By Craig Sachson
Uche Ndukwe dislocated his shoulder late in the fourth quarter of Princeton’s 2021 five-overtime thriller against Harvard, but he wasn’t about to let that stop him from competing in what would be one of the program’s most epic games.
“There’s no way we’re going out like this,” Ndukwe remembers of the first Harvard overtime possession, when he willed himself back into the game. “I wasn’t worried about my shoulder. This is the sacrifice that you expect if you want to be a Division I football player.”
Ndukwe was not just any player. He was one of the best Ivy League defensive players in the moment that Aaron Shampklin took a second-down handoff inside the Princeton 15. Ndukwe did the same thing he did all season, beating his lineman and pulling down the Crimson runner for his ninth tackle for loss of the season.
Unfortunately, that play cost Harvard four yards and Princeton one of its best players. Ndukwe went down awkwardly and tore his ACL, ending an All-Ivy season that never saw a November game. He averaged nearly 1.6 tackles for loss per game that season, which would have lapped the field if he had played enough games to qualify for the final stats.
Princeton has been an amazing place for Ndukwe, but it has been a painful one too. Ndukwe suffered a major injury on campus before he ever became a student, and less than five years later, he did it again. In both cases, head coach Bob Surace trusted in him to recover, return and become a disrupting force on the Tiger defense.
That trust has been paid off significantly.
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Ndukwe was an All-Prep standout for Noble and Greenough as a junior when he decided to pursue an Ivy League education. He had already received plenty of interest from Ivy programs, including Princeton, when he arrived at a Tiger football camp that 2016 summer.
He impressed the staff that day with his performance, but a final drill dampened everybody’s moods. After winning a 1-on-1 drill, Ndukwe cut towards a cone when he felt something awkward in his Achilles. He thought he got kicked, but it was far worse than that — a tear that cost him his senior season.
That kind of injury might have turned off some interest, but the Princeton staff had seen enough.
“We had already decided to offer him based on his performance,” Surace said. “Uche went beyond football, though. He had every trait we wanted in our culture — leadership, work ethic, passion, intelligence, etc. Deciding whether to offer him post-injury wasn’t something we had to think twice on.”
Ndukwe had also started developing relationships with several future teammates as well, including Trevor Forbes, Tyler McDonald, and Will Johnson, so he had his own connection to the program. He accepted the offer, even if he didn’t know exactly how he’d feel by the time his Princeton career began.
His injury wasn’t what cost him varsity playing time as a freshman. The varsity players did. But they also imparted lessons that built Ndukwe into the best version of himself.
“They were almost like myths in the eyes of a lot of the younger guys,” Ndukwe said of the seniors on the undefeated 2018 Princeton football team. “It’s like playing with your favorite NFL player. You come in and think you’re a good player because you’re all-league or whatever in high school, and then you see them perform every day at such a high level. You realize there are levels to this, and there is so much further to go. It makes you so much hungrier.”
And it made Ndukwe into a force in the league.
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By the time his junior season came around, Ndukwe had experienced both a crushing end to the 2019 season and a global pandemic, so he was more than ready to compete. Few outside of the Tiger staff were prepared for what was to come, however. In only six games, Ndukwe recorded 17 tackles, six sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss, including three in that historic Harvard game.
The team was thriving as well. The Tigers were undefeated at the time, and despite a loss to Dartmouth, they closed with back-to-back wins over Yale and Penn to record their 13th Ivy League championship. It was bittersweet for Ndukwe to spend the final weeks on the sideline again.
“There is a myth that once you have played a few games, you have it all figured out and you’re the model student-athlete,” Ndukwe said. “I realized that is such a convenient narrative that isn’t real. All people have struggles in life, and you take it day by day, focus on the one thing you can do to get a little better. Eventually there will be days you wake up and feel so much better.”
Ndukwe credits his teammates, especially roommates Chris Brown, Ike Hall and Andrei Iosivas, as well as his family and coaches for being there for him while injured. This was not his first time rehabbing an injury, focusing on his Princeton football future. He did what he could over the summer while interning at M33, a growth equity firm in Boston, but he was a bit nervous that he wouldn’t match his dominant self when he returned for his senior season.
Those nerves calmed when he was voted a captain by his teammates. The focus shifted, and he became more vocal, more of a leader. The individual numbers aren’t the same as 2021, but look at the individual defensive leaders in the Ivy League, and you won’t find too many Princeton players around the top.
Look at the team stats, and you’ll see a much different story. First in scoring defense, first in total defense, first in rushing defense, first in red zone defense, first in interceptions, second in third-down conversion defense and opponents first downs … there’s more, but you probably get the picture.
That picture wasn’t clear to Ndukwe before he came to camp, when he wasn’t sure what he could give, or what the Tigers would do without some of the past standouts like Jeremiah Tyler and Sam Wright.
“I was curious to see how we would be this year,” he said. “Nobody could have anticipated the way every single person would own their role. You can’t look at us and say this is the weak person, this is who we’ll attack, because that person will have the game of their life.”
A scary fact for opponents is that Ndukwe feels himself improving as his knee gets stronger. He had a season-high four tackles in last week’s win over Dartmouth and added a sack for a 14-yard loss. He feels like the football movements are returning, just in time for his final two games in Orange and Black, and Surace knows what that could mean for his team.
“Uche has been an outstanding player for a long time here,” he said. “He is one of the best interior pass rushers we’ve had in my long history at Princeton. But even more impressive than his on-field exploits, he has been an exceptional leader and captain.”
He has overcome two major injuries to get to this moment, and he’ll take nothing for granted over the next two weeks. Ndukwe hopes to extend his football career beyond this month, but he also knows that nothing is guaranteed. He is helping build upon the culture that taught him dedication and perseverance years earlier, and he would like nothing more than to claim one more Ivy title along the way.