Before the Broncos' Week 16 matchup against the Patriots on Dec. 24, honorary game captain Ebenezer Ekuban returned to the grass at Empower Field at Mile High for the coin toss. The honor was another remarkable step in Ekuban's one-of-a-kind football journey and marked a return to the site of Ekuban's greatest years as an NFL player.
On the “Cut Fired Traded Retired” podcast with KOA's Broncos sideline reporter Susie Wargin, Ekuban revisited his career and his time with the Broncos. Ekuban played defensive end for Denver from 2005-08, the final stretch of a prolific 10-year pro career, and helped the Broncos host an AFC Championship in the 2005 season.
"It was a fast 10 years," Ekuban said. "It felt like a blink of an eye. You never realize it when you're younger, when you're still puppy-faced and wet behind the ears at 22 as a rookie, that, man, this really goes by fast. You really cherish those days. I really cherish my time here in Denver because, like I said, this was the first time as a pro that I won, and we were so close to getting that ring. … It was so rewarding to just win."
Ekuban didn't start playing football until he was a junior in high school in Bladensburg, Maryland. He rarely left the field, playing tight end, defensive end and kicker, and his athleticism helped him continue to the Power Five level at North Carolina.
Originally a tight end with the Tar Heels, Ekuban transitioned to playing defensive end full time in Chapel Hill and took off as an NFL Draft prospect. The Dallas Cowboys selected Ekuban with the 20th-overall pick in the first round of the 1999 NFL Draft, making him the first Ghanaian to play in the NFL.
Ekuban established himself as an NFL starter in his five years in Dallas, recording 12.5 sacks and 114 tackles as a Cowboy. He powered his way to a career high eight sacks in the 2004 season with the Cleveland Browns before signing with the Denver Broncos, a serious Super Bowl contender, ahead of the 2005 season.
Ekuban remembers the special feeling of joining the formidable Broncos defense.
"When I got to Denver, it was just a total different feeling," Ekuban said. "Mind you, getting here, it was a veteran squad. I mean, Trevor Pryce, Al Wilson, Champ Bailey — these were pro's pros. … Everywhere else I went you had good guys, core guys, but it wasn't as many as I saw here in Denver."
In his first season in Denver, the Broncos won 13 regular-season games and reached the AFC Championship, where they ultimately fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The next season, Ekuban enjoyed one of his best seasons with seven sacks and a career-high 63 tackles — a remarkable feat as a defensive lineman.
"It was great, just to be around that atmosphere," Ekuban said. "Mind you, I was getting older, too. These guys, they're trying to win now. There's no rebuilding, there's none of that. And then we got defensive help from the other Broncos that came in. We [had] a solid, solid staff. [A] great room to be in."
Ekuban missed the 2007 season due to injury, and he didn't have the same burst in his final season with the Broncos as a 32-year-old in 2008. Still, he counts that ability to overcome adversity as one of the bright spots of his career.
"Tearing that Achilles and coming back from it, I had great pride," Ekuban said. "I had a great staff in the Broncos training room … helping me. I did come back. I wasn't the same — you could feel that I didn't have the initial burst, but you learn to work with it."
Since retiring from the NFL, Ekuban and his family have stayed in the Denver area, where he has enjoyed reconnecting with the many former teammates he has in the area and supporting his kids in their athletic and life endeavors.
In reflecting on his career, Ekuban said he tells younger athletes to enjoy the journey with all of its ups and downs.
"You've got to enjoy the journey," Ekuban said. "I wish I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It goes by so fast, in the blink of an eye. You never want to look back and tell yourself, 'What did I do this for?' … Whether it's good or bad, it's still going to help you [and] propel you to where you're going to be or want to be. So enjoy it."