- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Scanning the newspapers for his latest potential replacement isn’t the most intrigue Washington Redskins safety Ifeanyi Ohalete gets. Instead, it’s finding out how the stadium announcer will pronounce his name each week.

For the record, it’s Eee-fay-ani OH-hah-let-TAY. For those around Redskin Park, it’s just “Ifay.” On game day, it could be anything.

“I’ve heard some crazy [tries],” Ohalete said yesterday with a laugh. “Actually in Philadelphia [Sunday], the game announcer said it one of the best I’ve heard it. Our guy [at FedEx Field] is starting to say it better, but it took him two years. I got mad last year because he said it really bad. My mom got mad, my dad got mad. My dad was mad because it’s a family name.

“I’ve spelled it phonetically for them, pronounced it in front of him. Now it’s just a joke. I get it from my teammates. They’re like, ‘Who are they talking about?’”

More and more, though, people are figuring out who Ohalete is. After supplanting David Terrell for the starting job in training camp, Ohalete has made a number of key plays this season, including a team-high two interceptions. He is a significant part of Washington’s ninth-ranked defense heading into Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay.

“He’s been having big plays all year,” fellow safety Matt Bowen said. “I think that’s one of his trademarks. You like to have guys like that on your defense.”

Of course, Ohalete’s three-year tenure in Washington has been anything but secure. Every time he ascends into a position of prominence, it seems, he falls into jeopardy of being replaced.

The most recent candidate to supplant him was Lawyer Milloy, the Pro Bowl safety released by New England just before the season. In last spring’s draft, the Redskins took a hard look at Ohio State’s Mike Doss. And in each of the past two offseasons, a string of veteran free agents have been mentioned as possibilities.

“It’s a funny situation,” Ohalete said. “I just laugh sometimes. I’m like, they have to do what they have to do. I’m not the owner. If they think they have to bring in somebody else, that’s what they have to do. But in the long run, if I can keep playing well, I’ll be all right. They’ll have to realize that I can play.”

Ohalete has bolstered his case this season with a pair of key break-ups against New York Jets receiver Santana Moss, the two interceptions (at Atlanta and against New England) and a huge fourth-down pass defensed to seal the win over the Patriots.

Although he also has made mistakes — notably a costly late-hit penalty that spurred the Jets’ only touchdown drive — he and Bowen, a restricted free agent pickup, have been solid.

“People see how aggressive our safeties are,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “They’re some gamblers out there and ballhawks. They’re going to come and get the ball if you make a mistake. I love it.”

Bowen thinks he and Ohalete share a hungry mentality. While Bowen, a sixth-round pick by St. Louis in 2000, scrapped through four seasons for the Rams and Green Bay Packers before landing a starting job here, Ohalete has turned slight opportunities in Washington into extended chances to prove himself.

Three years ago, Ohalete thought the NFL might give him the limo treatment. He remembers hearing at the start of his senior year at Southern California that he might be a third- or fourth-round pick, and he thought he could work up into the second round.

Then, in the Trojans’ third game, Ohalete suffered what he thought was a bad ankle sprain against Oregon. He played through the pain that day and the next week until making a tackle to open the second half against Stanford. The pain in his foot was crippling.

“I went down like I got shot,” Ohalete recalled.

X-rays, though, were negative. The pain persisted, so bad that Ohalete stopped going to class. But he kept on getting treatment and played the following weekend at Washington. By that point his “whole ankle felt like it was on fire.”

Finally, a new set of X-rays revealed a stress fracture farther down his foot that other X-rays missed. He was sidelined for the rest of the season and for the NFL Combine, and he generated little further interest from NFL teams. In fact, on the first day of the draft (Rounds 1-4), he spent the day on the golf course. On the second day, San Diego and Seattle called him but ended up passing.

Ohalete signed with Washington as a free agent. From the beginning, then-coach Marty Schottenheimer was impressed with his grasp of the game. The rookie challenged for the starting job eventually won by Terrell before playing 16 games on special teams.

“I was fortunate enough to make a couple plays to make the team, barely,” Ohalete said. “It’s all hard work from there, just keep working every day. I’ve still got that free agent mentality.”

In 2002, Ohalete returned an interception 78 yards for a touchdown against New Orleans, and two weeks later he overtook veteran Sam Shade for the starting job. Although he finished the season with 78 tackles and three interceptions, he spent the offseason hearing about other safeties and then opened camp behind Terrell.

At this point, Ohalete seems to have proved enough to secure his NFL future. He will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and Washington might have to put the first-round tender on him because there would be no compensation for the lowest offer (because he was undrafted).

“I’d love to stay here,” Ohalete said. “We’ve got a really good young secondary. … But it’s all what they want. If I have a great year, hopefully they’ll see it and give me some of that money they want to give other people.”

Notes — Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden listed 11 players as injured yesterday. Fullback Mike Alstott (neck) already has been ruled out, cornerback Brian Kelly (pectoral muscle) is doubtful and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson (thigh) is “very questionable.” …

Redskins defensive tackle Brandon Noble underwent reconstructive knee surgery Friday in Charlotte, N.C. Noble now faces six to eight months of rehabilitation. He hopes to return for training camp next summer. …

Champ Bailey’s preliminary independent medical examination in Atlanta revealed nothing more serious in his wrist and shoulder injuries than what was originally diagnosed. …

The NFL moved the Redskins’ Oct. 19 game against the Buffalo Bills to a 4:15 p.m. kickoff.

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