Chicago Bears DE Cheta Ozougwu is ready to make his mark in the NFL. Drafted last year by the Houston Texans as Mr. Irrelevant, the last overall selection in the draft, Ozougwu has patiently bided his time with the Bears. After securing a roster spot, due to a strong preseason in which he led the team in sacks, Ozougwu has not yet this season cracked Chicago's active roster on game day.
Yet that may all change due to the concussion sustained by Shea McClellin last week, which will keep him out of Monday night's contest against the San Francisco 49ers. The team will be down a defensive end, making Ozougwu the likeliest candidate to take McClellin's place.
While Ozougwu is excited about the possibility of playing, he had hoped to earn playing time due to his abilities, not as a sub for an injured teammate.
"I wish Shea all the best," Ozougwu said today. "It's got to be difficult for Shea going around Halas Hall in street clothes while the rest of us are suiting up for practice. He's a strong guy and he should recover quickly. But I hope by that time the coaches will see what I can do and give me some consideration for the starting slot as well."
McClellin was knocked out early in Sunday night's game against the Texans when he immediately exhibited concussion symptoms after a hard hit. The Bears do not want to take any chances with their prized first rounder, who has 2.5 sacks this season, so they'll sit McClellin for at least one week.
Ozougwu may get the call come Monday night, playing in a prime time game against one of the best teams in the NFC. It would be the first game action of the second-year player's career, although he's not nervous about the prospect of suiting up.
"I played in the preseason and I got three sacks so I definitely know what to do out there," said Ozougwu. "When I've been on the sidelines this season, I've been watching every detail of every play. We have a great defense. If a young player can't learn from seeing how they play, then he has way too high a learning curve."
In Ozougwu's mind, it's a matter of familiarity and concentration.
"I don't want to go out there, get on the field, see all the fans and the lights and think: I'm on Monday Night Football and I'm going against some really good guys on offense. That would be counterproductive," he said. "What I plan to do is go with my normal routine. I'll rest and relax, then get to the stadium well ahead of kickoff so I have time to concentrate and center myself. I follow the lead of the vets on the team. They are composed and confident. If I can achieve that before and during the game, than all will be fine."
If Ozougwu can play at a high level against the 49ers, he could get consideration for future playing time. At the very least, it will be game tape to show prospective employers next season.
"My skill is rushing the passer. I have a quick reaction time and I have good acceleration on the field. I handle stress well. I played for Rice and there was plenty of pressure there. I was drafted by the Texans and they certainly had some big games. Big games are an environment where I feel comfortable."
The only concern he has going forward is how to deal with Chicago's weather.
"When I came here from Houston I was delighted to have been picked up by such a strong team. I felt that I'd be able both to contribute and to learn, to develop as a player. Then I remembered seeing pictures of snow. I'm from Houston. I went to college there and played in the NFL there. I have no idea how to deal with snow. I don't own a coat. The guys on the team just laugh, telling me to wait until January at Soldier Field. I'm in no rush to experience that."
Although somewhat reserved in the locker room, Ozougwu turns talkative when asked about his celebrity status as Mr. Irrelevant in 2011.
"Yes that was me, the last guy picked in the draft. It was horrible waiting for days to hear my name called. When that finally happened, I was elated even though I was picked last. I had no idea how big a deal being chosen in that last pick would be."
What Ozougwu soon discovered is that Mr. Irrelvant is a full-blown hero in Newport Beach, Cal., a town that has celebrated the draft's last selection since 1976.
"They gave me a parade," Ozougwu said. "They had a golf tournament and a banquet in my honor. My family and I were treated to a week of festivities and it was all about me. I even got the Lowsman Trophy, which is given out every year to the last pick. It was so much fun."
Will Ozougu play well enough to earn a parade in Chicago?
"I sure hope so. I plan to take advantage of this opportunity and give it 110 percent. Hopefully by the time Shea returns, I will be a force to be reckoned with as well."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.