Combine is No Obstacle for Longhorn Captain

Emmanuel Acho

Former Texas Longhorn captain Emmanuel Acho is preparing for the NFL Combine next weekend. The faith-driven linebacker says that he is fearless entering what some might say is the biggest week of his life.

University of Texas captain Emmanuel Acho has had a career with the Longhorns that makes any Texas fan grin. The linebacker punctuated his career by finishing as a Lott Trophy finalist (given to well-rounded defensive players), first-team All-Big 12, and first-team AP All-Big 12 while leading the Longhorns with 122 tackles (59 solo), three sacks, 18 tackles for loss, and one forced fumble. And now this talented linebacker's next task is to conquer the NFL Combine.

"At Texas, I had the opportunity to play under the best coaches and training, so I've already been a step ahead of the game," Acho said. "I've also been coached under the best minds in the game in coach Manny Diaz [Texas Defensive Coordinator] and Will Muschamp [Former Texas Defensive Coordinator], so I've had experience playing under a pro-style defense. So I'm already another step ahead.

"It just gives you more confidence knowing you can compete and be successful against the best. If I had been to a smaller school, I would have been intimidated by the guys at the combine. But now I know my opponents and I'm confident I can succeed at the highest level."

Acho has been at a training facility in Arizona preparing for almost two months for the NFL Combine and works almost eight-hour days training with the best in the business. So far the talented prospect has seen his hard work pay off.

"I've probably improved in every facet of the combine because we work on it so extensively," he said. "As far as what I've learned, there's not so much to learn as much as you hope to peak at the right time and prepare hard. [I'm not] taking this opportunity for granted. I'm essentially competing against next year's rookie class, which gives me another opportunity to compete and succeed at a higher level prior to entering the NFL, which is the highest level ... In the FCA Competitor's Creed it says, ‘I'm confident beyond reason because my confidence is in Christ.' I'm not confident in Emmanuel. I'm confident in Christ."

But as this 21-year-old prepares for the biggest week in his life, he doesn't want fans to simply admire his football accomplishments. He wants them to see the impact he's made off the field as well.

"[I want to be remembered] more so as a person than as a player," Acho said. "I try to be the best player I can be and I've tried to be a testimony to that. It's not about what I do on the field, it's about who I help, inspire and affect off of it. You know, in 20 years I hope they're talking about me as a great person [more] than a player."

Acho has never had a sip of alcohol and stayed clear of the party-lifestyle that most college students experience. In fact, what he prides himself on is his solid Christian beliefs.

"The reason I play the game is because I've been called to and skilled to do it," Acho said. "I don't play the game to win the trophies and get the ring, although that's a part of it and nice. I play the game to glorify the one that's called me to play it."

The Longhorns finished 5-7 (2-6 Big 12) and, for the first time since 1997, Texas had a losing season and did not qualify for a bowl game. Amidst his frustration, junior Acho turned to his faith for answers.

"Last season taught me a lot," he said. "I often reflected back a lot to the story of Job. How the devil asked the Lord, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?' I think that was the same question that was being posed to a lot of my teammates and myself. Do I fear God for nothing? Do I honor God for nothing? Do I honor Him because He took me to a national championship as a sophomore and a Fiesta Bowl as a freshman? And that's the question that resonated in my head after a 5-7 season that I had to internally answer."

But little did Acho know that it was during his time of personal reflection that he earned the respect of his teammates and others. One of those watching was his brother Sam, who was a linebacker for the Longhorns and currently plays in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals. Sam said that when he thinks back on that season, he specifically remembers how Emmanuel's leadership and character developed.

"Emmanuel's maturity has blown me away," Sam said. "During the 2010 season, we had a team meeting to figure out why we weren't winning games. During that team meeting, Emmanuel spoke up and helped solve the problem. He was honest, direct, and didn't fear what people thought of him. He stepped up and showed his true character. Emmanuel is a natural born leader."

Even as a high school student, Emmanuel Acho was different. He grew up in Dallas where he attended St. Mark's School of Dallas. Acho's high school football coach, Bart Epperson, still talks about how he came into the locker room one day and put up a big sign talking about the importance of teammates staying away from substance abuse to keep their bodies and mind right during football season. And everyone bought into it, which eventually led to the high school team winning the Southeastern Preparatory Conference State Championships in 2007 and 2008 — the only time St. Mark's has ever won the football state championships in back-to-back years.

"Emmanuel's extraordinary work ethic is extremely contagious to his other teammates whether its being in the weight room for 2-3 hours in the summer then getting out on the field to try to perfect his individual skills," his former coach said. "The rest of the team saw that and tried to follow his lead. That alone helped us win state championships because everyone tried to follow his lead. If I had 50 guys with his leadership quality, I would be a happy coach."

Encouraging his teammates makes Acho a player that other athletes flock to. Epperson believes Acho's continuous pressure and motivating example to the team made them push even harder every workout.

But Epperson isn't the only coach that was affected by Acho's character. After spending only one season working with Acho, Diaz gave him the highest honor.

"Emmanuel excels on the field, but he's an even better person off the field," Diaz said. "As a coach, you always love it when your best players are your best people. He is a constant professional with the way he carries himself on and off the field. He's the one that you want your younger guys to want to be like. As a parent, you'd want your kids to be like Emmanuel."

Emmanuel, who's first name means "God is with us" and middle name, Cinedum, means "God guides me", takes his name to heart and tries to model himself after his spiritual beliefs by helping the community around him. Not only is Acho a six-time member of UT's Athletics Director's Honor Roll, but he was also named a member of the 2011 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, Campbell Trophy semifinalist and a finalist for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award.

For Acho, you could say helping his community runs in the family. Both of his parents run an organization in their native country of Nigeria called Living Hope Ministries. The Achos have made 20 summer medical mission trips and hope to build a permanent hospital facility there. Acho will be joining his family this summer for his sixth trip to Nigergia.

"I go to Nigeria to answer the call of the Great Commission," Acho said. "'Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.' I know I have work do to in the United States, but we are also called to help the less fortunate and those that cannot help themselves. It's an extremely humbling and satisfying experience. I've learned not to take anything for granted, but at the same time [I see] how much I've been blessed with and how much I've truly been given in this life."

Not only does Acho make an effort to help internationally but also locally. Even during his time in Austin, Texas with the Longhorns, Acho would make visits to the Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas each Friday before home games and was a regular speaker at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

"He has been raised right," Longhorns head coach Mack Brown said. "That family has done an amazing job of teaching people how to give. He knows how hard you have to work, he knows the values you have to have, and he knows the way you have to fight with your heart. Every time I look up, he is doing something different. With as hard as he works here, he goes to Nigeria for two weeks every summer with doctors and nurses. On a local basis, he is always at the hospital or reading to kids in East Austin. I am amazed at his attitude, but even more amazed at his energy. When you walk the walk, you can talk the talk. He does both."

Always being spiritually led, Acho has been known to use his limited free time to schedule a community service day for the team on an off-week. But what is paramount to Acho is mentoring younger individuals as well as teammates.

"My faith is what drives me," he said. "It's what keeps me playing the game. Playing football, I get to display that and it's kind of an expression of praise. God's kept me healthy and made me talented enough to do what I love to do. I try to take the opportunity, whenever I'm called upon, to do something to touch a kid. I remember my high school coach told me once that these kids are at a stage where they will be most impacted. And for no reason besides that I play sports will they look up to me and give me credit that I don't deserve, and since I have their attention, I might as well capitalize on it."

Acho regularly shows up to his home church in Austin — The Austin Stone — with a handful of younger players on the Texas defense beside him including sophomore linebacker Jordan Hicks and sophomore defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat among others. Even after arriving late in the night from road games, the 6'2, 240-pound athlete can be seen proudly singing in the bleachers of Austin High School, where the services are held, and encouraging those around him to get involved as well.

In December, Acho graduated from Texas with a 3.42 GPA as a three-time first-team Academic All-Big 12 selection. The 2011-12 Capital One Academic All-District team member has been training for the draft since December at a facility in Arizona. Although his career with Texas is now over, Acho's left a lasting legacy on the Longhorn nation.

"I will say that Emmanuel has gotten a lot out of Texas," Brown said. "But he has given more, and it has really been beneficial to the program."

As Acho prepares for the unpredictability and chaos of the NFL Combine and the draft, he's taking the same approach that he's followed his whole life: just keep smiling.

"Knowing that God has a purpose," Acho said. "And that God has a will for myself. It doesn't necessarily matter what I do. He will put me where He wants to place me and I will go where He wants me to go. I got to see that first hand with Sam and I'm excited to see that happen with myself. Why worry about tomorrow when today has enough struggles of its own?"

And lucky for Acho, his name is a constant reminder that no matter where he is, God guides him.

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