E.J. Ejiya didn't realize it at the time, but when he looks back on it now, it's easy to see that one of the toughest breaks of his football career turned out to be a blessing.
The hard-hitting linebacker might never have ended up playing at the major-college level at North Texas had it not been for the knee injury he suffered during his senior season in high school in Minnesota.
That setback sent Ejiya on an unexpected journey that led through junior college and eventually to Denton, where he has become a cornerstone of UNT's defense.
The junior enters the Mean Green's matchup at Florida Atlantic on Saturday in the Conference USA title game with a chance to pull off a rare feat — leading his team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks in the same season.
"E.J. has done a great job," UNT coach Seth Littrell said. "He has had to play a couple of different positions in our system and knows it very well. He's a really good football player who continues to work hard. He brings that mentality on defense that we need."
Ejiya tied his career high with 12 tackles in UNT's 30-14 win over Rice last week, pushing his season total to 93. He's posted team highs in tackles for loss (8 1/2) and sacks (5 1/2).
"It started in the spring when I found myself and my role with this team," Ejiya said. "[Linebackers coach Jeff] Koonz really helped me with the technical aspect of the game. He got me right overall."
Ejiya also credited UNT's defensive line he called the best in C-USA for playing a role in his success. The group has eaten up blocks and allowed him to roam free and make tackles.
That scenario is what Ejiya envisioned while playing at Spring Lake Park outside Minneapolis. A few programs showed interest, including North Dakota State.
Ejiya committed to the traditional Football Championship Subdivision power, then lost his scholarship after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee playing basketball.
That setback led to Ejiya getting his big break.
Ejiya was working out and going through the rehab process during his senior year when he noticed members of a college staff visiting with his high school coaches.
It turned out they were from North Dakota State College of Science, a successful junior college program.
"They called the next week and told me that they wanted to take me," Ejiya said. "They said they could get to me to a Division I school if I trusted the process."
That process included having Ejiya redshirt his freshman season.
Ejiya credits that year off with helping him fully recover from his knee injury. Having three years of eligibility remaining after playing one season on the junior college level made him an even better prospect.
Ejiya was an honorable mention NJCAA All-American and caught the attention of former UNT defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler.
Ekeler had a connection with the staff at NDSCS and made a call to inquire about linebackers or defensive backs with the ability to play at the Division I level.
"My coaches showed Ek my film," Ejiya said. "He liked it. I came on a visit here, liked it and what coach Littrell was doing. I decided to come here."
Ejiya has been making an impact for UNT ever since. He played behind Fred Scott and Cortney Finney last season but still posted 43 tackles.
UNT has leaned on Ejiya after losing Scott and Finney to graduation. Ejiya stared the first three games at the Jack linebacker position on the outside to fill in for injured starter Joshua Wheeler.
Ejiya moved to middle linebacker in the fourth week of the season and has been racking up tackles and sacks.
Littrell has cited Ejiya's versatility as a key asset for UNT's defense.
UNT offensive tackle Jordan Murray faced Ejiya in the spring when UNT's top offensive and defensive players squared off regularly. He realized that Ejiya was ready to break out.
"The whole front seven has helped us, especially E.J.," Murray said. "He comes in every play looking to hit somebody."
Ejiya has delivered several highlight-worthy blows while moving around to help the team.
"I will do anything for the team, play inside or outside," Ejiya said. "If they want me to go play center, I'll do that, too."
Ejiya has fit in just as well off the field. Senior wide receiver Turner Smiley said Ejiya is as good a guy off the field as he is a player on it.
Finding a home at UNT has been rewarding for Ejiya. He always dreamed of playing on the major-college level and has reached that goal while playing for the Mean Green in the midst of one of the best stretches in recent program history.
UNT played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl last season. The Mean Green will play in a bowl game again this year, but not until after they face FAU in the C-USA title game Saturday.
That game will mark another milestone in a journey Ejiya never anticipated when he tore his ACL back in Minnesota.
"It was a long journey, but it paid off," Ejiya said. "I'm really excited about how it worked out."
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas linebacker E.J. Ejiya (22) tackles Lamar junior quarterback Darrel Colbert Jr. (7) during the Mean Green's 59-14 win at Apogee Stadium in the Mean Green's season-opener on Sept. 2. (Jeff Woo/DRC)