In memory of Agu: Cal teammates, family honor a life cut too short

Teammates, family, and friends gathered Wednesday to remember Cal football player Ted Agu.

BERKELEY, Calif. — With tears falling from cheeks under the light of a near-full moon, more than 1,000 people stood in arms Wednesday night to pay tribute to Ted Agu, the 21-year-old, UC-Berkeley junior and defensive lineman who died suddenly last Friday morning during a routine training run.

In a mass of mourners that included his family from Bakersfield, Calif., faculty and football teammates, fraternity brothers from Omega Psi Phi, and hundreds from the Bay Area community, Agu was remembered as a fun-loving man who was rarely without a smile, who hoped to become a doctor and who gave more than he asked.

With no clear answers as to how his death came about, those in attendance had to grasp both with how to move forward while honoring the man known affectionately both as Gugu, Sleepy T, and Pre-Med Ted.

Scheduled for 7 p.m., the service on Lisa and Douglas Goldman Plaza, adjacent to Memorial Stadium on the Cal campus, was delayed 30 minutes so the Agu family could arrive in time after the four-hour drive from Bakersfield.

As they grew closer, the crowd gathered in relative silence. An older woman in a Cal hoodie was sniffling with her box of tissues in hand. The sky was black and the lights pocketing the rim of the stadium gave off some light, but many still wore sunglasses to cover their teary eyes.

Cal athletes and cheerleaders stood silently straight-away in the back, while the Elden String Quartet played classical music staples atop the dais in front all as Agu’s smiling portrait was projected onto the stadium’s bricked facade.

A contingent consisting of members from Agu’s fraternity, his family, and the Cal football team arrived en masse from one of the lower stairways, through the throng of dozens lined up to sign the memory book aside the stage, and the tributes to his life began in earnest.

Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour spoke of how she’d been at the same university function as him late last week, a day before he died, and how he was “so many things to so many people.” Speaking in slow, measured words, she foreshadowed the night’s proceedings, how “we’re going to hear, in all the voices, the pain of his loss,” and how “Ted made everyone he touched better.”

Next was coach Sonny Dykes, who gave Agu, a walk-on for two seasons, a football scholarship in March, four months after he took over the program from Jeff Tedford.

“He had a tremendous impact on my life,” Dykes said. “Ted’s was a life that couldn’t be summed up in words. … You do so with deeds.”

Agu was a standout student-athlete at Frontier High School in Bakersfield, making the honor roll all four years, playing three sports and getting into Cal with his grades and not his athletic skill. Last season, Agu (and his 3.3 grade-point average) was named to the Pac-12’s All-Academic team.

Cal’s Black Campus Ministries gospel choir came to the stage to perform a couple of songs, which led into a video tribute composed of still photos stitched together to the soundtrack of “Stand By Me.”

And as Ben E. King’s lyrics implored the crowd not to shed a tear nor be afraid, the images of Agu in arms with his teammates, friends and family passed by in montage, tributes of his short life coming into being for those who did not know all sides of this beloved man.

Several players gave stirring accounts of the Agu they knew. More than one mentioned his late-night work ethic, finding him hunkered down in the library often past midnight. And some mentioned his love of life and parties and dancing. A shared Nigerian heritage served as a bonding agent with more than a few teammates.

Some memories were more personal: A close friend, who’d played the stand-up bass in the string quartet from earlier, came to the mic and spoke of the time she, after having had a bit too much to drink, found herself stuck in a tree at 5 a.m.

When Agu happened to come walking along and saw her predicament, he implored her to jump into his arms. He promised he’d catch her.

“He exemplified everything we should strive to be,” said Chijoke “C.J.” Nwuzi, a member of the Cal track team and a close friend.

“I was afraid to come up to this mic,” one football teammate said, “because it’s like I’m saying goodbye and I’m not ready to say goodbye.”

One of his roommates described having lunch with him the day before he died and how Agu didn’t want to get up from the couch to get the ringing door, but once the visitors were finally let in, Agu, in jest, pretended to be asleep.

Another roommate described how, upon hearing of Agu’s death, he went into his bedroom and found two note cards on his dresser. One of the notecards said, “Always challenge the routine.” The other read, “Whenever you feel like God isn’t there for you when times are rough, just remember that a teacher is always silent during the test.”

After more testimonials from teammates and fraternity brothers, as well as Agu’s three sisters, the crowd, armed with purple commemorative wristbands reading PERSEVERANCE, was asked to flick on the little electronic candles they were given upon entering and place them along the bottom of the glass fence that lined the back of the plaza, as a sign to passersby down below that Agu’s memory was alive.

As a blanket of incoming fog hung high over the stadium, the fiery trail of lights took shape, with many taking a minute to kneel in prayer and cry after placing down their light.

With respect to Agu’s grieving family, all were then asked to leave. The night was not one for answers. Those will come in time. This was about celebrating the memory of a life stopped short.