The date was April 1, 2014, an extra special day for New York Giants defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa (oh-DIGGY-zoo-wuh).
Besides turning 22 years old, Odighizuwa, then a member of the UCLA Bruins, had another reason to celebrate.
He was returning to the gridiron after more than a year away from the sport he loved, a year that included multiple surgeries on his hip and the subsequent rehab that came along with it.
“It was pretty cool,” Odighizuwa said via phone about his first chance to get back on the field since the Holiday Bowl against Baylor on December 27, 2012.
“It was awesome because I was so excited to be back there, out on the field working again.”
To keep himself from bouncing off the walls, Odighizuwa engaged in “visual repetitions.” That helped him focus his mind on what his body couldn’t yet do, keeping his mental focus sharp, while fueling his hunger to return to the game he hoped would one day become his full-time job.
Of course, to anyone who knows Odighizuwa as a person, his mental toughness comes as no surprise, not after how the young man survived one of the most trying situations of his young life before he was even old enough to understand what was happening.
A World Turned Upside Down
On January 16, 2002 in Grundy, Virginia, the Odighizuwa family name first made the headlines.
According to a report in The New York Times, Odighizuwa’s 42-year-old father, Peter, a Nigerian native and student at the Appalachian School of Law, went on a murderous rampage inside of the school, a shooting spree that left three people dead and wounded three others before he was finally subdued by his fellow students.
The elder Odighizuwa pleaded guilty to several charges, among them counts of capital murder and charges of attempted murder.
He was sentenced to multiple life sentences and an additional 28 years without the possibility of parole and is currently incarcerated at the Red Onion State Prison in Pound, Virginia.
His oldest son, who was not quite 10 years old when this tragic turn of events began, was suddenly forced to grow up overnight, taking on a role that most young children couldn’t even fathom.
“I definitely felt a responsibility not only to my mom but also to my brothers to be that example,” Odighizuwa, now 23 years old, said of his three siblings, currently 22, 19 and 16 years old.
From staying out of trouble, to doing well in sports and in school to helping with chores, Odighizuwa became the "man" of the house.
“The experience definitely matured me and changed my perspective,” he said. “It is something I wouldn’t take back; I’m glad I was in that role and could set an example for my brothers.”
That inner strength and perseverance that Odighizuwa didn’t realize he had until he had to summon it from within helped his family adjust when his mother, Abieyuwa, moved her sons to Portland, Oregon for a fresh start.
Odighizuwa, an outgoing young man with an engaging personality, embraced the opportunity to make new friends and explore a new locale.
“For me, growing up, moving around wasn’t something I wasn’t familiar with or comfortable with because it’s something I did a lot of,” said Odighizuwa, whose travels took him from Columbus, Ohio, to Nigeria, back to Ohio, then to Virginia before finally settling in Portland.
From a Boy to a Man
As a football player, Odighizuwa has faced some tough competition in the Pac-12, but like any gridiron warrior with an eye on reaching the NFL, he always came prepared.
Following an impressive 2012 season in which he finished with 44 tackles (25 solo), six tackles for a loss, and 3.5 sacks, the 6’3”, 271-pound Odighizuwa was ready to improve his draft stock.
Nothing could prepare him though for what was to come in the 2013 season. According to Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News, Odighizuwa underwent surgery to repair fraying in his right hip after the 2012 season ended; his focus was on being ready for the 2013 season.
However, the pain in his left hip prior to the start of the 2013 spring practices led to another hip surgery, this one knocking him out of the 2013 season.
“It was a very humbling process,” Odighizuwa said of having to miss the 2013 campaign.
“It taught me to always be prepared for any situation, good or bad. When you’re in a situation that you don’t want to be in, you have to focus on the day-to-day steps to get out of it.”
Instead of pouting, Odighizuwa, wise beyond his years, used the time away from the field to sharpen his football acumen by watching lots of film.
He also would watch his teammates from the stands, often visualizing what he would do if he were out there playing.
His time away from football gave him a fresh perspective and newfound appreciation of the game he loved, setting him up for the rewards that were long overdue.
Back with a Bang
Fully healthy and itching to dish out punishment, Odighizuwa returned to the Bruins lineup in 2014 like a brand-new man.
He finished his final year of eligibility by posting career highs in tackles (61), tackles for a loss (11.5) and sacks (6.0).
In addition to his on-field success, Odighizuwa was a stellar student. The philosophy major earned Athletic Director’s Honor Roll status seven times.
When it came time for the NFL draft, Odighizuwa, projected by NFLDraftScout.com as a late first-round/early second-round prospect, spent the weekend with his family.
After he finally heard his name called as the 74th overall pick, he and his family were overcome by emotion.
“Everyone was just so happy,” Odighizuwa said. “My family was emotional and so was I because to finally hear your name called was a very fortunate thing. To get the phone call from [head coach Tom Coughlin] asking if I was ready to be a part of the team—it was just a surreal moment.”
A Giant Among Men
The reality of that moment which began on Day 2 of the draft begins this Thursday night, when Odighizuwa, along with the rest of the Giants’ 2015 rookie class, reports to East Rutherford, New Jersey, to begin a three-day rookie minicamp.
“This is a new journey that I’m about to begin, and I’m excited because I have been thinking about that day for a long time,” Odighizuwa said.
To that end, he is ready—oh so ready—to take on the challenges of moving to a new city, integrating himself in a new program and earning the respect of his coaches and new teammates.
“I know the transition as a rookie is definitely one that isn’t easy because there’s a lot going on and a lot you have to take on," he said.
"It’s almost like an incoming freshman all over again, trying to adjust to everything.”
Fortunately for Odighizuwa, he’s not only received some valuable advice from former college teammates who have gone on to the NFL, he has also heard from a former New York Giants defensive end.
That would be Osi Umenyiora, a Giants second-round pick in the 2003 draft who played with the team through the 2012 season whom Odighizuwa met while at UCLA.
Odighizuwa, who last spoke to Umenyiora prior to the 2014 season, said the two-time Pro Bowl defensive end shared some great advice.
“The basic thing I got from him was to come prepared and ready to work,” Odighizuwa said. “Know that it’s a business and it’s your job and that it’s a lot different from college, but it’s still football.”
As he had done throughout the interview, Odighizuwa was non-hesitant when asked what Giants fans could look forward to getting from him.
“They’re going to get a hard player, a guy who plays relentlessly, who loves the game,” he said. “What they’re going to see from me is someone who works hard, someone who’s very devoted to the team, its philosophy, fans and organization.”
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand for this article unless otherwise sourced.