Ogbogu Overcomes Parents' Football Ban, Father's Death
Former Terp tries to make his mark with New York Jets.
April 5, 1999
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - Louis and Winnie Ogbogu didn't mind their children playing sports - basketball, soccer and track were encouraged by the former athletes from Nigeria. But football was forbidden.
That is, until Eric Ogbogu took it upon himself to change the standards.
With his father constantly out of town on business, his mother working afternoons and Saturdays and his older siblings living away from home, Ogbogu secretively played two years on the junior varsity team at Archbishop Stepinac High in White Plains, N.Y. He has since parlayed the "secret" into a college scholarship at the University of Maryland, and a reserve role with the New York Jets.
"We used to laugh about it," Ogbogu said of the deception that caused his mom to give him the silent treatment for a couple of weeks. "It's kind of hard when you have been lied to for two years."
Ogbogu, the sixth oldest of eight children, was born in Tarrytown, N.Y., but was raised with Nigerian customs. Winnie Ogbogu spoke to her children in Igbo (pronounced E-bo) and prepared Nigerian meals twice a week. The family routinely attended parties with hometown traditions.
"You didn't appreciate it when you were young because you felt you were being stereotyped," said one of Eric's sisters, Vicky, who manages a law firm in Maryland. "But people thought it was cool. A lot of kids would come over our house."
What wasn't cool, though, was the ban on football.
Louis Ogbogu, a former soccer player in his native land and at Santa Clara University, loved football. During fall weekends, he spent his days watching football on TV or dragging his wife to a wrestling match if there was one in the area. But after Eric's oldest brother Fran was injured playing football, the parents decided football was out. Or so they thought.
Eric, like his brothers, enjoyed watching football on TV with his dad and wanted to play when he got to high school. However, he knew that his mother would not sign the permission slip allowing him on the gridiron. So he opted for another sport.
When Eric presented the form to his mother, he checked cross country. She okayed the sport and he actually practiced with the team for a couple of days.
However, seeing his friends on the football team made him ditch cross country and don a helmet and pads without his parents' permission. With the exception of confiding to his younger brother and sister, his secret was safe until his second year on the team.
"My brother came back for Alumni Weekend and he got there early so he went to the junior varsity game," Ogbogu remembered. "During the game, he kept hearing my name and when I walked off the field at the end, he saw me by the locker room."
His cover had been blown. Fran and Vicky initiated a cross country conference call to Winnie Ogbogu to break the news - and also plead their mother into letting their younger sibling continue. She obliged as long as he maintained high grades.
The next two seasons, Eric Ogbogu played on the varsity team and earned a reputation on both sides of the ball. He rushed for 1,800 yards and averaged 8 tackles a game but scholarship offers weren't rolling in on the same consistent basis.
"Maryland showed late interest," said Ogbogu, who is working on getting his business marketing degree.
However, College Park was an ideal situation. One
brother, Ben, had gone to Maryland and Vicky was on her way to graduating from the school.
Ogbogu attended Maryland and initially stayed on the offense - at tight end. He only had 1 reception for 11 yards before switching to defensive end late in the season and registering 12 sacks against Tulane. But tragedy struck following Eric's freshman year.
Louis Ogbogu visited Anambra, Nigeria in 1995 to see his mother and was killed during a carjacking. The murder shook up the family, particularly Eric.
"I didn't want to go back to Maryland," said Eric, who placed a football in his dad's casket. "I wanted to go back to New York to be with my mother."
Winnie, Vicky and the other children identified with Eric's compassion but there was an unwritten rule in the Ogbogu household - get your college education.
So Eric returned to College Park and had a breakthrough season. Permanently moved to defensive end, Ogbogu recorded 45 tackles (12 for losses) and 6 sacks. He put up similar numbers over the next two seasons and was named the Hula Bowl MVP after his senior year. The Jets selected him in the sixth round of the 1998 NFL Draft.
Ogbogu saw very limited action last season - 8 tackles in 12 games last season - but set a good impression with head coach Bill Parcells.
"I think this kid can play in this league," Parcells said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."
Just ask his mom and his siblings.