By Max Goodwin
The 2023 NFL Draft gave Kansas City another opportunity to flash its growing reputation for hosting major sporting events on the national stage.
With Union Station as the backdrop for 259 players living out a hard-earned dream of an NFL team selecting them to play in the league, several players from around the metro area had their names called. One of them was the Chiefs first-round pick, an edge rusher from Kansas State, Felix Anudike-Uzomah, who attended Lee’s Summit High School.
For others, including two kids from south Kansas City, the draft was an agonizing three days of waiting for a call that never came. Ikenna Enechukwu is a Ruskin High School graduate, and Jacob Sykes is a Rockhurst High School graduate. Eventually, they would both sign with an NFL team as undrafted free agents.
Ikenna Enechukwu is an edge rusher who is accustomed to being undervalued. In his four years at Ruskin, the team won just four games. Enechukwu was a zero-star recruit coming out of high school but earned a scholarship to Rice University, where he redshirted his freshman year.
Jacob Sykes is a defensive tackle from Rockhurst High School that first played at Harvard before transferring to UCLA and was featured in the Los Angeles Times in November for his brains and brawn.
On the first night of the draft, Enechukwu met up with friends from high school and went down to see the spectacle. He watched the first players walk across the draft stage from the faraway distance of Liberty Memorial and took pictures with his friends. Standing among the 125,000 fans who attended, the whole thing felt hectic.
In the weeks leading up to the draft, Enechukwu returned to Ruskin several times to visit teachers and coaches. He talked with about 30 current Ruskin football players and checked out the school’s improvements to the football field. Those visits helped balance his emotions. More than anything, he just wanted to say he was a professional football player, finally.
“I feel like I’m on a cliff,” Enechukwu said just before the start of the second night of the draft. “I could be headed anywhere.”
“It’s just exciting. I’m so glad to be in this position. I’m just waiting for the phone call so it can all be over. People can stop asking me what team I’m going to, and I’ll be able to say I’m employed by an NFL team. I am a professional football player.”
Ruskin Head Coach William Perkins saw a big, athletic kid with potential who was a bit uncoordinated when he first saw Enechukwu on the field. By senior year of high school, he received multiple Division I scholarship offers. In college, he became a leader and an integral part of the defense at Rice.
He was invited to the NFL Combine as one of the 300 potential draft prospects this year.
“I didn’t know what type of route I would have to take,” Enechukwu said. “If I was going to have to fight for a spot as a free agent or if I would make it as a pick. I just knew I was going to get a shot at the league. Going through all-star games and the combine have just been amazing.”
As the second round of the draft wrapped up, rounds 2 and 3 were finished and Enechukwu was still on the board. There was still room for optimism with four rounds remaining.
There was still reason to believe the Chiefs could be searching for more depth on the edge of the defensive line, even after taking Anudike-Uzomah in the first round, and Enechukwu could fit the role. He remembers when Andy Reid first arrived in town, and the Chiefs began that season 9-0. Watching that Chiefs season sparked his love for football. He hoped to play for the team he grew up watching.
“Other than that, I just want to go somewhere that wants me,” Ikenna said. “I want to go somewhere that believes in me and my ability.”
The Chiefs would end up going in a different direction. And so would each of the other NFL teams. As the draft ended, Enechukwu knew he would have to fight it out on the undrafted free-agent market to find a job in the NFL.
By the end of the next day, he found a team that believed in him. The Atlanta Falcons signed Enechukwu to an undrafted free-agent contract. The Falcons could desperately use some pass-rushing help after recording the least sacks in the NFL last season.
“Feeling grateful but I am motivated more than ever to make those other teams regret not drafting me,” Enechukwu said.
Jacob Sykes, the graduate of Rockhurst who gained attention at UCLA this past year, ended the draft in the same position. He also found a team as an undrafted free agent in the Seattle Seahawks.
Both will get their chance to earn a spot in the NFL starting with rookie mini-camps this week.