- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

SUGAR LAND, Texas

Gloria Orakpo already could see signs her eldest son was on the way to success. He was thriving athletically and academically and adept at avoiding some of the trouble entering the family’s neighborhood in southwest Houston.

But 13-year-old kids want what other 13-year-old kids have, and Brian Orakpo was no different.

He wanted Nike’s latest sneaker.

Problem was, Orakpo already had advanced to men’s-size shoes, which meant that while his friends’ parents were paying $89, his own parents had to cough up $169.

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“I was wearing old-fashioned, busted shoes,” he said. “I wanted to step my game up.”

Orakpo pleaded with his mom for the money.

“He really begged, and I said, ‘No, not this time,’ ” Mrs. Orakpo said.

Hours later, she returned home from her job as a caseworker for Harris County Children’s Protective Services and Brian handed her $80.

In one day, he had mowed four lawns for $20 apiece. He got the shoes.

“Since he made the effort, I gave him the rest of the money and I was very impressed because that showed me how determined he is when he wants something,” Mrs. Orakpo recalled. “He goes and gets it.”

Orakpo has never stopped going and getting: From his days as a standout at Lamar High School to becoming the nation’s best defensive player last year at Texas; walking across the stage to obtain his degree in youth and community studies; drafted 13th overall by the Washington Redskins and playing a big role when the season starts Sunday against the New York Giants.

“That’s been one of my characteristics - work to achieve something,” he said.

The Orakpo family work ethic avoids no challenge, a trait passed down from Arthur and Gloria Orakpo, who came from Nigeria in the 1980s to attend college and stayed to create a new life in the United States.

Their son, 23, has already displayed that want-to at Redskins Park.

“It just shows up,” Redskins linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. “He has to put the extra time in and he’s willing to do it and has fun doing it. He enjoys the process of football and getting ready.”

Said defensive coordinator Greg Blache: “He has a maturity that’s unlike most rookies you ever come across. It’s what sets him apart.”

‘Unique’ background

More than a decade later, Mrs. Orakpo acknowledges that her son started playing football only after she was tricked. Orakpo didn’t become interested in the sport until middle school - his first idol was a basketball player, former Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon. But when he wanted to start playing football, his mother was hesitant to sign off.

“She thought it was too dangerous,” Orakpo said. “But we told her that I was playing defense so I wouldn’t get hit. That made her at ease. But then she did realize it’s a physical game on both sides.”

Mrs. Orakpo recalled that story while sitting in the living room of the family’s 4,000-square-foot home on a Saturday afternoon last month while showing off Orakpo’s accolades, visiting with daughter Jennifer, 21, and looking after her 9-month-old grandson, Charlie.

“All of the tackling and hitting was unbearable,” she said.

Orakpo’s parents weren’t familiar with American football because of their background, which Orakpo said is “somewhat different and unique.” First-generation Americans are rare in the NFL; the league doesn’t even keep a list.

Before they met, Mr. and Mrs. Orakpo left their homeland for Houston, which has a large Nigerian population. Both worked their way through college at Texas Southern and became comfortable financially after opening and operating two African grocery stores. Mr. Orakpo has spent most of the past year in Africa tending to the family’s various business interests and couldn’t be reached for this article.

Mrs. Orakpo grew up in Lagos, a port city of more than 9 million people, and came to the United States in 1982 after studying for two years in England.

“It was very challenging because Nigeria is a highly populated country and the schools always filled up, so for some of us who couldn’t get into school, we had to find alternatives to get education,” she said. “I was very determined to get an education, so I decided to leave the country.”

Mrs. Orakpo’s initial plan was to finish college and return to Nigeria. But, “The economic system in Nigeria became [so] bad that I decided to hang around a little,” she said, laughing.

She gave birth to Brian on July 31, 1986, and later Jennifer and Michael, now a 19-year-old freshman defensive back at Colorado State.

Worth the wait

The house in which the Orakpo children grew up on Royan Drive has three bedrooms (Brian and Michael shared a room), and the street ends with a cul-de-sac where children once gathered for soccer and baseball games. The houses are crammed together with small front yards and short driveways.

Driving a visitor around the neighborhood, Miss Orakpo said not much has changed, though she was surprised to see vertical steel bars on the windows of their old house.

“We didn’t have those up when we lived here,” she said.

The Orakpos moved to a gated community in Sugar Land five years ago after selling the grocery stores. They didn’t approve of who was moving into their old community.

“People were coming in and I noticed some were dealing drugs and I would come home from work and smell the marijuana on the street,” Mrs. Orakpo said. “I stressed to my kids they couldn’t go that way. One of Brian’s friends got into trouble for something to do with drugs, and I had to stop him from coming to the house. I got rid of him.”

All three Orakpo children attended Lamar High School in Houston, an athletic powerhouse 25 minutes from their old home.

“It was a change because it was predominantly white, but I didn’t have a problem - it was a change in my life I was ready for that helped me at UT,” Brian Orakpo said.

Orakpo was a three-year starter for the Lamar Redskins. He dropped basketball after his junior year but it wasn’t all football all the time; Orakpo spent summers working at Kmart, Fiesta Mart and Target.

And even though he thrived as a defensive end and was being recruited by dozens of Division I programs, Orakpo’s dream college, Texas, was slow to call.

But when he took a visit to Austin, coach Mack Brown offered a scholarship and the process was over. Orakpo could have played sooner at Texas A&M or some other schools but for him, the decision was easy. “Because it was UT,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Mom’s premonition

Orakpo doesn’t boast of his accomplishments or predict his future - that’s his mom’s job. Last year, when he was nominated for the Lombardi Award, awarded to the nation’s top lineman or linebacker, his family learned of it by reading the newspaper.

Back when the Orakpos visited the Texas campus and accepted the scholarship offer, Mrs. Orakpo noticed an empty space in the football program’s trophy case, where it had tributes to stars of the past.

“Brian, this is going to be your showcase,” she told her son. “Your jersey will be in there someday. Your jersey is next.”

Orakpo just nodded, but sister Jennifer said, “I think he knew that was possible.”

Orakpo arrived in Austin in the fall of 2004 at 210 pounds and left five years later as one of the school’s most decorated defensive players weighing 260, the product of becoming a workout warrior with outstanding personal bests in the bench (515 pounds) and squat (600). He redshirted in 2004 and posted five sacks in his first two seasons. Orakpo’s first major adversity came in 2007 when he injured his knee against Arkansas State - “a cheap shot,” he said - and was limited to nine games. Knowing the summer of 2008 was critical, he took up boxing to improve his footwork and conditioning.

“I felt people hadn’t seen the best of me,” he said. “The second game [last year] - I felt it was going to be a big year just from the mind-set I had from every game - getting after the quarterback and making plays. I had the mind-set that nobody can beat me.”

In a tour de force senior year, Orakpo recorded 42 tackles (19 for a loss), 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.

“He has the very unique quality that he was the strongest guy on our team, but he’s so quick out of his stance,” coach Brown said. “He gets around guards and tackles so quickly that we moved him around. I think he’ll be that same way for the Redskins.”

Orakpo won the top defensive honors , the Nagurski Trophy and Lombardi Award, then put on an impressive display at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. Most NFL Draft analysts had him tabbed as a top-five pick, but when Cleveland traded the fifth pick to the New York Jets, he had a feeling the Redskins would be his new home.

“When I was still available, I was really hoping I would go No. 13 to the Redskins because it wasn’t too low and at the same time, it’s a team on the rise,” he said. “It’s a playoff-caliber team with the right pieces. The acquisition of big [Albert] Haynesworth, me, some other pieces, I felt it was a team that could make something happen.”

Huge impact expected

Orakpo’s eyes lit up when asked about the Redskins’ opener on Sunday against the Giants.

“I don’t know how I’m going to sleep,” he said. “I can’t wait to get up there. I’m going to be pumped to start to prove to everything that I’m here and I’ll continue to be successful.”

And this was in late May at the Dulles Town Center’s Cheesecake Factory.

The intensity was real. He knows the Redskins defense lacked sacks and turnovers last year. His skill set as a pass rusher can help both statistical categories.

Orakpo was strictly a defensive end at Texas, but the Redskins saw enough athleticism to give the linebacker a try. Coordinator Blache told Orakpo they would use the three-day minicamp in May as an experiment.

“After the minicamp, they were shocked at how easily he adjusted to it and to get the best 11 guys on the field, that was the best way to do it,” said Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins’ executive vice president of football operations.

Orakpo remains a work in progress while trying to cover tight ends and running backs, but there’s no question he’s ready to produce when put at end. He was so effective in the preseason game against Pittsburgh that the Steelers resorted to using a running back to chip him.

“I think he has a chance to make a huge impact [as a pass rusher],” Mr. Cerrato said. “Playing next to Albert [Haynesworth], he’ll have opportunities to use his speed. I would expect him to play a big part in us improving our sack total.”

Orakpo has impressed veterans with his ability and his maturity; he doesn’t act like a first-round pick who landed a five-year contract worth $12.1 million guaranteed - and potentially more than $20 million. He was the guy who got tied to the goal post and dumped with buckets of water and the guy who carried older players’ helmets and shoulder pads off the practice field.

“Humble kid,” defensive end Phillip Daniels said. “He listens and he’s coachable - he’s always asking questions. He looks the part and plays the part. He’s going to do a lot for us this year. He can be a dominating player.”

Even Blache, who generally has no use for rookies, has been impressed.

“[The Giants] might be surprised by what they see from him,” he said Thursday. “I have no reservations about starting him. As far as having rookies start, I don’t look at him as a regular rookie.”

When he arrived at Texas, Orakpo had to wait to start. Not so in the NFL, where he’s been working with the starting defense since his first training camp practice. His first challenge will be facing a Super Bowl-winning quarterback (Eli Manning) and one of the league’s best offensive lines.

But this is exactly what Orakpos sign up for - challenges.

“The feeling of a sack, it’s like a huge relief because you’re so happy and you finally get there after working all game and you finally get loose,” Orakpo said. “The funny thing about it, when I get that first sack, I’ll be hungry for that second sack. That’s the kind of drive a great pass rusher needs to have.”

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