MERIDEN – James Ubaike was a project, to say the least, in his days at Maloney.
The former Spartan played just one season of football on the East Side and had to get a crash course in the basics of the gridiron at a later stage than most players.
However, he was blessed with great size, strength and a strong work ethic, and he’s persevered. The 6-foot-4, 280-pound defensive lineman recently accepted a full ride to play Division I football at Eastern Illinois University.
Ubaike, 20, got there incrementally. Despite playing just one year at Maloney, he was ready for the next level.
Immediately after Maloney, Ubaike red-shirted a year at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa, then moved on to the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., where he excelled last fall.
Ubaike attracted many four-year suitors, including several Division I schools and many D-II programs, before making his decision. Ubaike is already taking classes at Eastern Illinois as he prepares for his first practice in three weeks.
The journey wasn’t easy.
“So many things went wrong along the way, but I managed to pull through,” Ubaike said. “With hard work and dedication, it paid off.”
Maloney coach Kevin Frederick took over the program the March before Ubaike’s senior year of high school.
“Big James had never stepped on a varsity field, but he was very excited about the weightlifting program,” Frederick said. “Coach (Hank) Thomas and (Kevin) Emory grew a liking to him and got him ready for the season. He instantly became our biggest lineman and they worked him hard.
“That season he started every game and got better and better at defensive end. We knew his best football was still ahead of him just from the improvement he made from March to August with his conditioning, stance and footwork.”
After red-shirting his first year at Ellsworth Coummunity College, Ubaike dislocated his ankle as he was preparing for his second season at the school in 2016. He ended up missing that entire season.
“I wasn’t able to walk for three months and, on top of that, I wasn’t on the same page with the coach,” Ubaike said. “I didn’t feel they cared about me as a person. I left the school. I ended up at North Dakota, where I had to start from the ground level again and learn the plays and the school work got harder. It was a grind and I just had to get through it.”
Not only did Ubaike get through it, he was a force at defensive end for the North Dakota squad in 2017. In eight games, he totaled five sacks. Out of his 11 tackles, seven were for a loss. Ubaike also added a pick.
His performance turned some heads.
“In the fall, after the third game, (coaches) were getting me contact, a whole bunch of coaches,” Ubaike said. “After my first two games, I was mainly just talking to the UMass coach. Following that third week, I can’t count the amount of schools that contacted me during and after the season. Every elite D-II called me at least once. Some schools begged me to come to their school.”
During the recruiting process this winter, many programs that were looking at Ubaike dismissed their coaches after the season. Ubaike said that was the case at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, among other schools.
“Many of my coaches were gone,” Ubaike said. “My options were cut to pieces. But I still had plenty of choices, like Idaho State and a bunch of other FCS schools. I still had options closer to home. But I thought EIU offered me the most. There are a lot of resources here. Overall, this was a great decision.”
Ubaike said schools are still calling him, not knowing that he committed.
“It feels great to be wanted,” Ubaike said. “Through the years people told me I wasn’t smart enough or good enough and now, after all of that hate, you find guidance and with people that work on you and focus on you and that has paid off.”
Ubaike has done a complete turnaround in the classroom, adding to his appeal. Ubaike openly talks about having bad grades at Maloney. He currently has a 3.4 GPA and is studying Economics.
Ubaike enters Eastern Illinois as a sophomore. The Panthers are best known for producing pro quarterbacks Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Ubaike’s ultimate goal is to play in the NFL.
“I remember that first summer before senior year at Maloney,” Ubaike said. “It was super-hot outside and we just kept doing drills. But I did it. I wasn’t great, but I just kept doing it over and over again and I literally saw myself progressing. After you get the hang of it, it feels good. I went from a player that knew nothing about a pass rush to showing my teammates how to do it. I learned to always use your strength and take advantage of your opponents weaknesses.”
At Ellsworth, Ubaike learned to use a juke and a spin move. He’s developed a reputation as a defensive end with “lethal hands.”
“The thing that makes a D-I or D-II kid into an NFL guy is to work,” Ubaike said. “My goal is to be in the NFL, but with my GPA, I have backup plans.”
Ubaike is Frederick’s first Division I player as a head coach.
“We tell James all of the time that he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time in high school,” Frederick said. “He was 240 pounds then. Now he’s 285 pounds of solid muscle. Coaches have nothing but good things to say about him and now he has a full ride to Eastern Illinois.”
Frederick said he talks about Ubaike’s success story with his players.
“It’s a tribute to him,” Frederick said. “Obstacles were stacked against him and hard work pays off. He had a goal and he was set to achieve it. I talk about him almost every day with my football team. It’s great motivation for guys coming in, that with hard work, dreams can come true.”
Ubaike’s parents, Austin and Hilda, live in Meriden. Ubaike comes back to visit for Christmas and summer breaks.