Here’s Brian Heyman’s story about former Stepinac star Eric Ogbogu, who will be inducted into the Westchester Sports Hall of Fame:
The truth is, Eric Ogbogu has done a lot things well in his 38 years — star football player at Stepinac and Maryland; academic all-American; eight-year career in the NFL as a defensive end after being drafted by the Jets; Super Bowl commercial; executive now with Under Armour.
Add it all up and it’s clear to see why this Irvington-raised man was recently elected to the Westchester Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s amazing to be honored in that way,” Ogbogu said.
The truth also is, it took a lie to get this ball rolling, football that is. Ogbogu had to run a reverse around his parents, especially his mom Winnie, to begin playing the sport at Stepinac.
Both his mom and his dad, Louis, had forbidden him to play. His brother Fran had gotten hurt playing. But there was something else. Ogbogu had undergone surgery on his legs, and that made him a little frail to his parents.
“I had Blount’s disease as a child; I had severe bowleg,” Ogbogu said. “I had both my legs broken (in surgery) when I was a young child. I was in casts and didn’t walk for a long time. … I wanted to play the sport so bad and she wouldn’t sign the permission slip to play.”
He moved on to cross country. But after a couple of weeks, one of his friends told him he was too big for this running game, that he should be playing football. So Ogbogu joined the freshman football team. School had already started. No one asked about the permission slip. Winnie was busy working two jobs, and Louis was away on business matters.
“Being that it was a Catholic school, it was either I had a track meet or I was helping a priest out at church or at school,” Ogbogu said. “That kind of was the way the lie went for about two years.”
Actually, he finally got caught at a JV game during his sophomore season.
“All you heard was, ‘Eric Ogbogu on the tackle, Eric Ogbogu on the tackle,’ ” he said. “I remember coming out at halftime and walking to the tunnel, and my older brother (Arthur), who was there for alumni weekend, was looking at me and was like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ”
A few of his seven siblings talked it over. They had been told he had the potential to play on scholarship in college and presented that to Winnie. She let him continue, contingent on his keeping his grades up.
“She was very mad and disappointed that I had to lie for so long for it,” Ogbogu said. “But I think that the opportunity to get a chance to go to college on a full scholarship was something for her that made it worth it. It felt like she didn’t talk to me for a year.”
Ogbogu, who also stood out in basketball at Stepinac, competed with the varsity in 1992 and 1993, and he made sure his play spoke loudly as a fullback/defensive end and sometime tight end for coach Mike O’Donnell. Senior year, Ogbogu rushed for 1,803 yards and averaged eight tackles on a CHSFL title team.
O’Donnell called him “one of the best players I have ever coached in my 33 years at Stepinac.”
“Eric was a very tall young man with an unbelievable build,” O’Donnell wrote in an e-mail. “ … Back in the day, I can remember him carrying people on his back around the field, breaking tackles. I am not sure back then he realized how good he was.”
After his freshman year at Maryland, though, Ogbogu didn’t want to go back to play. He just wanted to stay home with his mom after a stunning tragedy.
Carjackers had murdered his dad during a trip to Nigeria.
“As much as I loved the game, my mother was probably the most important thing to me in the world,” Ogbogu said. “It was tough going through what happened to my dad. For me, I had never seen my mother cry like that.”
But his sister Vicky convinced him to return, saying Winnie would be so happy if he graduated. Ogbogu had played in six games at tight end as a freshman before switching sides. His move to defensive end paid off. He finished at No. 5 on the Terrapins’ all-time sack list with 18½ and added four more to earn Hula Bowl MVP. Then the Jets took this boyhood Giants fan in the sixth round of the 1998 draft.
The Jets’ coach for his first two years had a heavy influence on him, teaching football and life lessons. That was Bill Parcells, also a new Hall of Famer this year, a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
“I think this kid can play in this league,” Parcells said one August day when Ogbogu was a rookie, then listed at 6-foot-4, 280 pounds.
Ogbogu spent four years with the Jets, including one on injured reserve, one with Cincinnati and three with Dallas, where he made his four career starts, again under Parcells.
During a one-on-one minicamp drill before his second season with the Jets, Ogbogu powered by an offensive tackle.
“It’s about time,” Parcells yelled. “Where’s that been? Out in the car?”
“Parcells was always great motivating you to get the best out of you, if you were the No. 1 pick or a free agent,” Ogbogu said. “He knew how to push your buttons.”
Ogbogu’s best pass-rush push came on Thanksgiving Day 2004, Cowboys-Bears at Dallas. His family was in town and he attacked for 3½ sacks.
“That’s probably the high point of my career,” Ogbogu said.
After the 2005 season, he knew it was time to move on. He had done some work with Under Armour, which was founded by his college teammate, Kevin Plank. Ogbogu joined full-time in January 2007.
He has appeared in print ads and commercials for the company, including that Super Bowl spot in 2008. Ogbogu lives in Maryland and works out of Baltimore, serving as Under Armour’s director of sports marketing, managing its relationship with the NFL. The company has a footwear and glove deal with the league.
“It made it easy for my transition out of football because I knew I had this to do,” Ogbogu said.
Bob Hyland, another Stepinac and NFL alum and Westchester Sports Hall of Famer, is on the hall’s selection committee. The White Plains resident nominated Ogbogu, who will be inducted Oct. 23 at The Fairways at Dunwoodie Golf Course in Yonkers. Ogbogu’s plaque will go up at the County Center.
“I thought he was the perfect candidate for induction,” Hyland said. “Not only did he have an outstanding high school career, but a great college career, and then he went on to be a very successful professional football player. During this whole time, he conducted himself like a gentleman, got a great education, got a degree from the University of Maryland, and continues to be an outstanding citizen.”