SUN SENTINEL, JULY 11, 2017
Geoff Still picked up the phone in late May 2016 for what should have been a proud “father”-to-father update on the headway Elochukwu Eze had made in the U.S. as a sophomore at Calvary Christian.
The 6-foot-10 Nigerian teen, who Still and his family hosted as part of the small Fort Lauderdale private school’s international mission, was excelling in his studies and on the basketball court, where he was gaining national notice.
But instead of sharing all of Eze’s good news with Casmir Eze, Still was calling Nigeria with an altogether more tragic report: a plum-sized cancerous tumor – one doctors weren’t sure Eze would survive – had been found in his brain.
In response, instead of the dismay he expected, Still heard only gratitude and hope.
“Thank God he’s in America,” he said. “If he was in Nigeria today, he would be dead.”
For Eze himself, having recently passed the one-year anniversary of the emergency surgery he underwent on May 5, 2016, to remove the tumor, survival is about more than having the sort of advantages many Americans take for granted. As he explains it, his recovery from brain cancer sounds more like testament to personal improvement.
Instead of “lying there, feeling depressed,” he said. “I decided to get better.”
And “get better” is exactly what Eze has done.
The big move
Eze arrived in South Florida as an eighth-grader, even then more mature than his gangly adolescent body suggested.
Attending a sports camp in Nigeria hosted by former Cleveland Cavalier draft pick Ejike Ugboaja, “Big E” made a big impression on Geoff Still. Still, 48, of Coral Springs, an active Christian educator who’d previously taught at Coral Springs Christian, was speaking to the Ejike Foundation campers, giving encouragement and wishing them luck. Among them, only Eze remained engaged throughout the conversation.
Eze later contacted Still on Facebook and the friendship they struck up ultimately led to Still sponsoring the teen’s move to the U.S. as part of Calvary’s International Student Program.
The director of finance at Calvary Christian, Still said his wife, Stacy, and their three children – Geoffrey, who’s 19, Emilie (15) and David (11) – “absolutely adore” Eze.
He thrived in school and, by his sophomore season, started for the basketball team, averaging 10 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks at center under coach Cilk McSweeney.
The big sick
The way Eze remembers it, the trouble started after a day at the pool, when he couldn't seem to get the water out of his ears. Later that night, he struggled to make it through a church service because of the bright lights and loud music, which left him with a terrible headache.
But as his American brother, Geoffrey Still Jr., related in a story for GoodNewsFl.org at the time, Eze for weeks had complained about having headaches and being sensitive to light. One of his teachers, later visiting Eze in the hospital, had said the boy hadn't been his usual "happy and excited" self for several months.
Then along with the increasingly painful headaches, Eze began to have trouble walking and, on May 4, started vomiting.
Eze does it
More than one year has passed since the tumor was removed during three hours of emergency surgery on May 5, 2016. The MRIs he has had every three months since have come back clean. His doctors believe with the cancer fully removed from his brain, Eze need not undergo chemotherapy.
Eze seemingly has no obstacles as he looks forward to his senior year at Calvary Christian.
Still, he expects to make a huge return playing hoops too. After spending last year coming off the bench behind 7-footer and fellow Nigeria native Victor Uyaelunmo, now at Southern Cal, he’ll return to his starting role as Calvary looks to defend its state title.
McSweeney said Eze is working this summer on giving his guards a lane for drop passes and finishing strong at the basket. The fifth-year Eagles coach says Eze has a big part to play on the team and with his teammates.
“I always rely on him to be another coach in the locker room,” said McSweeney, who had him as a captain on the title-winning team last year. “He’s always a spiritual influence on the guys.”
Maintaining a 3.5 grade-point average, Eze already has scholarship offers from North Florida and Stetson and has drawn interest from FAU, FIU, Furman, East Carolina, Navy and USF.
For right now, Eze is more concerned about recovering from a high ankle sprain he sustained earlier this summer. Then it's back to work -- as part of the Florida Elite travel team, he has tournaments in Orlando, Atlanta and Las Vegas this summer before coming back to prepare for his senior season at Calvary.
“I know most people would have quit or suffer from depression,” Eze said about what seemed to him to be a long road back from brain surgery. “I don’t because I know what I came here to do.
“I have to embrace it and get working.”