STEILACOOM — What’s it like to be Emeka Egbuka, the first five-star football player at Steilacoom High School?
Well, your principal gets star struck whenever Ohio State coach Ryan Day or UW coach Chris Petersen drop by the campus of less than 700 students near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
You get to spend part of your summer visiting Clemson, gush about Dabo Swinney’s immaculate house near the campus, then meet Nick Saban on a visit to Alabama before heading to Baton Rouge to see LSU.
Egbuka’s classmates — all his best friends, he says — make up plenty of five-star jokes to present to him in the hallways.
Oh, and his 17th birthday came around last month. So he received 120 handwritten cards, one from every coach at Stanford — as in a card from the volleyball coach, basketball, golf, water polo and everybody else. Each coach wrote about 2-3 paragraphs of personal messages.
That’s five-star treatment.
“The mail has started getting crazy recently,” Egbuka said. “I have a huge box just overflowing with letters, and other mail is scattered around the house.”
He’s the talk of Class 2A football, with Steilacoom preparing for its first-round state playoff game against Ridgefield at 7 p.m. on Friday at Mount Tahoma Stadium. He’s the No. 1-ranked athlete and the No. 8 overall recruit in the country in the 2021 class by 247Sports.
Egbuka has narrowed his list to 10 colleges he’s considering — Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stanford, USC and UW — but he said he’d like to get that to about three after the season ends.
This is a universe away from what Steilacoom coach Colby Davies remembers of his own recruiting process, when he went from the Sentinels to Western Washington University.
“I had to go out of my way to get schools to talk to me, and Mek’s trying to figure out how to get some schools to stop talking to him,” Davies laughed.
But through all the messages, visits, letters and articles, Davies has been most impressed by how Egbuka has kept himself grounded and humble.
He has a 4.0 grade-point average, which likely comes from his parents, who have master’s degrees in their fields. Henry Egbuka is a civil engineer and Rhonda Ogilvie is with Kaiser Permanente’s IT department.
And his parents were athletes. Henry was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1996. He said was invited to try out for the Nigerian junior national soccer team, but he’s an avid tennis player now, even competing in some official USTA matches.
Rhonda was a three-sport standout at Steilacoom and had a chance to go study at Columbia University, but she wanted to stay home and play volleyball with her sister at Saint Martin’s University.
“Emeka is a combination of his genes and his work ethic,” Henry said. “Nobody works harder than him. Nobody.”
Henry’s role in the U.S. military sent him to Germany for six years, so Emeka flew transatlantic flights to stay with him over the summers. He remembers challenging his dad in everything, from Ping-Pong to daily sprints — although, Henry has avoided rematches ever since his son ran a 4.42 40-yard dash last year.
Most people thought Emeka’s future was in baseball. The Seattle Mariners invited him to throw out their ceremonial first pitch in a 2012 game after Egbuka won the MLB Pitch, Hit & Run 7-8 year old division, competing at the national championship at the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix. He still has the picture he got with Felix Hernandez.
But that was about the time he started falling in love with football. After a standout freshman season at Steilacoom, he competed in a 7-on-7 competition in Las Vegas that spring and shortly afterward received a scholarship offer from Florida State.
“We all cried when he got that offer,” Henry said with a laugh.
He’s obviously received plenty other offers since.
But that first one validated their decision to let Egbuka play among all his friends at Steilacoom. Henry said they were considering sending him to a bigger school, thinking it would mean more exposure.
“But he really, really loves Steilacoom,” Rhonda said. “We had (high school) coaches asking us if we wanted to go here or there or wherever, which I’m not sure is legal, but he was not interested in that.
“He’s played Little League and youth football with all these kids and he wants to finish it out with all of them. What’s awesome to see is I know he loves that his boys are getting attention because of him, too, which they should.”
Egbuka and his mom flew to Columbus, Ohio, a few weeks ago to watch Ohio State play Wisconsin, and Rhonda asked what her son was thinking of the experience, how he felt about the school and the atmosphere.
“And we were going over some of the different schools and he said, ‘One thing about leaving is I’m going to miss my siblings (younger brother Keanan and younger sister Eva),’” Rhonda said. “That just made me cry.
“But I don’t want that to force his decision. We’ll come to all the games we can, wherever he is. We’ll figure it out. We’ll set up Facetimes, we’ll fly him back. Whatever. He shouldn’t stay here for that reason alone. But he told me if that’s the case, then he wants to go somewhere that feels like family.”
Somewhere, maybe, that feels like Steilacoom.
As a junior he’s caught 49 passes for 1,141 yards and 16 touchdowns, despite constant double coverage. But he’s also been electric as a kick and punt returner and he has five interceptions thanks to what Davies said are the greatest ball skills he’s ever witnessed.
“I am nowhere near where I want to be,” Egbuka said. “I have a vision, and that’s to be the greatest to ever play football. Right now I’m not even close.
“And even when I do make it to the league, I’m not going to feel like I’ve made it because I don’t want to just make it. I want to make an impact and leave a legacy.”