with the Colts and Giants. In the end, he decided that signing a two-year contract with Winnipeg was in the best interest for him and his wife, Mikeala, who played volleyball at Iowa.
“It was a matter of whether I wanted to continue pursuing mini-camps and trying to make an NFL team that way or go somewhere where the organization wants me,” Ekakitie said. “Not only that, the fans are great in Winnipeg, they love their football. It was my decision and I am making the right decision not only for me, but for my wife also.”
Ekakitie joins a Winnipeg team that finished 11-7 in the regular season in 2016 before losing to British Columbia, 32-31, in the Western Semifinal.
In 2016, the Blue Bombers were third in the CFL in fewest points allowed (454) and sixth with 35 sacks. Winnipeg’s coaching staff includes Mike O’Shea (head coach), Richie Hall (defensive coordinator), and Todd Howard (defensive line).
Ekakitie will fly to Winnipeg on May 23. The Blue Bombers open the preseason June 10 at Saskatchewan; they also open the regular season July 1 at Saskatchewan.
“The rules are a little different in Canada, so there will be a little bit of adjusting that needs to be done,” Ekakitie said. “But when it is all said and done, football is football, and I’m ready to play.”
According to the CFL official website, there are three Hawkeyes currently on CFL rosters: Jovon Johnson, a cornerback for Montreal, Nolan MacMillan, an offensive lineman for Ottawa, and Drew Tate, a quarterback for Ottawa. Last season, Tevaun Smith was selected with the eighth pick in the first round of the CFL Draft by Edmonton, but he signed an NFL free agent contract with the Colts.
Cal Jones, one of two Hawkeyes to have their number (62) retired, played for Winnipeg in 1956. The only other Iowa player to be drafted No. 1 was Randy Duncan in the 1959 NFL Draft by Green Bay. Duncan did not sign with the Packers and played his first two years as a professional in the CFL with British Columbia. Another former Hawkeye, Ken Ploen, led Winnipeg to four Grey Cup championships from 1958-62. Ploen, a quarterback, is still fourth in franchise history with 16,470 passing yards and 10th with 2,996 rushing yards. He played for the Blue Bombers from 1957-67 and is a member of the team’s Hall of Fame and Ring of Honor.
Representatives from CFL teams British Columbia, Montreal, and Toronto attended Iowa’s pro day March 27 in the Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center. Even though Winnipeg was not one of those teams, the Blue Bombers knew enough about Ekakitie to make him their first choice Sunday.
“I started to follow (the CFL) a little closer when the draft process began,” Ekakitie said. “I know the basics (about the league). It’s football and you win games.”