Imagine a world where you are a 5-star recruit, yet the people closest to you have no idea what that means.
In the span of one year, Oluwole Betiku went from learning the game of football to being recognized as one of the elite talents in the 2016 cycle.
It’s been close to two years since Betiku departed his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, for the United States with one mission entrenched in his mind.
He hasn’t seen his family since he left, but bettering their living condition is serving to motivate his journey from football obscurity to the brink of stardom.
“I came into the game of football just to make a way for my family,” Betiku told Bleacher Report. “Make a way in my life and just to find a good situation. My mom and dad are still in Nigeria. My sister is over there and my brother. I want to be the breadwinner of the family one day. I feel like sports was going to be the way.”
He leaves behind a harsh reality that his family still faces back home—one filled with a lack of hope and military checkpoints in the northern part of his home country because of Boko Haram threats.
“Being in L.A. now, people talk about stuff happening, but it’s nothing compared to what it’s like in Nigeria, where you walk to the bus stop and there’s a soldier with a tank driving around,” Betikue explained. “Seeing things like that and being here now, it just makes me want to work hard for my family to get them out of there. You never know what can happen. They could be walking around and they could get struck at anytime.”
Despite his relative inexperience in playing the game, Betiku—who is the nation’s top-rated weak-side defensive end and the No. 11 player overall in the 2016 class—has racked up more than 20 offers from powerhouses such as Alabama, Florida State, LSU, Oregon, Penn State and USC.
He committed to UCLA in August and will begin life in college next January as an early enrollee.
But it was around 14 months ago when his dreams took flight.
As a teenager back home, Betiku knew he was skilled enough to be an athlete. His initial dreams were to make it out of his home country through basketball, like African-born stars Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon.
But he quickly realized he wasn’t going to grow up and become 7 feet tall. Instead, he turned to the gridiron—despite no real experience, connection or even appreciation for the game.
In fact, Betiku said the game bored him when he watched the Super Bowl for the first time some two years ago. So much so that he fell asleep.
“I never used to watch [football],” Betiku said. “When we did, I was like, ‘What the hell are they doing and why are they wearing pads and helmets?’”
According to ESPN.com's Erik McKinney, one football camp in Nigeria became the catalyst that paved the way for him to come to the U.S.
“I just went out there, worked hard and tried to show enough that I’d be one of the lucky ones to be chosen,” he said of that camp experience.
After moving from Maryland to Los Angeles with then-guardian and former NFL player LaVar Arrington, Betiku settled at metro L.A.-area powerhouse Junipero Serra High School.
Cavaliers head coach Scott Altenberg lined Betiku up at defensive end last season. The 6’4”, 240-pounder responded with a monster year in racking up 59 tackles—including 24 for loss with 11.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
It was quite a season for a player who had no clue what to do with the helmet and pads he was issued in the days leading up to fall camp.
“His first comment was to say, ‘Ah, I don’t think I’m going to go with the shoulder pads because they constrict me a little too much,’” Altenberg recalls while chuckling.
Altenberg is no stranger to coaching elite football prospects. Over the years, Serra has sent players such as Marqise Lee and Robert Woods to the NFL and now-sophomore corner Adoree' Jackson to USC.
This year’s squad features other talented prospects such as 4-star safety and current USC commit C.J. Pollard, 4-star safety Brandon Burton and 3-star quarterback and current Arizona pledge Khalil Tate.
While Betiku isn’t the only player on the Cavs' current roster attracting hordes of college coaches to Serra’s campus, Altenberg admits his star pass-rusher represents his share of firsts in his coaching career.
That’s because he’s never had a player adjusting to the game and cultural setting at the same time.
“That’s a huge difference. It’s not just the football. If he came over here as a Nigerian soccer player, at least that would be a constant. But this is different. The area, culture, sport, everything is new. He’s never played the sport. It’s just amazing how well he’s done with all of that. Of course, he’s a tremendous talent and a very gifted athlete. There’s so much more to this than just that.”
Despite being blessed with size and natural athleticism, Altenberg said that his new pupil’s attitude and desire to learn stood out immediately.
In fact, Altenberg recalls a story from one of Betiku’s first days in pads as an example.
The team went through the famous “Oklahoma” drill where a lineman is tasked with fighting through blocks to tackle a ball-carrier.
Despite his unfamiliarity with the drill, Betiku was one of the first volunteers to take the field.
On his first rep, he tried to go outside of the blocker. Just when he thought he had a clear path to chase down the running back, he got laid out by a lineman who was peeling back for him.
Most players would head off the field to lick their wounds and regroup.
Against the wishes of the coaching staff, Betiku immediately jumped back up, put his hand in the dirt and readied himself for another rep.
Altenberg let it play out, mainly out of curiosity. What happened next, he said, is something he will never forget.
“The next rep, he takes on the block,” Altenberg explained. “The running back comes over and he literally Superman’s over the top of the block and takes down the running back. I was like, ‘Holy cow!’ That [sequence] happened in two plays. At the moment, I realized we had something special here.”
That first taste of success gave Betiku the spark of confidence he needed to become a serious contributor in the 2014 season.
It also helped him become more passionate about his new craft.
“As time went on, I started loving the game,” Betiku said. “I started learning new stuff like balance and leverage. You need leverage to play this game. I feel the coaches can tell you about it all they want, but there’s some things you just have to figure out on the field.”
But if there’s one trait that has fueled his meteoric rise, it’s his desire.
While most recruits are motivated by rankings, accolades and exposure, there’s a pain—the agony of being separated from his family—that serves as the main catalyst for Betiku’s drive to succeed.
Betiku was one of the lucky stud recruits invited to The Opening, which is the summer’s premier camp showcase featuring the nation’s top recruits.
He was one of the standout performers at the event, which was held at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
His presence and performance there should have given him reason to celebrate how far he’s come in his journey, as was the case for most of his peers in attendance.
Instead, for Betiku, the fact that his friends and family couldn’t be there gave him an empty feeling. Furthermore, their unfamiliarity with the gravity of his accomplishments leaves him with a different emotion.
“Honestly, it’s kind of painful,” Betiku explained. “So many times, I look by the sidelines and I see other people’s parents and they are watching them. Those people can tell their parents that, ‘Oh, I had three sacks this game.’ No matter how much I experience that is good, my friends back home, they don’t understand. When I talk to my parents back home, they are happy I’m doing well. But they don’t know how big of a deal The Opening is and how big it is to be here.”
In Betiku’s mind, that pain would vanish into the breeze of the Southern California air if his family were close to him.
“They don’t have the money to come over here,” he said. “If they had it, they would come over here to visit.”
Betiku notes that his communication with his parents and two siblings—one brother and one sister—is intermittent. Naturally, there have been times that he’s been homesick.
“Sometimes, I feel kind of sad,” Betiku said. “They don’t know about the camps and everything. I try my best to explain everything. I try to stay motivated. My school family, they all love me. My coaches, everyone that has supported me to this day, I think about them. They are counting on me to do great. My mom, I just tell her I did really good, so she’s happy. That’s why I do what I do.”
Those feelings of sadness are mainly kept inside.
Instead, to his friends and teammates at Serra, he’s affectionately nicknamed “Wole”—an ode to the shortened form of his name and its resemblance to the popular musician who also shares his Nigerian heritage.
Altenberg notes that Betiku’s situation, and his acceptance of the sacrifice it takes to reach his goals, have worked in a positive way to ease his growing pains during his transition on and off the field.
“He knows that he has different realities than the rest of the kids that we coach,” Altenberg said. “He looks like he could be a 25-year-old football player in the NFL, but he’s still only 18 and he’s displaced from his family while trying to do this for his family. That’s all he really talks about. But it also keeps him focused and on the right path. I taught him in a history class last year. He’s very talented and focused in the classroom.”
In one year, Betiku’s future has gone from cloudy to being on the doorstep of achieving his dreams.
Instead of resting on his laurels, the next phase of Betiku’s plan is to kick things into overdrive.
Betiku admits that last year, he was somewhat of a one-trick pony with regard to his skill set.
He lined up on the edge, and rushed around the edge to get to the passer.
If there’s one tidbit he picked up from his time at The Opening, it’s the need for him to become a more well-rounded defensive end this season and at the next level.
“It kind of gives you a feeling that you have to be versatile with your moves,” Betiku surmised on his biggest lesson learned at the event. “That’s what I don’t have. I’m not versatile. Now it makes me know that I’m a one-way player. When I go home, I’m going to work on my versatility so I can hit a guy with inside and outside moves.”
Also on his to-do list is becoming a student of the game. Studying his habits and those of his opponents are areas he’s working to master this fall.
“I just want to become more technical and play smart,” Betiku said. “[I want to] just read the tackle and take whatever he gives me. I just react. I shouldn’t think about it. I should just react to whatever the tackle is giving me. Whether I lose the rep or win the rep, just be a football player and react and do what you are meant to do.”
With his college choice out of the way, Betiku has his sights set on another benchmark—becoming the No. 1 player in the country.
“I feel like nothing is stopping me from being the No. 1 player,” Betiku said. “I’m strong, I’m fast. I’m just not versatile. Even though last year was my first year playing, I’m still hard on myself. Those guys shouldn’t be better than me out there.”
Considering that his life back home presented him with obstacles that focused on survival, his new challenges are welcomed.
The outlook on his new reality is getting brighter with each rep and each new technique he digests and takes to the field.
Altenberg said that Betiku’s attitude and determination are traits that have rubbed off on his teammates.
“The things he goes through, it really makes it harder for some of the more ridiculous things these kids go through sometimes,” Altenberg said. “Whether it’s not getting a number they want or things like that. Nothing compares to having your family be halfway across the world and not having seen them in two years. It makes their problems look a little smaller, which they are.”
As determined as he was to make a name for himself in the game of football, Oluwole Betiku couldn’t imagine how much his life has changed over the last 12 months.
To most observers, his journey can already be considered a success given the obstacles he’s conquered in such a short period of time.
But whether it’s through the game of football or through his studies in the classroom, Betiku won’t feel that way until his family is by his side and their needs are taken care of.
“He’s a great kid,” Altenberg said. “He’s been awesome to get to know. He has had a different situation to grow up in. It’s been hard. He still manages to handle it all really well. I think that’s a sign of someone who will do very well in life. I’m not worried about Wole and his future. He’s going to be just fine.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.