Echemandu returns to big role with Golden Bears

Updated: October 31, 2003, 2:25 AM ET

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Joe Echema was a promising tailback from the Los Angeles area who endured serious injuries, bizarre academic problems and far too many losses during three dismal years at California.

But Joe Echema no longer plays for the Golden Bears. About two years ago, he began calling himself Adimchinobe Echemandu, his given name from his Nigerian parents.

Though his name changed, his perseverance didn't. He never gave up on football despite missing every game of the past two years -- and it's all paying off in a spectacular senior season as the Pac-10's second-leading rusher.

"When (coach) Jeff Tedford reinvented Cal, I thought I would reinvent myself," said Echemandu, who's still called Joe by his teammates and coaches. "Every game, every play, every practice that I get is a blessing to me, especially coming from where I did. A lot of my dreams are coming true right now."

Tedford can't think of a player on his roster who has overcome more obstacles than Echemandu, whose career nearly ended several times. He hadn't played for Cal since 2000, missing one season with an academic problem and another with a severe knee injury, followed by appendicitis.

"He's a guy you can hold up as an example for your current players and for the future," Tedford said. "We all love to see Joe out there, because we know what's gone on behind the scenes to get him back to this level. He's a guy that just never quit."

Echemandu has emerged as the offensive star of a Cal team that's still fighting for bowl eligibility despite a tough schedule and an inexperienced roster.

Echemandu has averaged 134 yards rushing over the last four games for the Bears, who visit Arizona State on Saturday. He's second in the conference with 97.9 yards per game, averaging more than five yards per carry.

Last Saturday against Arizona, Echemandu had his finest performance yet. He rushed for a career-best 201 yards and three touchdowns, decimating the Wildcats' defense with his powerful, elusive style.

Those around the Cal program must resist their inclination to cheer unabashedly for Echemandu, who has become an example to his peers and a model student-athlete to his coaches.

"I think everybody just loves to see him having success, because he's earned it more than anybody," fullback Chris Manderino said. "He never stopped believing he could do the things he's doing, and he's always stayed humble and motivated."

Echemandu is a solid student who graduated from Cal with a sociology degree last May and is now pursuing a master's degree -- which makes his academic ineligibility in 2001 even more confounding. He missed what would have been his junior season not because of low grades, but a registration mix-up that left him just short of the proper number of credits to stay eligible.

The Bears were awful that season, going 1-10 under former coach Tom Holmoe. It was the lowest point of Echemandu's career -- but things quickly brightened up when Tedford was hired.

Echemandu was the star of spring practice last year, surprising nearly everyone by earning the starting job. Just as quickly, the excitement was over: He tore ligaments in his knee, requiring surgery and extensive rehabilitation.

"I thought maybe it wasn't meant to be," Echemandu said. "It was a devastating blow."

He was nearly ready to return late last season, perhaps giving Cal a boost of energy in its 7-5 campaign -- but he got appendicitis, knocking him out for the rest of the year.

"After we started winning again, the injuries hurt even more," Echemandu said. "But at that point, there was no way I was quitting. It was a long way to go, but I had learned patience by then."

Echemandu reclaimed the starting job last spring, though Tedford planned to use J.J. Arrington and Marcus O'Keith extensively as well. Echemandu put those plans on the shelf early this season with his outstanding work on a surgically repaired knee that seems to be getting stronger.

He showed off his strength with a 60-yard touchdown run in the Bears' home opener against Southern Mississippi. Echemandu has rushed for more than 140 yards in three of Cal's last four games, scoring five touchdowns.

At 6 feet and 225 pounds, Echemandu might have the body for the pro game. His speed on a reconstructed knee will be questioned -- but Echemandu has overcome bigger obstacles.

"I wouldn't mind playing in the NFL at all, but I also realize there's a lot of people coming out of college football in the next year," he said. "All things come with patience. I wondered for a while if that was true. Now I know it is."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index