- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

BOISE, Idaho | Nose tackle Bemi Otulaja cradled his new iPod last week in Maryland’s team house. It was one of several goodies handed out to players for Tuesday’s Humanitarian Bowl.

It wouldn’t be long, the senior knew, before he would be in demand again. Soon enough, the defensive lineman (or perhaps his musical alter ego, DJ Lionrock) would put his talents to good use.

Teammates would begin streaming to him, letting him set up their iPods with his usual skill. Sometimes it would happen in the team hotel. In this case, it would be best if it happened before the five-hour flight to Idaho.

Either way, Otulaja was assured some popularity as the Terrapins took their final trip of the year.

“Everybody has their mood music to get pumped up,” Otulaja said. “As long as you go out there and perform, you can get whatever you want.”

Otulaja knows it all too well. His circuitous - but never boring - college career will close at Bronco Stadium on Tuesday. It began at Division I-AA Marist and ended with a season on scholarship with Maryland.

“He does not get discouraged,” said defensive lineman Dean Muhtadi, a fellow former walk-on and Otulaja’s closest friend on the team. “No matter how bad the situation is, he’s always fighting to prove something.”

He has done that more than enough. Otulaja wasn’t invited to camp in 2006 after he decided to transfer to College Park. When Otulaja arrived in late August, Muhtadi (who was only three weeks into his stint with the program) was told to show him around.

So while Otulaja had a fast friend, he also endured harsher introductions to the sport at the major-college level. The rest of the linemen towered over Otulaja, who is generously listed at 6 feet. Then he was shown to his locker: No. 103.

“At first, I didn’t even know there were three-digit numbers,” Otulaja said. “I was like, ‘Doesn’t everything stop at 99?’ I’ve never seen that on a playing field.”

Gradually, he rose on the depth chart, always with an eye on earning one of the Terps’ 85 scholarships. By last spring, he was the starting nose tackle after two arduous seasons in the program.

Still, he was a walk-on. In an attempt more to remind himself of his goal than to make a statement, he scribbled “scholarship athlete?” on the back of one of his workout shirts. Finally, camp broke, and coach Ralph Friedgen called Otulaja into his office for a brief conversation. Maryland’s last scholarship was his - and so was a starting spot.

The season didn’t unfold the way he expected. He started nine games before an ankle injury and a rough game at Virginia Tech led to a lineup change. But he’s fully healed now and rid of the walking boot he so despises as the Terps get ready to play Nevada.

“I’m just letting the coaches know I earned the scholarship and that I’m not getting complacent,” Otulaja said. “Complacency is death.”

Still, Tuesday will be bittersweet for a man who has played football since he was 6. He will train in the spring in hopes of receiving a look at the pro level, but he at least can consider the possibility the end will arrive on a blue field in Boise.

“To see it come down to one day, one night, one game, one play - it’s sad, but it’s poetic,” he said. “You’ve grown up in this sport, and now the sport may depart from you. You may have to leave this sport. Now what are you going to do?

“I know football has prepared me for so many of the challenges out there, but it’s sad.”

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