Jason Vinlove, USA TODAY

Sunny Odogwu and his high school coach share a harrowing tale of triumph that isn’t over yet.

Sunny Odogwu has already overcome a lot in his 24 years on earth. That’s why he so certain he will conquer his latest adversity, the broken ankle he suffered last year in Miami. The only obstacle remaining is determining which school he will transfer to, Michigan or UCLA.

America is often called “The Land of Opportunity.” It’s no wonder, then, that people in many developing countries believe traveling to the United States will offer them their best chance at a successful future.  That was certainly what Sunny Odogwu believed while growing up in Nigeria.  He just didn’t know how he would get here.  It was impossible to envision a life where he’d hold two undergraduate degrees from an American college, be on the cusp of earning a Masters degree, and would preparing for shot to play in the National Football League.

And now here he sits.

“Everything I do in life because I've been given opportunity to be in America,” Odogwu said.  “I have nothing in Africa. We live in a 10x10 room.  All the nine of us live in a 10x10 room. I have nothing. I'm blessed to be getting a business degree at the University of Miami, I'm almost finished with my two-year Master's in one year. I only have a couple of classes left.

Football has been the vehicle that has driven him to those accomplishments, but it was basketball that made his dream of coming to this country a reality.  A fateful trip in 2009 that spanned hundreds of miles led him to a basketball camp that got him noticed by American coaches. Looking back on things now Odogwu knows the timing of that development couldn’t have been more profound.

“I never slept on a bed until I came to America,” he said. “All my life has been nothing but (struggle)”

“I came here to play basketball.  It was a big decision for me to leave my family because when I was about to come here my dad was real sick.  My dad died and I'm the last of the family. I was going to the farm and getting things to sell on the streets. My family was very depressed from my dad's death. I said, ‘I understand what I have to do now.’ I prayed about it and that's the way I go about (making tough decisions). Through prayer.” 

Coming to America

After burying his dad Odogwu made the trek across the Atlantic to Victory Christian Academy in Conyers, Georgia that same year. He played basketball there until he transferred to hardwood powerhouse Huntington (W. Va.) Prep after his sophomore year.

His nimbleness at 6-8 and nearly 300 pounds was evident during his time at Huntington, but so too was his penchant for committing fouls. That’s when the staff there suggested he try football.

Enter Messay Hailemariam, a first-year head coach at Baltimore (Md.) St. Frances. A native of Ethiopia, Hailemariam instantly identified with Odogwu.  He took quick note of the gregarious youngster’s drive to be successful. And while he definitely saw the immense athletic potential, he also recognized how much work and dedication it would take on his part to help Odogwu reach it.

“The role wasn’t just coach,” said Hailemariam. “It was also guardian and mentor.”

Odogwu lived with Hailemariam, so their interaction didn’t end when practice was over.  Their tight bond was actually forged off the football field. It was during those other times that Hailemariam noticed many of the traits he believes to be the hallmarks of success.

“The three things we sometimes take for granted in the states are shelter, education, and food,” said Hailemariam. “Those are the things that we know are going to be there, or at least are hoping (will be there). Most of the time it’s not even a question. But somewhere else, especially in a third world country, those three things are not always a guarantee.  That’s something that Sunny appreciated from the beginning. And he still does.  He doesn’t take it for granted, so he maximizes every opportunity that’s presented in front of him.”

The Transition to Football

When Odogwu first stepped onto the football field in 2011 it was certainly a struggle, but a few weeks into the season he began playing. He wound up participating in seven games. While he showed great progress in that short stint, Hailemariam knew more seasoning was necessary if Odogwu was going to have a shot at major college football.

“He was still so raw. He needed another year,” Hailemariam explained.

That led Odogwu to Hargrave Military Academy where he showed enough progress to elicit scholarships from several Power Five institutions, before settling on Miami.

After an adjustment period with the Hurricanes that included a redshirt year, Odogwu started 14 games over the next three seasons.  Unfortunately, he saw each of his final two seasons cut short by leg injuries. His redshirt sophomore campaign ended prematurely when he tore his MCL in the regular season finale. Then last year his season ended abruptly in game five when he broke his ankle versus Florida State. A rehab stint followed, but after working his way back to form something was different.

“Injuries had set him back, but when he came back healthy and strong I noticed he wasn’t mentally into staying at Miami,” Hailemariam said.  “His heart wasn’t all the way in, but Sunny is extremely loyal, and he will be loyal until the death.”

Stay at Miami or Transfer?

What was missing from the equation was the promise that he could regain his starting spot. Though deeply appreciative of the new coaching staff that had taken the helm at Miami in 2016, the role proposed to Odogwu upon his return had him questioning whether moving on would be a better option.

“They said I would be splitting the time with the guy that finished the season with them,” recalled Odogwu.

“They basically said they want to split time because they still have the guy for two more years. In that case, I think my mind is made up. I was like, ‘I don't mean to sound selfish, but now I have to be selfish like (Hailemariam) said.  I love this team. I've given you virtually nothing but my best every time and I've done nothing but work hard, pay attention, and do everything right I have to do. I cannot split time my senior year 50/50. I cannot do 50/50 splits my senior year. It means a lot to me. I'm coming back from injury and I have to show people what I can do to be able to help my family in Africa. To be able to give them a better life. To give my mom a chance to live a good life and get better medication. My family is in poverty in Africa.’”

It was almost a verbatim recital of the message Hailemariam had delivered to Odogwu. Hailemariam also has a deep abiding respect for the coaching staff at Miami, but he at the same time believes there is a tendency for new coaches to lean toward younger options and/or guys they recruited in scenarios like the one Odogwu was faced with.

“This was a situation where Sunny needed a clean slate at a place where he is a priority (and can) play that particular positon and no splitting time,” said Hailemariam.  “Let’s take everybody else out of the equation.  You’ve done everything you were supposed to do academically. You’ve given everything you have to a lot of people including Miami and St. Frances.   Now it’s time to be selfish for six months where you can maximize your potential and then make a splash at another place. What he is really looking for (is a path to) fulfilling his dream of playing in the national football league.”

Decision on the Horizon

After visits to Michigan and UCLA last week, he is now deciding which of those schools will offer him the best chance of reaching that goal.

“Those two schools, you can't get any better than having those head coaches that have experience in the NFL,” said Hailemariam. “The offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, the medical team, athletic training staff (are all) unbelievable. Those places are extremely tremendous places for Sunny to finish out his career and he's just trying to find out what's the best for him ultimately."

"Most of the time we all start off (looking at) academics usually, but Sunny is such a different situation. He's close to getting his Masters.  That part of his box has been checked previously. So right now it's really from a football development standpoint. Prayer is literally the biggest and most important asset in not only Sunny's life, but mine.  What we've gone through together in this journey, it has literally been by the grace of God and his mercy for us because we have a spiritual development that has grown since we've been together.  That has been the reason we have overcome a lot. I know you asked about practical (factors), but practical (factors)… we know those two schools have them. Think about it. I'm hard pressed to check off what's not there. Quarterback is great (and) coaches that can develop, so literally that's where he is. He knows both places can give him potential for his success, but spiritually and in his gut is what's going to allow him to make this decision. So all I do is continue to have him follow his gut.”

“It's not like you'd be going wrong with either one.”

As for the timing of the decision, it shouldn’t be long now.

"Unless something insane happens by Friday,” said Hailemariam. Sometime the end of this week we're talking about a decision and we're making it.  (We’ll be) letting both schools know one way or the other what's happening. By Friday we should have a complete deadline… a dead set decision."

If you missed Odogwu’s breakdown of his visits to Michigan and UCLA, click here.


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