Asamoah continues unbelievable journey to NFL Draft

If Illini senior Jon Asamoah was told seven years ago that he would be rated as one of the 2010 NFL Draft’s top offensive guards, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Heck no,” Asamoah said. “I wouldn’t have believed you last year.”

But ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has had his eye on the soft-spoken offensive guard, rating him as the top senior at his position.

When asked about his brief appearance on Kiper’s Big Board, which ranks the top 25 draft-eligible players, Asamoah cracked a smile.

“I don’t even look at that, but somebody told me and I was like, ‘Oh wow,’” Asamoah said, breaking out in laughter as he often does throughout a conversation.

“That’s some surreal stuff, all that stuff just blows my mind,” he said. “I just kind of laugh, I’m like, ‘Where does he get his information?”

It’s Asamoah’s journey that makes his draft status so surreal. In the last seven years, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound lineman has learned a completely new game, had his heart broken by his favorite school and has had thoughts about quitting football.

“It’s all worth it,” he said. “I can’t believe how far I’ve come.”

Basketball days

It was the spring of 2003, and Asamoah, then a freshman at Rich East High School, had just finished his first season as the starting center on the sophomore basketball team. Even though he was built like an offensive lineman at about 6-foot-2, 250 pounds back then, he had never gone near the football field.

“I had no interest in it, the game was too rough for me,” Asamoah said. “It was just too rough for me, I didn’t want to deal with it.”

But one day while he was in the weight room, his sophomore basketball coach, also a football coach, approached him with an ultimatum — play football or risk being cut from the basketball team.

“I thought it was a big joke until he told me he was dead serious,” Asamoah recalled. “He was like, ‘I’m going to cut you if you don’t play football.’”

And so his football journey began.

“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” Asamoah said, again breaking out in laughter.

College recruitment

Within a few years, football slowly shifted in his priorities.

But the thought that he would become an NFL prospect didn’t even cross his mind — it was surprising enough that college coaches began taking notice.

“I remember the first coach, it was (then-Illinois assistant Mike Locksley),” he said. “He came into the weight room and I’m like, ‘That looks like a college coach.’ And then all of a sudden, my high school coach calls me over and I’m like, ‘Damn, I’m getting recruited.’”

But while Locksley and then-Northwestern assistant Pat Fitzgerald showed early interest, only Northern Illinois and Bowling Green offered Asamoah a scholarship by the time he was ready to make his college choice in October 2005, his senior year of high school.

Always focused on academics as much as athletics, Asamoah’s dream school was Northwestern. But after months of suspense, the Wildcats decided he didn’t fit into their program.

So he picked Northern Illinois because of its proximity to home, only to have Illinois offer him the same day.

Although he struggled with the thought of reneging on a commitment, Asamoah knew he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to play at a Big Ten school.

“It was hard, because it was one of those things where I told them I was coming, I made my commitment. How could I come back on it?” he said. “I really struggled with it.”

But Asamoah picked Illinois and showed up in Champaign within a matter of months.

Cut from a different cloth

It didn’t take Asamoah longer than his first Illinois lifting session to realize what he had gotten into.

“After the first lift, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not cut out for this,’” he said.

Then he hit the field.

“We started playing football and it was just too fast and dudes were big and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not cut out for this,’” he repeated.

Asamoah also struggled to fit in with his teammates off the field, so much so that center Eric Block, then a sophomore, said neither he nor any of his teammates got to know him.

“He didn’t say anything, he would just mope around,” said Block, now a fifth-year senior. “We always used to kid with Jon that whenever he got to the stadium, his demeanor, his attitude, it just dropped. Stadium Jon was what we called it. Rantoul was even worse. He was Rantoul Jon for a while, there were just different versions.”

Making the transition

Block couldn’t help but smile when asked about the first time he had a full conversation with Asamoah in February of 2004.

Block was planning a weekend trip to his home state of Louisiana for Mardi Gras when a friend who was planning on joining him decided not to go.

Not wanting to make the 12-hour drive by himself, Block weighed his options.

“Why don’t you give that Jon kid a call?” his friend suggested. “I talked to him the other day and he seemed OK.”

So he called up the kid he hadn’t spoken more than two words to.

“I’m leaving in about an hour, you want to go?” Block asked, not expecting a positive response.

“Yeah, I’ll be ready in about 30 minutes,” Asamoah replied without hesitation.

After 24 hours in a car together, Block and Asamoah began a close friendship.

“I don’t know what made him make that trip, but I’m glad he did,” Block said of his roommate of three years.

Asamoah also made huge strides on the practice field in the next year but needed some prodding from new offensive line coach Eric Wolford to carry over his improvement to games.

Wolford looks at the team’s third game of that 2007 season against Syracuse, at which point Asamoah described his play as hitting “rock bottom,” as a turning point in the guard’s season and maybe his career.

“He was playing not to lose and not playing to win,” Wolford said. “I had to basically let him have it.”

Instead of wilting, Asamoah took Wolford’s criticism in stride.

“That’s what I needed because I was down and out at that point,” he said.

New chapter

So Asamoah progressed, always under the radar, as teammates around him picked up accolades and attention.

His junior and senior seasons haven’t gone as well for the Illini as he would have liked, but he hasn’t let that stop his personal growth.

With his focus on academics, Asamoah was named the team’s best scholar during spring football with a 3.79 GPA (which he labeled the “nerd award”) and was recently named to the 16-man National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame’s 2009 Scholar-Athlete class.

“I just take school as seriously as possible,” he said. “My parents have been kicking my butt since preschool.”

Come this spring, he’ll put the textbooks down and begin a new journey as a professional athlete.

He won’t be drafted early in the first round — guards are rarely drafted before the second round — but Asamoah doesn’t care. He’s always been one to fly under the radar.

“I don’t care if I’m first round, seventh round, undrafted, just to have the opportunity to step on the field with guys I’ve been watching forever would be incredible,” he said.

It could almost be considered a shame that such a special talent plays one of the most anonymous positions on the field.

But Wolford, now coaching at South Carolina, doesn’t think his former player would have it any other way.

“Jon doesn’t do things to try to draw attention to himself,” Wolford said. “All these players today want to dress different, act different, do things different, to draw attention to himself. Jon Asamoah just blends in and does his job and works hard.”

When he is drafted, Asamoah will start another chapter in his journey. But Block thinks that, this time, he’ll take the transition in stride.

“He’s grown, he’s matured a lot,” Block said. “He’s not a giggly kid anymore like he was when he was a freshman.”

Neither Block nor Asamoah expect Stadium Jon to show up in any NFL city.

“I’m hoping that guy is dead,” Asaomoah said.

He then, of course, broke out in laughter.