SAN MARCOS, Texas -- Ben Ijah is a starting wide receiver for the Texas State Bobcats, but the senior has goals far beyond football. An engineering major, Ijah also is well on his way to becoming a real-life Renaissance man.
He's teaching himself to play the piano, he is a painter, speaks Spanish "relatively well" and is a vice president of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Ijah is hoping to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who survived the mean streets of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in the 1930s to graduate magna cum laude from Howard University and become a plastic surgeon.
"He's my inspiration," Ijah said.Earl Simmons served in three wars, spoke fluent Italian and sang opera. He also was a gymnast and Golden Gloves boxer. Simmons died six years ago, but Ijah has many fond memories of the time he spent with his mother's father growing up in San Diego and later Murrieta, California.
"I'd wake up in the morning and he'd be downstairs singing opera at the top of his lungs," Ijah recalled. "Always with a smile, too."
Ijah, whose brother Solomon runs track at Eastern Michigan, said he admired his grandfather even at a young age.
"There was a picture hanging up in the house of him in his early 20s sitting in Central Park with no shirt on, flexing his muscles," Ijah said. "He definitely was not afraid to let it be known he was special."
Ijah has a tattoo with the initials of his grandfather, "EMS," on one side of his chest and the date he died on the other. He says he brings a willingness to learn he inherited from his grandfather to the football field, where he has become a go-to receiver for the Bobcats. He will be in the lineup Saturday when Texas State (1-2) travels to Tulsa to take on the Golden Hurricane (1-2).
In last week's 42-35 loss at Illinois, Ijah caught a career-high five passes for 65 yards and two touchdowns.
"I'm playing my best football right now," Ijah said. "I've progressed, but there are still some things I can improve on."Ijah, who played at Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista, California, before earning a scholarship at Texas State, underwent shoulder surgery in 2011, his first year in the program. But now he is on pace to have his best season.
He caught 10 passes for 132 yards in 2012, 16 for 207 yards and a touchdown a year ago. That included a 51-yard reception on a fourth-and-24 play to set up the game-winning field goal against South Alabama. He has 10 catches for 99 yards and two scores after three games this season.
"Ben's been pretty solid for us, all three games," Texas State coach Dennis Franchione said. "You're getting good, consistent performances from him. As a coach, that's what you want."
Ijah's off-the-field exploits have caught Franchione's eye, too.
"There's only one Ben Ijah," he said. "He amazes you all the time with the things he can do."
Ijah is constantly thinking of growing the list. His next goal is to travel to Egypt to study the ancient Egyptian culture.
"My mind's going a million miles a second," he said. "I don't like just sitting around and being lazy, playing video games. I'm always moving forward."