Auburn's C.J. Uzomah thrives on faith, hard work

Sept. 18, 2013


C.J. Uzomah says good times are ahead for Auburn football (Todd Van Emst photo)

By Phillip Marshall
AuburnTigers.com

AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah’s father looked down from the stands and thought he saw Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall glance toward his son. Just maybe, he thought, C.J. was the primary target on the biggest play of Auburn’s season.

He was right, but when it happened, he didn’t see it.

“I said kind of a quick prayer,” Xavier Uzomah says. “I prayed ‘Don’t let him drop this ball,’ and I didn’t actually see the catch. I heard the crowd and I just turned around and hugged my wife.”

With 10 seconds left in the game, Marshall had thrown an 11-yard pass to C.J, the only child of Xavier and Stephanie Uzomah, for the winning touchdown in a 24-20 victory over Mississippi State last Saturday.

But C.J.’s family didn’t just cheer for him. They cheered for Marshall and all those who ran joyfully off the sideline to celebrate when time ran out.

“You know how the fans are,” Xavier says. “They always remember the catch. There are so many other young men who got him there.”

An hour or so after the game, C.J., a 6-foot-4, 258-pound junior, had sung with his teammates and answered dozens of questions from reporters. He emerged smiling from the locker room.

 “That moment was unbelievable,” C.J. says. “It was the biggest moment of my football career. Catching the game-winning touchdown at Jordan-Hare with the crowd screaming was unbelievable. Walking down the street and everybody giving you a high five and saying ‘good game’ was great.”

Downtown, the bars were filling up rapidly. The celebration of a dramatic football victory would go on into the early hours of Sunday morning.

C.J. joined his parents, other relatives and his girlfriend for a late supper at Mama G’s. He celebrated later by joining Tucker Tuberville and a handful of other Auburn walk-ons to watch late football games, play video games and watch a movie.

Devout in his faith and determined to represent his family proudly, that’s the way C.J. lives his life.

“He’s always gravitated toward the unsung heroes,” says Xavier, a financial analyst in Suwanee, Ga. “Sports is great, but it’s not the end all and be all. Family and how you treat people, those things really matter.”

***

In 2008, C.J. was a sophomore at North Gwinett High School, the starting quarterback on the junior varsity and already taller and faster than most of his teammates.  When injuries hit the varsity wide receivers, he got an opportunity that would change the course of his football career.

In the first round of the state playoffs, North Gwinett played Lassiter and future Auburn star Philip Lutzenkirchen. Uzomah caught three touchdown passes that night. North Gwinett overcame Lutzenkirchen’s nine catches for 112 yards and won 43-21. Auburn coaches were there to watch Lutzenkirchen, but they saw plenty of the relatively unknown sophomore.

A star was born, and he caught the eye of Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.

“Lutz had an unreal game,” C.J. says. “He hurdled one of our corners and caught a bunch of passes. I heard from (Auburn) after the season was over when I was playing basketball. I was pretty excited about that. I have some family friends that went here, and they always talked about how great Auburn was.”

Until that playoff game, Xavier Uzomah still wasn’t sure his son was a big-time college prospect. It wasn’t long before he knew.

“You are always harder on your own children,” Xavier says. “Our big thing was ‘C.J. you want to make sure you get great grades.’ That’s how we’ve always pushed him, even until today. That weekend, after they played Lassiter, we got an offer from Georgia. I think that’s when we actually figured it out.”

Over the next two seasons, C.J. was mostly a quarterback, but he could show up at almost any position. On one drive in a state playoff game, he played quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and running back.

At home, C.J. didn’t get special treatment. He had chores to do, lessons to learn and a curfew meet. If he didn’t do what was expected of him, there was a price.

“My parents were pretty strict on me with a lot of things,” C.J. says. “I had to do my chores. We have an alarm clock, and if it went off before I went home, they would cut back my curfew an hour for the whole week. If I was late from that point on, I just couldn’t go out. That helped a lot. It made me accountable.”

In February of 2011, C.J. signed with Auburn.

“The emphasis on family wasn’t mentioned as much at any other school I went to as it was here,” C.J. says. “That meant a lot to me. Auburn is like Suwanee to me. It’s not too big and not to small. There’s an unreal atmosphere with fans and friends. I knew I’d be around good people. I knew some of the recruits coming in. I talked to Kiehl (Frazier), Quan (Bray) and some of the other guys. We were all excited about what we had coming.”

For C.J., a marketing major and an outstanding student, Auburn offered an ideal combination of athletics and academics.

“You always have aspirations to go to the NFL,” C.J. says, “but when you see somebody that was an unbelievable player and didn’t make it, that’s an eye opener. That’s one reason people come to Auburn. You can get a great degree and make connections and have a great career.”

***

Xavier Uzomah has loved soccer since he was young. And when C.J. was 5 years old, his parents signed him up to play. Xavier thought, even hoped, that would be his son’s sport. Though he played soccer until he was in the seventh grade, C.J. started playing football when he was 6. Though his first team didn’t win a game, he was hooked.

“I loved it,” C.J. says. “I loved hitting people. I was a hyper kid, and to release some energy and hit people was fun.”

Soccer remains near and dear to C.J. and his father. C.J. is well-known for the wide variety of soccer jerseys he wears around campus. He has adopted Chelsea as his team. His father pulls for Inter Milan. The FIFA soccer video game is C.J.’s favorite, and he has introduced it to many of his teammates.

But soccer is for relaxation. Auburn football is the Uzomah family game these days.

Like most highly recruited players, C.J. was determined to make an early impact at Auburn. And like most, he had to wait. As a true freshman in 2011, he was a wide receiver used mainly to throw on end-around plays. He moved to tight end before his sophomore season and moved into the starting lineup after Lutzenkirchen suffered a career-ending injury.

“To say it’s not hard would be a lie,” C.J. says. “Everyone who comes here was a top player at their high school. You want to come in and immediately make an impact, but at the same time, you don’t want to jump the gun. I think being behind Lutz and having older guys like Emory (Blake) to help me out was huge. They gave us confidence.”

But they didn’t make it easy. Going from wide receiver to tight end, learning to play with his hand on the ground and to block big and athletic defensive ends in space was a challenge not easily met. Scott Fountain, who coaches tight ends and h-backs, and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes have helped through it.

“It’s real hard,” C.J. says. “It’s a challenge. In high school, I didn’t block. Even when I played receiver, I’d just run and the DB would follow me. Coach Fountain and Coach Grimes have helped me so much with my footwork. I think we have the best defensive ends in the SEC. Having to go against Nosa Eguae and Craig Sanders and Dee Ford and those guys on a daily basis, you learn a lot from them. I am leaps and bounds from where I was.”

Though C.J. finally got has chance to start late in 2012, there wasn’t much to celebrate. Lutzenkirchen, his friend and mentor, moved on. Auburn’s football team fell apart en route to a 3-9 record, but brighter days were coming. On Dec. 4, Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach.

“He recruited me, and I know his family really well and love them,” C.J. says. “When I heard he was going to come back, I was unbelievably excited about it.”

In Malzahn’s offense, C.J. is sometimes a traditional tight end. Sometimes, like on the winning touchdown against Mississippi State, he lines up like a wide receiver. Sometimes he’s in the slot and sometimes he’s even in the backfield. Always, his coaches say, he gives his best to do what is asked of him.

“He’s a great kid,” Fountain says. “He does some things on the field a lot of kids probably couldn’t do. I told him after the game that a guy who works hard, good things eventually come his way. He’s really bought into working hard. He doesn’t just work hard on the field, but off the field. You’d hope you could sign kids like him 10 times out of 10 times.”

C.J. and his teammates eagerly embraced the vision Malzahn brought. And the Tigers are 3-0 going into Saturday’s showdown at No. 6 LSU.

“We know they are a great team, but if we play our best football and we execute, there is nobody in the country we can’t play with,” C.J. says. “We know our coaches are going to give us a great gameplan. We’re going to be ready to play.”

It’s the opportunity for which they’ve worked since December, when they were introduced to strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell.

“I think everyone has bought into everything Coach Malzahn and the coaching staff are really about,” C.J. says. “Him saying it’s a new day from the beginning, some people might have questioned it at first. But once we started listening to him and started getting into Coach Russell’s weight program and coming together as a team, we started believing we have a chance to be something special.”

C.J. will get his chance to play in the NFL. His speed, his size, his athleticism and his intelligence make that opportunity almost a certainty. But he says that’s not on his mind and won’t be until he’s done at Auburn.

“I’ve gotten to this point on prayer and talking to my family and putting my trust in God,” C.J. says. “Whatever happens, it happens for a reason. I just pray every night, work as hard as I can and hope for the best.”

 
       

Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: