Kenny Iwebema had reason to feel sorry for himself. A series of medical issues derailed his professional football career. With some better luck, he could still be playing.
He admits to asking why it was happening to him but only in passing. His parents raised him with the philosophy that everything happens for a reason. Then, the voice of his college defensive coordinator called out in his head.
Late Iowa assistant Norm Parker was known for his wise words. One phrase resonated with Iwebema during a tough time.
“He told us that boys did what they wanted to do but men did what they had to do. I did what I had to do,” Iwebema said.
When football stopped paying the bills, he had to find work with a daughter on the way. He couldn’t let down Malaysia, who turns seven in July.
Iwebema began in marketing for a satellite television company before spending three and a half years working for a car rental business. About a year ago, he got into medical sales in Phoenix, where he lives these days.
“I could have easily gone home and stuck my tail between my legs and played the pity-me party. But I stuck with it. I did what I had to do. It was a super humbling experience,” he said.
He tried getting into medical sales right after his football career ended in 2011. Former Iowa teammates Calvin Davis, Albert Young and others were doing it and they felt his personable nature would make him successful in the field.
Unfortunately, companies wanted experienced sales people. That led him to the TV marketing and rental car jobs. He did well enough that the medical field came calling for him.
He signed on with Medline Industries in Phoenix. The job has lived up to his expectations.
“I love it. It’s a grind but it’s a grind with a reward. There’s a direct parallel to football. You get out of it what you put into it,” he said.
Iwebema finds his job rewarding in that his equipment helps sick people. It hits close to home.
His father, Ken Iwebema Sr., waited on a kidney transplant list with an unknown future. Fortunately, he received a new organ about four years ago and has returned to a normal life.
“He’s doing great. I’m super happy he is where he is health wise. He’s going to the gym. It’s not like he’s just sitting on his tail,” Iwebema Jr. said.
Maybe there’s some poetry in Iwebema working in the medical field seeing as poor health undid his professional football career. It was one with promise that ended quicker than it might have without the injuries.
The Arizona Cardinals selected him in the fourth round of the ’08 NFL Draft, the 116th player chosen. He impressed the coaches as a part-time performer in 13 games as a rookie.
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Iwebema positioned himself to battle Calais Campbell for starting defensive end heading into Year 2. Unfortunately, early during off-season OTAs (organized team activities), he was pulled off the field. An Xray revealed tumor in his chest.
At first, doctors thought it could be an aneurysm in his heart. It turned out to be benign. It still needed to be surgically removed with potential complications.
The doctors extracted the growth by going through his ribs. Had they been unable to perform this maneuver, they would have had to break through his sternum, which would have wiped out his season.
They did collapse one of his lungs during the procedure, which meant he needed to rebuild his breathing capacity. He worked hard but still lagged behind when training camp started and Campbell won the job.
Iwebema improved as the season progressed and contributed a pair of sacks. He went into the ’10 season ready to take the next step. Then, in Week 10 of that campaign, he tore his ACL.
He was rehabbing with the Cardinals when the NFL lockout took hold in March of ’11. He was removed from the team’s facilities and moved to an off-site location until the grievance ended right before August camp kicked off. It didn’t go well.
“I actually regressed in my rehab because they sent me to basically a Club Med type place that really didn’t know what they were doing. I would try to push it and they would tell me to take it slow. I was running before I got there,” he said.
Without a contract and performing at less than optimal health, Iwebema found himself in a precarious position in the thankless NFL. The coaches told him he didn’t look like he did before the injury and released him during training camp.
He hooked on with the Canadian Football League, playing for Calgary and Montreal. After about a year and a half, he retuned to the U.S. and began his post-football life. He was disappointed but not down.
“Anytime that I would get down on myself, I was blessed to have that knowledge that problems I was having are problems that people wish they could have,” he said.
Even if he wanted to feel sorry for himself, he couldn’t. He found out his girlfriend was pregnant with Malaysia. It was time to take care of her.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to ask why me. I had to be a big boy. It was what’s next not why me?” he said.
Iwebema reached back for the lesson about responsibility he learned from Parker. It represented one of many teachings he carries with him today.
Like many young men who show up lacking maturity, he needed assistance growing up. Part of that process included cleaning Kinnick Stadium a few Sunday mornings after football games.
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“(Iowa) was the best thing to ever happen to me. People will ask me how Coach (Kirk) Ferentz still has his job. Coach Ferentz doesn’t just coach the football team. He literally helps develop men. I learned so much from that coaching staff,” Iwebema said.
Fond memories wash over him when he thinks about that time in his life. Some stand out more than others.
“I’ll never forget playing in Kinnick. There’s nothing like coming out in that swarm with my brothers. You don’t forget that,” he said
“I’ll never forget Barry Alvarez’s last game (coaching) in Wisconsin (during ’05) because we beat them. I’ll never forget hosting guys like Adrian Clayborn and Mike Daniels on recruiting visits. These guys are out here making millions (in the NFL) and it’s awesome.”
Iwemeba started for three years at Iowa. He totaled 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss during his college career.
He keeps in touch with a lot of players from that time. He sees a lot of Iowa fans in Phoenix.
“The cool thing about being in Arizona is everybody wants to be here. The best thing about being in Arizona is that most of the people that want to be here are from the Midwest. You see a lot of Iowa (license) plates. That blue cloud, you can’t miss it,” he said.
He attends I-Club game watches when he can. If not there, he’s viewing from his couch.
He saw the Hawkeyes almost upset Penn State last September, safety Amani Hooker just missing a deflection on the game-winning touchdown pass in the closing seconds.
“I almost put my hand through a window watching that game. If (Hooker) has an inch taller vertical, we win,” he said.
Iwebema has not been back to Iowa since leaving for the NFL. He hopes to change that this season.
“I definitely want to make it back for homecoming. I want to make it a tradition because I want my daughter to see where I went to school. Coach Ferentz can tell her a couple of stories about how I used to be a knucklehead and how I grew up,” he said.