Aigbomoidi Atogwe left the Nigerian village of Ayogwiri in 1974, seeking a better life.
The oldest of nine children in a poor family, he was the only one to be educated. Trained as an auto mechanic, he went to Windsor, Ont., leaving behind his pregnant wife, Babianna.
He worked in a tomato-canning factory and a muffler shop before getting his foot in the door at Ford Motor Co., for which he later became a mechanic. He sent money home to Africa for the relatives and saved for two years to bring to Canada Babianna and their daughter, the first of four children they would raise on working-class salaries.
“It was a shining beacon,” Atogwe said. “The winters were cold, but we were very happy. It was such a good decision to come here, because Canada has been so good to us.”
Oshiomogho Atogwe recounts his father’s story proudly. The youngest of the couple’s four children has continued the tradition of sending money to Nigeria to help raise and educate relatives. The starting free safety for the Washington Redskins on a five-year, $26-million (U.S.) contract, the younger Atogwe is constantly honouring his roots.
“My dad is a wonderful man and very selfless, and to follow in his footsteps is something I willingly and gratefully do,” the 30-year-old said. “His decision shaped our entire future, and it’s the reason I’m here.”
Oshiomogho’s journey to the NFL began when his father watched Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears games with him on TV. As a boy, he played pee-wee football, and later was a standout player at many positions at W.F. Herman Secondary School in Windsor, while also juggling basketball, track and field, soccer, earning top grades and working a part-time job.
“Of all the people I have met in my life, he is the most time-efficient,” his high-school football coach, Harry Lumley, said. “Girls would tell me at school that they would call him on the phone, and at some point he would politely end the call, saying, ‘It’s 7 [p.m.] now, and my study time is starting, and I can’t break my schedule.’ ”
Football scholarship offers poured in from many U.S. colleges, as the Atogwes sought the best school for the standout known as O.J., a kid striving to become a doctor so he could deliver babies in Africa.
Lumley convinced Stanford University representatives to visit, saying Atogwe could run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. The constant overachiever ran it for them in 4.4.
After a standout U.S. college career, he graduated with a biological sciences degree, and put medical school on hold in 2005, as he became the first Windsor-area player to be drafted to the NFL, when the St. Louis Rams took him in the third round.
“I knew he would get a good education and be set for life, but I never expected my son would make it all the way to the NFL,” Aigbomoidi Atogwe said. “He has always exceeded my expectations in everything he does.”
It’s fitting the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder has a comic book collection featuring thousands of issues, many of which he has trucked from one football city to the next. His locker at the Redskins training centre is filled with Incredible Hulk action figures, and he even gifted the groomsmen in his wedding party with super hero socks to wear beneath their tuxedo pant legs on his big day.
In true hero fashion, O.J. Atogwe has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into his hometown through numerous scholarships and donations to his high school and former football programs. He spontaneously doubled the amount of a scholarship for one student because the teen showed such integrity when Atogwe called to award him the bursary.
Atogwe married Jill Singletary last spring, the daughter of Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary – one of his dad’s favourite players – and now the assistant head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. The devoutly religious couple had a big San Francisco wedding, where many of the Atogwes wore traditional African dress.
The Redskins face the Buffalo Bills at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on Sunday. And while Atogwe is questionable with a knee injury, he holds out hope of playing in Canada in front of his family.
“Our last name is something that means a lot to us,” Atogwe said. “Nigerians take honour in their heritage and traditions, and for them to see the Atogwe name made popular throughout the United States and Canada gives them a sense of pride.”