Note: The following feature article appeared in the Sept. 7 Stanford Gameday Magazine, which is available in Stanford Stadium.
Usua Amanam hasn’t dwelled on his game-saving interception in the Rose Bowl last season with 2:30 remaining, helping preserve Stanford’s 20-14 victory against Wisconsin. The fifth-year senior nickelback didn’t watch a replay until his graduation party.
“It was an awesome moment and something I’m always going to remember,” said Amanam, named the game’s Defensive MVP. “It’s difficult to articulate. I’ve only seen the TV copy of the video once when my dad showed it. It was pretty cool.”
Modest and unselfish, Amanam credits his coaches and teammates for putting him in the proper position to make a play.
“The call was right,” he said. “Coach (Derek) Mason (Willie Shaw Director of Defense) is a genius. It’s everything, guys getting pressure on the quarterback, us working as a secondary and working as one unit. Everyone influenced what happened on that play.”
Just the same, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Amanam has a knack for making big plays. After redshirting in 2009, the former Bellarmine College Prep of San Jose star was used as a running back and kick returner his first year on The Farm. And with good reason. In high school, he rushed for 2,220 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior, and 1,828 yards and 30 scores as a senior, earning numerous state player of the year honors.
Amanam became the team’s primary kickoff returner when Chris Owusu was injured. He averaged 21.4 yards on 15 returns, including a season-best 60-yarder against Wake Forest.
The following spring, David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, moved Amanam to defensive back and it has been his home ever since. Not that the transition was seamless.
“I played running back my entire life, so it came really natural,” said Amanam. “It was a very easy position for me to play. The hardest part in changing my mindset was trying to hit people versus trying not to get hit. It took some time.”
Shaw just had a sense he would be more valuable on defense.
“He was hesitant at first, but once he jumped in, he’s one of those guys that picks things up very quickly, is very smart, is a great communicator, and is seriously competitive,” Shaw said. “So he was able to master the art of being a nickelback and has made critical plays for us.”
Shaw has nothing but admiration for how well Amanam played his first year.
“As a young man, he helped us out on offense, did some kickoff and punt returns, and played on special teams,” he said. “He came in in some critical games against USC and carried the ball and did great. He carried the ball at Notre Dame and made some plays for us. He came out of the backfield and caught some balls, got some first downs, and scored a touchdown.”
In 2011, Amanam played in 13 games and began to get a feel for his new position. That experience paid off last year, especially in the season-opener against San Jose State. Making the most of his first collegiate start, he collected six tackles – four for loss – two sacks and recovered a fumble in the narrow 20-17 victory.
“We don’t win that game without him,” said Shaw. “He was everywhere. He’s not the biggest guy on the field but he’s a fighter. I wish we all played with his engine and fire every game.”
Amanam finished the season with seven pass breakups and a team-best three fumble recoveries, returning one 11 yards for a touchdown against UCLA. He also produced 10.5 tackles for loss and was picked all-Pac-12 honorable mention.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” said Amanam. “Last year was a lot easier in terms of football schematics. I was able to play a lot faster and really started to enjoy the game again because I knew what I was doing out there.”
Shaw admits Amanam might be underrated on what many consider one of the best defenses in the country.
“I’m sure he is to a certain degree because we’ve got some well-deserved, big-name players,” he said. “You have to account for Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy; you better be careful about Ed Reynolds. So you don’t think about this 5-10 nickelback, but he’s a great blitzer, can rush the quarterback, and he’s great in coverage. If he gets his hands on the ball, he’s going to intercept it.”
After losing Andrew Luck, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin to the NFL last year, Amanam said it took time to regroup.
“We were at the opposite end of the spectrum,” said Amanam. “We had just lost the core of our team, but ended up bouncing back. We had a rocky start, but got in a little groove and things turned out for the best.
“This year, we have a lot of guys coming back and a lot of expectations. But for us, you can never really believe the hype. That will get you in trouble. So what we’ve tried to do is what we’ve done for the last five years I’ve been here: just work out tails off and put ourselves in the best position to win games one at a time.”
After playing in three-consecutive BCS games, some have picked the Cardinal to challenge for the national championship this year. Heady stuff for a team that went 5-7 in 2008.
“The guys on my team are mature enough to handle the pressure,” he said. “I think we’ll be fine. So far, we’ve dealt with it pretty well. We’re just going out there doing what we’re supposed to do.”
That starts with Saturday’s game against the Spartans, who gave the Cardinal fits last season.
“A lot of the guys I knew on the team have graduated and left, but for me, it still has that feel just because I basically grew up in San Jose,” said Amanam. “It’s always great going up against them. They have a great team and a great quarterback. They almost caught us last year and we were able to sneak it out. It’s my last go-around, so I’m excited.”
The son of Nigerian parents, the Palo Alto-born Amanam is the youngest of three children and is grateful to his family for their encouragement, support and strength. His mother, Mary, succumbed to cancer when he was 6.
“It’s definitely been a rough road, whether it’s on the field or in the classroom,” said Amanam, who is majoring in energy resource engineering and is working towards a master’s in that department. “Making the transition from high school to college was difficult for me. I see myself as a very independent, mature individual, but it ended up being tough. I think the foundation my father built for us at home and my Nigerian background really helped me get through a lot of tough stuff. They definitely pushed me and helped me persevere. If you keep doing the right things, eventually things will go well. Luckily for me, that ended up being the case.”
Amanam’s father, Usua, couldn’t be prouder of his son. An international businessman, he hasn’t missed one of his football games since high school.
“I enjoy watching him, but I’m also nervous,” he said.
His older son is working on his residency at UCLA Medical Center, and his daughter works in hi-tech. Growing up, life wasn’t always easy for the family.
“It was tough when their mother passed away being a mother and a father,” said Usua, who attended San Jose State.
Amanam is highly motivated to make the most of his final season.
“I really want us to do what I know we can do,” he said. “Off the field, I just want to finish strong in the classroom. Coach Shaw always uses the metaphor that you’re supposed to wring Stanford like a sponge. I really want to get as much out of this place as I should.”