It's impossible to imagine the pressure. The sort of pressure that builds over time, that comes from growing up in the notoriously rough neighborhood on Blaine and Thurmond avenues in St. Louis, and from taking care of your sister, who suffers from a debilitating chromosome disorder.
It’s the pressure Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy has dealt with his entire life. It’s about more than winning or losing a football game or getting picked in the 2014 NFL Draft. It's about taking the talent he has and using it as a way out of hardship for him and his family. It's about making all of the right moves -- and none of the wrong ones -- because the stakes are high.
"When you don’t have any option to fail, you don’t often fail," Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said.
Ealy carries that pressure with every step, like added weight to his 6’5, 275-pound frame. It's hardened him and motivated him. Ealy carries it with him because he doesn't have a choice, and because he doesn't know how to survive without it.
* * *
When Ealy was 16 months old, his mother, Nettie Jones, dropped him off with his father, Willie Ealy. A few years later, his sister Cierra joined them. It was up to Willie to raise them, along with their nine brothers and sisters.
There were no easy days. Ealy recalls nights spent cold and hungry in their small apartment in a violent neighborhood that took the lives of some of his friends.
"A lot of people don't make it out or they fall into the wrong crowd," Ealy said.
Ealy’s father saw his son’s passion for sports and realized St. Louis wasn't the proper environment to harness his talent. Despite tutoring and after-school activities, Ealy was still getting in fights at school. His father noticed a troubling trend, and devised a plan to break the cycle.
The family moved from St. Louis to New Madrid, Mo., a rural town in the Bootheel. Willie Ealy grew up there. He knew the area, the people and the schools, and he thought the change of scenery was his son's best chance.
"That was my choice to get him out of St. Louis and give him a chance at a regular kid's life where he could run down the road and I wouldn't be worried about him getting shot," his father said.
At first, he didn't take the move too well. He cried the entire ride to New Madrid until he fell asleep. It was foreign to him.
"I had to get him out of that fighting mode," Willie Ealy said. "You build up a resistance. You know you have to fight every day, so it took me a while to change his mindset. He thought he had to continue to fight. He didn't have to."
Kony's father was stern, and considered sports a privilege. There would be no football or basketball if he didn't take care of his responsibilities at home or got into trouble at school. He knew most of the people in the small town, so he always caught wind if his son was misbehaving.
"He would hear about it before I could even tell him, so before I'd get home, I'd prepare for getting a whooping," Ealy said.
Slowly but surely, he came around. He always listened to his father, it was just a matter of tearing down the walls he built up as a child. Ealy learned to pick his battles.
The move, the tutors, and the coaches all helped steer Ealy in the right direction. Everything was starting to pay off, but his father knew there was a long way to go.
* * *
In the fourth grade, Kony Ealy started to sense the responsibility he had. That was when his father told him he would have to take care of his sister Cierra one day. She has a rare chromosome disorder that doctors haven't yet named. It has left her non-verbal and with physical disabilities.
"This is your baby sister," Willie Ealy told his son. "You see the condition she's in. I don't trust anybody with her. You're going to be the heir apparent for her. Therefore, you can't take care of her when you're doing 30 days in the jail house or some stuff like that. You have to make a way for her. I'll make a way for her as long as I can, then you have to pick the ball up and run with it."
Most fourth graders don't know that kind of pressure, but he accepted it. For as long as they can remember, his family members say he and his sister have had a tight bond. When he returns to their New Madrid home, Cierra calls out his name, one of the few words in her vocabulary. She keeps him smiling, too.
"We got closer," Ealy said. "We communicated more. Whether she needs me to do something for her, or whether she's hitting me upside the head smiling when I'm in a bad mood to get me into a better mood."
Cierra went to all of her brother’s high school games, cheering like everybody else. Her trips to Missouri games were less frequent, but she watched on TV and knew when her brother made a big play.
"I know she's at home hooting and hollering," he said with a smile.
Every time Ealy returns home to see his father and sister, he's always faced with the inevitable departure and the tears that come with it. Cierra never wants him to leave her side. But everything he’s doing -- every workout, every film session, every meeting -- it's all for her.
"It's always been a strong, strong bond," his father said. "Always, always, always."
* * *
You could see the pressure building on a muggy August morning a few weeks before Missouri's first game of 2013. Kony Ealy stood on Faurot Field after a scrimmage talking about his 2012 season. There was a bitterness in his voice. He should have had 15 sacks as a sophomore, he claims. Missed opportunities and inconsistent play held him back. He wanted to be the next first-round pick from Missouri's defensive line. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sheldon Richardson, Aldon Smith and Ziggy Hood.
"I need to right the wrong from last year," he said
The first four games passed, and Ealy still hadn't recorded his first sack of the season. The Tigers were 4-0, so he couldn't complain. Still, his goals weighed on him. He wanted 15 sacks and he wanted to elevate his draft stock into the first round.
The pressure that drove him to this point was starting to weigh him down. Ealy needed to learn how to control it. He had regular conversations with his defensive line coach, Kuligowski. He talked with his father and even with Richardson, his cousin
"Let them come," Richardson told him. "The only thing you can do is work for a sack. They're either going to come or they're not."
That's when he cut loose. Ealy got his first two sacks of the season against Vanderbilt, and Missouri improved to 5-0. Against Florida two weeks later, he had another sack and spent most of the afternoon in Florida's backfield.
"The less I worried about, the more good things happened to me," Ealy said.
Good things continued to happen for Ealy and the Tigers. They earned a trip to the SEC Championship Game against Auburn. You could see the pressure again. The entire college football world was watching when he tore through Auburn's offensive line and forced a fumble early. They were also watching when Ealy lost his footing and Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, another projected first-round pick, tossed him into the air to open up a huge running lane.
Auburn ran for 545 yards and won the game by 17 points. Ealy took the blame for his team’s loss. He stood in the locker room with pain in his eyes and spoke with a softer tone than usual. He didn't have answers, he just didn't want it to happen again.
"You let that sit in your heart and remind you what that felt like. So when it comes time for you to play them again or play another game, you never want it to get that close where you feel like that."
* * *
It's Jan. 3, 2014. Missouri is just a few hours away from playing Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. Kony Ealy emerges from the tunnel, his baggy grey sweatsuit almost enough to hide his imposing frame. Dozens of players are scattered across the field at AT&T Stadium loosening up. But Ealy is just walking, hugging players and teammates as they go by. It's the last time he'll put on his gold Missouri jersey, the last time he'll strap on the helmet with a tiger on the side. He knows it. He's already made up his mind that he will forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 NFL Draft.
His college career, what lies ahead and the pressure that comes with it -- it’s all racing through his head as he walks around the field. This is his final chance to make an impression on scouts. As if the stakes aren't high enough, Ealy raised them even more with a promise to his brother Danny.
"I'll tell you what I'm going to do," he tells Danny. "I'm going to go out there in this last game right here, and I'm going to get you two sacks."
Surprised, Danny smiles and agrees. He lets his father in on his brother's promise.
"Well, Danny, Big Dog," their father says. "If he told you, he's going to go out there and get it."
In a matter of minutes, Ealy makes good on his word. It's the second quarter, and he’s lined up over the left shoulder of Oklahoma State tackle Daniel Koenig. His hand is planted in the turf, the muscle in his right arm bulging and ready to spring into action. The ball is snapped and Koenig hurries into his pass set. Ealy takes one step to the outside before showing off his rip move to the inside and launching himself at the quarterback. One sack.
A penalty sets up third and long, a nightmare for any quarterback playing against Missouri's defensive line. Ealy doesn't bother with a pass rush move this time. He uses his first step to get to the outside and bend around Koenig's outside shoulder before dragging Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf to the turf. Two sacks.
The game ends with a 41-31 win for Missouri. Confetti rains down on the field, and Ealy is lingering. He's thanking everyone from the assistant coaches to the fans chanting his name. He stops to slap hands with the band members as they head into the tunnel. He knows the questions about his future are coming, he knows months of workouts and meetings stand between him and hearing his name called on draft night.
For a few minutes, he doesn't feel the pressure.
* * *
Ealy stood at the podium inside Lucas Oil Stadium answering questions at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. He had barely slept while getting ready for the most important job interview of his life. He was relaxed on the surface and joked with reporters, but while he smiled through the interviews, the bags under his eyes were a sign of the pressure.
He spent the months leading up to the Combine training with Chuck Smith, who trained Von Miller and other top pass rushing prospects in recent years. Smith doesn't care about the 40-yard dash, but the rest of the world does, so when Ealy sprinted for 40 yards in 4.91 seconds on the turf in Indianapolis, it was seen as a disappointment. Later in the day, though, he ran the three-cone drill in 6.83 seconds. It's a drill Smith says is more indicative of his skill set as a defensive lineman. No other defensive lineman ran the drill faster.
Less than a month later, Ealy was in Columbia for his pro day inside Dan Devine Pavilion, Missouri's indoor practice field. He had a cheering section, too, consisting of his agent and long-time family friend, Joseph Clayborne, Danny and his father, who is wearing a black fedora and full suit and has a smile stuck to his face.
If Ealy was feeling pressure, he didn't show it. He bounced around the turf with confidence, joking with coaches and teammates. He was well-rested, properly stretched and ready to go. The lights were shining off his bright clothes as he burst out of his stance and kicked up rubber pellets on his 40-yard sprint to redemption. His time improved from 4.91 second to 4.57 seconds, a considerable jump and one that set a lot of people at ease.
"I keep telling y'all I'm an athlete," Ealy said.
* * *
Willie Ealy is ready for the big day. It's a Monday in late April, one day after his 68th birthday and just over a week until the 2014 NFL Draft. He sits in his New Madrid home reflecting on the series of battles it took for them to get to this point. Cierra perks up every time he starts talking about her brother.
The future NFL defensive end has been fitted for his Monarc brand suit, his travel plans are set. Ealy and a group of his closest family and friends will make the trip, his father and Danny among them. They don't want to miss the big moment.
Cierra won't be able to go because of her condition. She doesn't do well on airplanes and the car ride would be too long. Plus, the fast-paced nature of draft night may be too much for her. She'll be home in New Madrid with nurses, watching on the big screen TV as her brother walks across the stage. She'll be calling his name when he does.
When Kony Ealy’s name is called, his father will breathe a sigh of relief and maybe sleep for a week, he says. He's felt the pressure, too. Everything had to go just right for his son to get where he is. He overcame everything he did with the help of tutors, teachers, coaches and family.
"He had to do his part," Willie Ealy says. "He couldn't be lazy. If everybody does their part, everything will work out. But if you have a weak link in the chain, that's where it's going to break down. We've been through a lot of battles, and it seems like we won the war."
Talking to Kony Ealy makes you wonder if the war will ever be won. There's always something he thinks he could have done better or another accomplishment to check off the list. There's always pressure.
"As soon as my name gets called, it still won't be a load off," Ealy says. "I have a lot to prove. I'm never going to be satisfied."