Around the time Amba Etta-Tawo and his family arrived to the Peach State from Oman, the Atlanta Falcons played in Super Bowl XXXIII, taking the region by storm. They came up short of the ultimate goal but caught the attention of Etta Etta-Tawo, Amba's older brother who was bigger than most of his friends and decided to take up football.
He grew to be 6-foot-4 and weigh nearly 300 pounds, eventually signing with Clemson. He taught his three younger brothers the game, and the family got to see him take the field in Death Valley as a defensive lineman in 2006.
Barely a month into his redshirt freshman season, though, Etta Etta-Tawo was forced to retire due to a heart abnormality revealed after he suffered from chest pains. Amba Etta-Tawo promised then to take family football matters into his own hands, a reality opposing defenses have learned the hard way this season when facing Syracuse.
Statistically speaking, Amba Etta-Tawo is the best receiver in college football, carrying a nation-best 706 receiving yards into Saturday's tilt with Notre Dame. His 40 catches rank fourth, and his five touchdowns are tied for fifth.
And no one outside the family saw this coming from a guy who spent his previous four years at Maryland tallying respectable but hardly otherworldly career totals of 938 yards and three touchdowns.
“You just want to continue to work hard,” Etta-Tawo said. “It’s football; sometimes things don’t go the way you want it to. I think it’s most important that I stay (grounded) and continue to work hard.”
Etta-Tawo was born in Muscat, Oman, but moved with his family to Powder Spring, Georgia, in 1999. His father left for Nigeria two years later, according to Syracuse.com, while his mother worked as a schoolteacher. Etta Etta-Tawo is now a high school coach in Tennessee, while brothers Egim and Ekure are college seniors at Valdosta State and Kennesaw State, respectively. (Egim plays linebacker for the Div. III school.)
“It’s not only just football; every aspect of life,” Amba said of Etta’s influence. “He’s the man who raised me along with my mother. He taught me things I needed to do as a man. Growing up as a young boy, he showed me the way. So it’s more than just football. But he played football as I wanted to play football, so that’s where that comes from.”
The opportunity to play for the Orange as a graduate transfer presented itself when the Terrapins fired coach Randy Edsall in the middle of last season. The Terps had lost to Bowling Green by 21 early last season, with the Falcons posting 692 yards of offense, including 491 yards passing through eight different receivers. The early impression BGSU left on Etta-Tawo portended a run that ended with a Mid-American Conference title, a No. 3 ranking in total offense and coach Dino Babers getting hired away by Syracuse.
Etta-Tawo loved the confidence BGSU showed in its receivers to make plays downfield, a trait he’s gotten into the habit of through the Orange’s 2-2 start under Babers.
“He’s an incredible receiver,” Cuse corner Cordell Hudson said. “He’s actually sneaky fast, like when you see him running you don’t think he’s moving fast, but when you guard him he’ll definitely sneak by you. But it’s been amazing to watch him get out on the field and do what he does.”
Such theatrics included a school-record 270 receiving yards in last week’s win at UConn. Etta-Tawo became the first Orange receiver to notch four straight 100-yard games in one season, and the 6-foot-2, 202-pounder is now the only player in program history with multiple 200-yard receiving games in a career.
That Etta-Tawo faces a reeling Irish defense that just fired its coordinator and ranks 87th against the pass only brightens the spotlight on him this weekend as the Orange aim for an upset at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has been impressed by just how often the Orange turn to Etta-Tawo, who’s been targeted 54 times, fourth-most nationally -- a strategy that becomes even tougher to defend considering Cuse runs more than 86 plays per game, also fourth-most nationally.
Babers confessed to not remembering much about facing Etta-Tawo last year despite the receiver’s team-best five-catch, 49-yard day, but he’s been more than pleasantly surprised to have a weekly reminder this fall.
“Obviously we had no idea he'd be able to do the things that he's done so far,” Babers said last week. “But it doesn't surprise me with the work ethic that he put in when he started here, coming in the summer, working with Eric Dungey, the way he goes about his work in practice. I'm happy for him. I’m tickled for him, and it couldn’t happen to a better individual.”