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Ekdahl earns respect

Observer Staff

10/28/2005 12:00:00 AM

Central Michigan University football fans have had to check the roster in their gameday program to keep up with all the players rotating in and out on the Chippewas' defensive line this season. As many as 10 different players have seen action on the defensive front this fall, and among old reliables like Daniel Bazuin and Tony Thompson have been a number of new faces, including redshirt freshman Ronnie Ekdahl.

Ekdahl's climb to the top of the depth chart is a classic example of the benefits of hard work and dedication to a goal. He came to CMU as a walk-on in 2004 wanting nothing more than the opportunity to prove that he could compete with the program's scholarship players.

To that end, Ekdahl has spent his first two years in the program proving that he can contribute on the defensive side of the ball.

"I just wanted to prove myself and make a name for myself," Ekdahl said. "I knew that as a walk-on, I was going to be at the bottom of the barrel, but I wanted to prove to the coaches that I could play. I worked really hard in the weight room and on the field and I wanted to prove that I was just as good as the scholarship players.

"Tony Thompson helped me a lot. I lifted with the upperclassmen to get stronger and always ran as hard as I could. I wanted to work just as hard as the upperclassmen."

The long hours in the weight room and additional workouts with the veterans paid off in Akron, Ohio on Oct. 1, when Ekdahl earned his first career start in the Chippewas' 31-17 win. Ironically, Ekdahl stepped into the lineup for Thompson, who missed the game with an injury.

Despite learning that he was in the starting lineup just 24 hours before kickoff, Ekdahl was physically and mentally prepared for the assignment.

"I prepare for every game like I'm going to be starting," Ekdahl said. "I want to be ready whenever I have a chance to play."

For most, that chance to play came much sooner than originally expected.

"We didn't expect him to be in a position to be a starter for us," said second-year head coach Brian Kelly. "But, Ronnie has committed himself to the weight room and is the kind of guy that has done all of the little things right. He embodies what we expect out of all of our guys. He's a very quiet kid. He doesn't say a whole lot. He just enjoys playing the game, and has the kind of demeanor that you need to succeed as a walk-on."

Kelly, who says he takes "great pride in his walk-on program," traveled 15 former or current walk-ons to Army on Oct. 8.

In the past year, former walk-ons Mike Decker, Jacob Flint, and Justin Gardner have been rewarded with scholarships. For Ekdahl, walking on was practically his only option as he wrapped up his prep career at Bullock Creek High School in Midland. After receiving interest from a handful of schools early in the recruiting process, Ekdahl was left to decide between walking on at CMU or Northwood University, a Division II school in Midland.

"I wanted to give the big-time a shot and go to the Division I school," Ekdahl said of his decision. "Both of the schools were close to my family and the Tribal community, and I wanted to be a role model for the Tribal youth."

Ekdahl, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, enjoys a tight-knit relationship with both his immediate family and the Chippewa community.

"My family has been there behind me 100 percent with anything I've ever wanted to do," Ekdahl said. "I played hockey for 11 years growing up, and my parents would take off work to drive to tournaments. My grandparents have started coming out to football games, and my parents never miss a game. It makes me proud to have them behind me, and it makes me happy to know that I can make other people feel proud."

Ekdahl remains active in the community as well, speaking to students at the Tribal school and participating in the Anishinabe Athletic Youth Association (AAYA) banquet.

His message to kids is a straightforward one-follow your dreams and work hard.

"A lot of kids don't participate in sports or other activities because it's not cool or popular," Ekdahl said. "I tell them that if you love what you're doing, it doesn't matter what others think."

Ekdahl is the epitome of his own message. A willingness to work hard in order to fulfill a dream has earned him the opportunity to contribute to CMU's success this season. With three years of eligibility remaining, there's no telling what else this quiet kid with the big heart can accomplish.

(Editor's note: This story was written by CMU Assistant Sports Information Director Scott Rex.)