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Redskins’ O.J. Atogwe rooted in faith, family, football

Washington Redskins safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (center) enjoys a light moment working out with former St. Louis Rams safeties Corey Chavous (left) and Aeneas Williams at a high school in St. Charles, Mo. (Sid Hastings/Special To The Washington Times)

Washington Redskins safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (center) enjoys a light moment working out with former St. Louis Rams safeties Corey Chavous (left) and Aeneas Williams at a high school in St. Charles, Mo. (Sid Hastings/Special To The Washington Times)
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ST. CHARLES, Mo. — Oshiomogho Atogwe knows exactly where to find the story of Abraham in whatever version of the Bible he chooses for his hourlong reading sessions each day.

It could be one of the seven editions located throughout his four-bedroom house in this St. Louis suburb on the west bank of the Missouri River, or it could be one of the many versions in the Bible application downloaded to his smartphone. The account that begins in the 12th chapter of the Book of Genesis is special to him.

The Lord had said to Abram, "Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing."

Sitting in his kitchen last week, Atogwe cited that story and then proudly recalled another.

His path to the Washington Redskins' defensive backfield actually began in 1974, seven years before he was born. That's when his father, Aigbomoidi, left his home and family in the Nigerian village of Ayogwiri to chase prosperity in Windsor, Ontario.

That sacrifice has shaped Atogwe's personality, character and work ethic, all of which weighed heavily on the Redskins' decision to sign him to a five-year, $26 million free agent contract in March.

"I come from a very strong people, a proud people," Atogwe said. "I'm where I am because of my father and his father before him and my mother's father.

"Whenever I go home, I get a great understanding of the character of people I come from, the strength, the quality, integrity, hard-working, faithful. So it's not a surprise when I look back on what I've accomplished."

"Go from your country"

A Nigerian farmer, as Aigbomoidi explains it, is not like an American one. Peasant is a comparable term Westerners would better understand.

"You have a small piece of land that you work every year, and by the time the year is gone, you have enough to feed the family but not much left to go to school or do whatever," he said. "It's a tough life."

That Aigbomoidi descended from a line of farmers limited his opportunities in Nigeria, especially as the oldest of nine brothers and sisters. College was beyond their means, and the family was not politically connected.

It's customary in Africa, though, for the oldest child to help support the rest of the family. Aigbomoidi always was much smarter than required to work the family's plot, so they managed to send him out of the village to trade school. He garnered the key to the American — or, rather, the Canadian — dream there by becoming an auto mechanic.

When he was 25, Aigbomoidi set off for Windsor, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Babianna. Relocating to Canada was easier than getting into the United States, and he had a friend who already had immigrated there. He lodged at his friend's apartment while settling in to a new world.

"We were young," said Aigbomoidi, now 62, "and I wanted a better life."

He spent almost two years scraping by on two Canadian dollars per hour, first at two canning factories and then a muffler shop. It took that long to save enough money for Babianna and their infant daughter, Olereh, to travel to Canada.

Aigbomoidi's fortunes continued their upswing that year when he finally landed the job he coveted at Ford Motor Company. He earned 12 Canadian dollars per hour working in the cylinder block foundry, grinding through 12-hour shifts seven days a week to maximize his income.

"If the opportunity to work was available, I took it," he said. "Not only did I have to take care of my family here, I had to take care of my brothers back home. Eventually my children would grow up, and I had to work harder because I didn't want them to go through what I went through."

The fairy tale ending, however, remained a dream. Aigbomoidi was laid off in 1979. Needing some way to provide for three kids and pay his mortgage, he left the family again, this time to find work in Toronto. For almost three years, he worked as a tractor mechanic during the day and a security guard at night and sent his wages back to Windsor.

While he was away, his wife gave birth to their fourth child.

"I will make your name great"

Aigbomoidi and Babianna's second son wants you to know his name is Oshiomogho Isaac Atogwe. Oshiomogho means "God owns the day."

"O.J." is just a nickname given to him when he was 8 by a youth football coach who could not pronounce o-SHIM-uh-go.

"As we converse and become more familiar, you can call me O.J.," he said. "It's not an insult. But it's just important for me to know that you know who I am, what my name is and what my name means so you identify with me as a person."

To know who Oshiomogho is, exactly, is to know his parents' sacrifice and their values. During his childhood, there were constant reminders of both.

The house telephone frequently rang before sunrise, a call from one of more than 100 relatives back in Nigeria. There were no cousins or grandparents to visit on vacation. They were an ocean away.

Education was paramount. Aigbomoidi would scrutinize the comments on his children's report cards, emphasizing those more than the actual grades.

"He not only wanted us to be great students, but he wanted us to be great people," said Imokhai Atogwe, Oshiomogho's older brother. "He wanted to raise kids that were going to be respectful to their elders."

Even as recently as last week, Aigbomoidi's voice oozed pride as he recalled how one of Oshiomogho's bosses once positively reviewed his work as a busboy.

"He was very, very hard-working," Aigbomoidi said. "Everywhere he worked, he always had a good recommendation. In school he was always very serious. In sports, everything he did, he was determined."

Those who knew Oshiomogho best knew why.

"He did everything never to embarrass his family name," said Harry Lumley, his football coach at W.F. Herman Secondary School in Windsor. "His family name was extremely important to him."

"You will be a blessing"

Oshiomogho loved to watch two television programs when he was young: NFL games and "The Cosby Show."

"Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a doctor because of Cliff Huxtable," he said with a laugh, referring to the latter's main character. "I wanted to be Cliff Huxtable."

He enjoyed math and science but truly loved sports. He starred in track, basketball and soccer, but football was his specialty. When he was 8 — too young to play Minor football, as it's called in Canada — he followed Imokhai to practice and watched from behind a tree. He eventually convinced coaches to let him play and rewarded their faith by hauling down ballcarriers twice his weight.

It helped that Aigbomoidi loved football, too. After Ford rehired him following Oshiomogho's birth, he would spend Sunday afternoons between shifts watching NFL games. Even today, Oshiomogho's relatives in Nigeria don't fully grasp his profession, but he can remember his dad jumping up and down after one of Joe Montana's passes or one of Walter Payton's sweet runs.

Oshiomogho's talent on the field was unmistakable. In consecutive years he won the Royal Arcanum Award, which recognizes Windsor's best athlete. A football scholarship to Stanford followed.

He redshirted his first year, a necessary hiatus while he learned the rules of the American game. At Herman, the field was 65 yards wide instead of 53. Each team played with 12 boys instead of 11. "It might sound stupid now," he said, "but for the longest time I didn't know there was a difference between the 'Z' receiver and the 'X' receiver."

Oshiomogho went on to start three seasons at safety for the Cardinal, become a team captain and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. Ask him about his college football experience, though, and his on-field accomplishments might just be an afterthought.

During his freshman year, Oshiomogho was magnetized to a group of teammates who practiced Christianity. They didn't swear. They helped others. They behaved appropriately. They generally were good men. He and his family always believed in God, but he began to crave something deeper.

He sought out former NFL quarterback Steve Stenstrom, who headed Kingdom First Ministries on Stanford's campus. Through their weekly meetings, his faith strengthened.

"It gives me a greater purpose beyond just playing football," Oshiomogho said. "It was the most important decision I made in my life. I'm thankful that I'm able to walk with Jesus on a daily basis and really strive to be a better person, be who he made me to be, do the things he called me to do, so others will come to know him in a live-saving way."

Imagine, then, how his parents felt on graduation day in 2005. Not only had he matured spiritually, but he also completed his degree in biological sciences. He was just a medical school degree and a Cosby sweater away from being Cliff Huxtable.

"To tell you the truth, I was more impressed with him graduating from Stanford from anything else," Aigbomoidi said. "I told him, 'This means a lot.'"

"I will bless you"

A relentless sun is broiling the three men on the football field at Francis Howell North High in St. Charles. Oshiomogho Atogwe's gray Reebok T-shirt has turned black, soaked with sweat in the 105-degree heat index on this July afternoon.

He is here preparing for his Redskins debut under the guidance of three-time All-Pro cornerback Aeneas Williams and former St. Louis Rams teammate Corey Chavous. Sweat explodes off his head as he turns and sprints down the field.

Williams calls out to Atogwe and reiterates the finer points of opening one's hips in pass coverage. "Does that make any sense, Oshiomogho?" Williams asks.

"Yes, sir," he responds.

Williams has tutored Atogwe since the 2009 offseason before Atogwe's fifth year with the Rams.

"He has an attitude to always want to get better, to just listen to what's being said and the ability to work hard," Williams said. "Those are characteristics that I've found eventually catapult a player to greatness."

Williams missed playing with Atogwe in St. Louis by one season, but Atogwe's former teammates also hold him in high esteem.

"He just has a presence about him," said Redskins defensive end Adam Carriker, who teamed with Atogwe in St. Louis from 2007-09. "It's like he knows what he's doing and you just want to follow him."

Back at home, surrounded by moving boxes strewn across his living room, Atogwe contemplates the next chapter of what already has been a busy year.

After changing teams, he married Jill Singletary, daughter of Hall of Fame linebacker Mike, in May. He'll rent a living space near Redskins Park this season while she finishes her undergraduate fashion degree at Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

His new contract allows him to continue the African tradition of sending money back to Nigeria. He and Jill, along with other family members in the West, are planning to return to the village of Ayogwiri next March.

"It's an inner motivation that I'm proud of and I'm delighted to do because [my parents] sacrificed so much for me," Atogwe said. "If I could ever repay you back, let me do it by the way I live, the way I conduct myself and continue with my own life."

Up in Windsor, Aigbomoidi is enjoying his second year of retirement, his odyssey complete. Babianna continues her job as a hospital housekeeper, but that won't keep them from watching their son play for his new team.

Their son whose middle name is Isaac, the first name given to the second son of Abraham.

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