The names had been announced. That’s what Malik Essilfie thought, anyway.
Tyler Carr. Connor Killian. Caden Leggett. Michael Nelson. Mark Richardson. Dalton Rigdon. Jax Welch. All had their photos presented on the Jumbotron following Texas Tech’s final practice of fall camp on Aug. 23. One extra photo capsule was blank.
“CONGRATULATIONS,” the text on the Jumbotron read. “YOU ARE ON SCHOLARSHIP.”
Players leapt and cheered. Tears were shed. Joyful screams shrieked into the black night sky. The seven individuals were hugged, mugged and celebrated.
“That’s one of the coolest moments for any coach,” first-year Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells told his players. “The program can’t give you back as much as you’re going to give the program. If you have that attitude, every one of us are going to be overachievers.”
Wells acknowledged the empty photo.
“This dude oozes everything that Texas Tech football is all about,” Wells said, gesturing back toward the Jumbotron screen.
A video was then presented. As Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” started playing, Essilfie’s face popped up on the screen.
“At first I didn’t know what to think,” Essilfie said during a phone interview with The Katy Times last week. “I didn’t even think I’d be on the screen. After I saw seven people, I saw my friend Jax, my friend Michael Nelson and Tyler Carr get their scholarships. And then when he mentioned there was one more … I was, like, oh. People started touching me, I saw my face on the screen, and I just collapsed. Everyone around me dogpiled me.”
It’s been an incredible journey for the senior defensive end, one that was initiated in the hallways and on the fields of Mayde Creek High, to a brief stint at Henderson State, and now to Texas Tech, where Essilfie walked on in the spring of 2017.
Essilfie, who gave a speech to the team following the ceremony, first called his mother, Alice Barnard. He called the rest of his family. He called his girlfriend.
Wells’ words—he oozes everything that Texas Tech football is about—rang throughout his head.
“It means a lot,” Essilfie said. “When he mentioned that, it shocked me. I’m not a perfect person. I just try to do what’s right. I’m not even vocal; I just try to lead by example. I do what I’m supposed to do and go where I’m supposed to go. I’ve been that since high school, too. Got elected captain and I wasn’t a vocal person. My family and I are really not the type of people to get put in the spotlight. But when it happens, it happens.”
Essilfie is commended first and foremost for who he is as a person, then as an athlete. He is quiet. He is disciplined. He is respectful.
“He is as good of a human being as I have ever coached,” said Lance Carter, now a Katy ISD assistant athletic director and Essilfie’s high school coach with the Rams from 2012-2015. “Malik is easy to be a fan of. He just does right. That’s an easy kid to support. He wasn’t like one of these kids they had to crack the whip on and he finally became right. That was a great kid from the start.”
That character comes from his parents, Barnard and Charles Essilfie.
“My mom, my dad, my sister … I talk to them every day,” Essilfie said. “It’s my mom who told me when things get hard, pray. I read my Bible every day. I have faith. Keep my faith in everything and let God handle it. Let things go His way. That was my motto, let go and let God.”
His work ethic and persistence is derived from Carter.
“Coach was always about keep going,” Essilfie said. “We weren’t the best team, but that’s where I learned about trusting the process. I’ve always worked hard. I believed in everything he did, and he got me to where I am today. Being able to play offense and defense and being versatile to play both really helped me to this point.”
All of that is what makes the whole experience special, Wells said. It’s a culmination of the sacrifice and commitment of not just the athlete, but those around him.
“I think it’s rewarding, because there’s so many people that go into that kid’s life for him to be able to earn that,” Wells said. “Their high school coaches, to see them call their parents, somebody was footing the bill for their college and I just think that that’s, when it’s earned, it’s an awesome moment.
“And then I think you can see the reaction of your players, too, to know if it’s well-earned or not. Because they know. You’re never fooling the locker room. And that was a great moment for us the other night at the end of training camp.”
Essilfie played offensive guard most of his high school career for the Rams and played defensive tackle late during a three-year varsity career. Texas Tech was always his dream school. But he was not highly recruited out of Mayde Creek, and he went to Henderson State, where he redshirted the 2015 season.
Essilfie said in the fall of 2016, he left Henderson State to go to Texas Tech.
“I’d thought about playing football, but I really came just to go to school,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I wasn’t even thinking about walking on. One of my friends got me through it. He’s from Spain and I’d been training with him. So, I went through with and everything kind of came together from there.”
Essilfie was on the scout team last season. It’s during that time he really developed as a player.
“I was going against the 1s (starters) the whole time,” he said. “You see really quick how strong everybody is, how actual DI players play. You really have to work your craft. I worked on hand placement and rushes, inside tackles.”
He was not without physical ability. Essilfie stands 6-foot-3. His strength is his advantage. He has the second-longest reach on the defensive line with a wingspan of 72 inches.
He’s simply a pest to contain.
“Always has been,” Carter said.
But Essilfie’s physical maturity took another step with Texas Tech’s new strength and conditioning program implemented by Dave Scholz, who arrived in December of last year.
“This year’s strength program, Coach came in and really taught me a lot,” Essilfie said. “I’m more agile, more mobile. It’s about building lean muscle while sustaining a strong core. It’s about 1-3 tempo: Like with squats, you go down in one second, pause for three seconds. You do that for everything, and I’ve seen my strength go up big-time.”
Essilfie is the same weight he was in high school, 275.
“But it’s a different 275,” he boasts.
He’s leaner. His core is stronger. His flexibility has improved. Through it all, he has been a quiet, yet assuring, presence.
“If you didn’t drag him to speak, you would’ve never known what his voice sounded like,” Carter said. “He’s going to lead by example. He’s not going to go off at the mouth.”
Just as his coaches and peers thought highly of him in high school, Essilfie’s coaches and peers think just as highly of him in Lubbock.
“I was just so proud, and how they did it with that big surprise at the end … that’s the coaches rewarding him for who he is,” Carter said. “It’s hard work and impressive perseverance. They made that big of a deal of it. I love watching videos like that, but when it’s one of yours, it means even more.”
Essilfie joins a short list of Mayde Creek football players that have reached the Division I level. Carter said in the last 11 years or so, only six Rams have reached the pinnacle of high school athletics: Jowyn Ward, Troy McCormick, Ty Carter, Marcus Stripling, Josh McKinney and now Essilfie.
Essilfie is aware of his place in that fraternity. He does not take it for granted. And now his focus is making the most of a senior campaign, of putting a finishing touch on a storybook ride.
“I’m just trying to do anything that can benefit the team,” he said. “It’s a ‘we,us’ program, and I’m just going to put myself last. My job is to follow the blueprint that (defensive coordinator) Coach (Keith) Patterson has for us, as in being a multi-defense. The goal is a Big 12 championship. I believe we can do it.”