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High energy on and off the field

Majoring in Energy Resources Engineering, Stanford Rose Bowl Game Defensive MVP Usua Amanam reveals his winning strategies.

Bruce Anderson
February 13, 2013

Stanford School of Earth Sciences : Usua Amanam

Usua Amanam, the Stanford senior whose interception with two minutes left in the Rose Bowl Game sealed Stanford’s 20-14 victory over Wisconsin, earned hardware as the Defensive Player of the game. Here’s the scouting report on Amanam:

-Always sits near the front of the classroom to ensure that his focus stays on the instructor.

-Makes a point of introducing himself to his professors early each quarter.

-Is deeply thoughtful and brings a measured consideration to both the questions he asks as well as the ones he answers on exams.

-Is quietly charismatic.

Amanam is one of a dozen or so undergraduates majoring in Energy Resources Engineering, a department in the School of Earth Sciences that examines energy production and conservation. He not only knows how to read a quarterback’s eyes, he knows how to infer the makeup of the subsurface by drilling an exploration well.

The curse of black gold

Amanam, whose first name is pronounced OOS wah, has a passion for football, and he dreams of playing in the NFL. “I’d love to make millions of dollars running around with a football in my hands,” he laughed.

Amanam says he has been one of the smallest players on every one of his teams since the fourth grade, and at 5’10’ and 178 pounds he’s a realist. “There’s a low probability that an NFL career is going to happen for most college football players,” he said. “That’s the reason I chose Stanford. If the football route doesn’t work out, I’ll have a Stanford degree to fall back on.”

His sheepskin from ERE will leave him well positioned for a job in the oil and gas industry, which doesn’t typically draw much interest from undergraduates, particularly ones with their eyes on a career in professional football. How is it that it calls to Amanam?

“My family is originally from Nigeria,” explained Amanam, who said his interest in oil was piqued by a 2007 article in National Geographic called “The Curse of Black Gold.”

“Oil was found in Nigeria in the late 1950s and the 1960s,” Amanam said, “and it was a way for a developing country like Nigeria to become truly relevant in the world today. The National Geographic writer basically detailed what Nigeria has gone through in terms of the oil industry and how it has caused more trouble and more strife than the good it was supposed to. Reading that article and understanding how much a properly working petroleum industry could really jump-start a country economically and socially is what attracted me to ERE.”

Amanam’s father, who is also named Usua, is the CEO of Amakpe International Refineries, a company that has built a “prefabricated” oil refinery in Pasadena, Texas, with the intention of shipping it to Nigeria and reassembling it there. But the politics of the federal and state governments in Africa’s most populous nation may derail the project before the refinery ever leaves Texas.

“Nigeria doesn’t have many working refineries,” says the younger Amanam, “and it’s very interesting that a country with so many resources has to ship its crude oil somewhere else to be refined and then imported back.”

A rock star

Richard Nevle is the director of undergraduate programs for the School of Earth Sciences. He has known Amanam since both were at Bellarmine Prep in San Jose, Nevle as a science teacher and Amanam as an honors student. “Usua was a rock star as a high school football player, a superstar,” Nevle said. “He has legs that are steel springs and he’s a very gifted sprinter.”

As a high school senior, Amanam was named All-Metro Player of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle. He ran for 1,828 yards on 221 carries—8.3 yards a carry—and scored 36 touchdowns. He led the Bells to a 12-1 record and the school’s first Central Coast Section title in 18 years.

Stanford head coach David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, was the team’s offensive coordinator when the Cardinal recruited Amanam. “We get lots of mail and email about high school players, but we got a lot about Usua in particular,” Shaw says, “that he was bright and engaging as a student and that he was a dynamic football player as well. Everyone said he was the kind of kid who should go to Stanford.”

Truth be told, Amanam said, that enthusiasm wasn’t reciprocated. At least initially. “I always tell people it was my dream to come to Stanford,” he said, “but growing up, I wanted to play football at a big-time college, a Michigan or an SC.”

Amanam had a check-in with his father while he was being recruited. “I told him I was interested in Stanford, but it wasn’t at the top of my list,” Amanam says. “He talked about how my late mother had a dream that one of her kids would go to Stanford. After he told me that, I was sold on Stanford.”  (The Cardinal have beaten USC all four of Amanam’s years at Stanford.)

Amanam redshirted his freshman year at Stanford and then saw limited action in a number of roles—running the ball, receiving passes, returning kickoffs—in his first collegiate campaign.

Shaw then approached Amanam with a transformative proposition: Move to defensive back for spring football and there might be more opportunity to play. Amanam was reluctant. But Shaw and defensive coordinator Derek Mason saw a player with the quickness, leaping ability, and aggressiveness to make the move work. “He also changes directions as well as anyone,” Shaw said.  

A year and a half later, when Stanford opened the 2012 season last August against San Jose State, Amanam was the starting nickelback, coming into the game whenever the Stanford defense went from four defensive backs to five. He came up big in the Cardinal’s 20-17 win over the Spartans with six tackles and a fumble recovery that set up the deciding field goal. He had four tackles for a loss, including two sacks. “He’s a very good blitzer,” Shaw said, “which you don’t necessarily expect from someone his size, but he comes off the edges very well.”

For the season, he had 59 tackles, recovered a team-leading three fumbles (including one for a touchdown in Stanford’s first win over UCLA), and was named honorable mention All-Pac-12. The team won 12 games, which matched a school record, gave Stanford its first Rose Bowl Game victory in 41 years, and finished the season as the No. 7 team in the country.  For the 2013 season, he’ll be a fifth-year senior.

The linchpin to the world we live in

As surprising as it may be for those who watched Amanam shred staunch high school defenses see him now roam the defensive backfield, it is, in many ways, even more surprising to see him roam the Green Earth Sciences Building and the Energy Resources Engineering Department. Roland Horne, the Thomas Davies Barrow Professor of Earth Sciences, says that after a sharp drop in oil prices in the mid-1980s and the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, undergraduate interest in petroleum engineering evaporated. Over one ten-year stretch, Stanford did not award a single bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering.

In 2006, the School of Earth Sciences changed the name of its Department of Petroleum Engineering to Energy Resources Engineering, reflecting its expansion into research and teaching embracing additional forms of energy, such as geothermal and renewables, a changing energy landscape, and society's changing energy needs and environmental concerns.

“It sounds cliché,” Amanam said, “but what really interested me about ERE is I’ve always wanted to do something that carried a lot of weight and meant something, to do something that could change the world. My sophomore year, I took a class called Energy 101 from my current adviser, associate professor of Energy Resources Engineering Tony Kovscek. It sparked my interest in understanding how the oil and gas industry affects everything we do in our life, socially, economically, and culturally. It’s the linchpin to the world we live in today.”

Amanam’s passion for his academic calling is not lost on others. “I go to a lot of events to which I bring students as emissaries,” Nevle said. “Usua is very effective at communicating what the ERE major has to offer students in a personal and compelling way. He has a charisma about him, a stage presence. When he speaks, people want to listen.”

One of the things that Amanam touts about ERE is its size. And who better to champion the undersized than Stanford’s bantam defensive back? “With a really small department like ERE, you can get a good feel for the teacher-student relationships that are vital to college students,” Amanam said. “I’ve made it a goal to introduce myself to most of my professors at the beginning of each quarter. Having a good relationship with your professor, I feel like you’re more motivated to learn and do well in the course. I’ve met some amazing professors, and it’s so peculiar to me that these individuals who are so bright, so intelligent, are doing groundbreaking work, make the time to have a great relationship with a 20-year-old student. It’s awesome.”

Amanam has taken two courses—Energy 120, Introduction to Petroleum Engineering, and Energy 175, Well Test Analysis—from Horne, and he also had him as an interim undergraduate adviser for one year. Amanam found Horne’s stature, academically and physically (he’s 6’1’), intimidating at first. “He turned out to be a very down-to-earth guy,” said Amanam. Horne recalled, “The year I was the undergraduate adviser, Usua came by to see me more often than any other undergraduate. But not to the point of excess.” They would talk about classes in the department, football, and life at Stanford. “I’m glad I sought out a relationship with him,” Amanam said.

What next?

Amanam and Horne would also talk about jobs in the field. There are lots. “In North America and Western Europe, industry statistics show that more than 50 percent of the oil and gas industry’s engineers will reach retirement age by 2015,” according to a report published by Deloitte. On the other hand, the NFL Players Association says that of the 9,000 athletes playing college football, only 310 will be invited to the league’s scouting combine, the pool of players who will be drafted.

If the NFL doesn’t beckon after his final college season next fall, Amanam is leaning toward the downstream portion of the oil and gas industry, supplying consumers with refined crude-oil products.  Like a lot of other seniors, Amanam isn’t entirely certain what he wants to do after college. “At this juncture in my life, I don’t honestly know what I want to do,” he conceded. “At times, it can be stressful.”

Perhaps Amanam can take comfort in David Shaw’s double-edged observation—“Usua changes direction as well as anyone.” Whichever direction Amanam heads, one has to imagine he will hit the ground running and find an opening.

Bruce Anderson has extensive ties to both Stanford and the world of sports. As an undergraduate, he was sports editor of The Stanford Daily before graduating with a degree in communications in 1979. He spent 10 years as a writer-reporter at Sports Illustrated and was later the editor of Stanford magazine.