09.05.2001 Feature Article

Cowboys Extra: A distant journey to a forgotten past

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Cowboys Extra: A distant journey to a forgotten past
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Return to family's roots in Ghana proves profound for Ekuban By LAURA SOMMERS / The Dallas Morning News (09/05/2001) Home for Ebenezer Ekuban was Riverdale, Md., the town where his family settled when he was 7 years old. Few memories remained of the country that his father left in the early 1980s, the home that lived only in anecdotes shared by his parents.

But all that changed in February, when Ekuban returned to Ghana with his parents and saw firsthand the people and places that shaped his early childhood.

"It was a very surreal experience because right when we landed at the airport, something came over my body that told me that I finally arrived, as in, 'I'm home,' " said Ekuban, a Cowboys defensive end. "I felt almost a peace about me."

Ekuban, the Cowboys' 1999 first-round draft pick, traveled to his birthplace in Accra, the capital of Ghana. He and his parents stayed with his grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins in a four-home complex and spent three weeks trying to refresh Ekuban's childhood memories. His grandmother worked overtime to keep his 6-3, 265-pound body filled with fish, yams, corn, chicken and fish, the staples of traditional African cooking. Accompanied by his father, he saw his birthplace, his first school and important places in Accra, such as museums with exhibits about Ghana's former presidents.

Father and son also spent a week driving around the country in a car borrowed from his father's army friend. Though Ekuban was fascinated with every aspect of the country's history, their trip to El Mina Castle in Cape Coast had the strongest effect. The castle is a former port for the slave trade.

"When you walk through the slave dungeons and it's 110 degrees outside and you're freezing cold ... something's not right about that," Ekuban said. "It's almost as if those spirits are still there in a way."

Ekuban said he was finally able to experience firsthand what his ancestors were subjected to, rather than simply reading about it in school.

"It just brought about so many emotions I've never felt before," he said. "And it made me understand, I guess, who I am better, where I came from and what my people went through."

Ekuban lived in Accra for seven years until his father moved him and his six sisters to Maryland in 1983. Ebenezer Sr., a former member of Ghana's army, had sensed instability in the country and gotten a job with the Senegalese embassy in the United States in 1981. Ekuban and his sisters lived with his grandmother for two years until Ebenezer Sr. was able to return for his family.

Because Ekuban has lived in the United States for 18 years, he considers himself an American. He could only remember what his parents had told him about his childhood until he stepped off the plane.

"I just remember the things we used to do," Ekuban said. "How we used to play with the bicycle steel rims with a stick. How we just played soccer endlessly, from morning until night." Ekuban was not the only one excited about his trip. His family in Africa was just as excited to meet the American football player, Ebenezer Sr. said.

His relatives had watched numerous videotapes of Ekuban's college games at North Carolina and his first two seasons with the Cowboys. They also watched Ekuban on CNN whenever possible, Ebenezer Sr. said.

"They just wanted to see him in person," Ebenezer Sr. said. "He had been featured in a local paper when he was first drafted. You can imagine the honor and respect they had for him."

The trip gave Ekuban a fresh perspective on his life and career. He said he's grateful to live in the United States; grateful to be a professional football player and for the five-year, $5.6 million contract that made his trip home possible; grateful to be able to represent the country of his birth.

"It almost feels as if I'm an ambassador because, especially being in the NFL and having the spotlight on you, people look at that," Ekuban said. "If I have to carry that torch for my country, why not?"

Ekuban said he hopes to visit Ghana more often, to set up a football camp and open up libraries. For now, he enjoys moments late at night when he can lie in bed and reflect on his childhood in Africa. Despite making it to the NFL, he had felt a piece of him was missing.

"If I was a pie chart, before I went I was missing about 25 percent," Ekuban said. "Now I'm complete."

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