The first time Charlotte 49ers defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi stepped onto a football field, some fans in the metal high school bleachers laughed at him. And the second time. And the third.
He was halfway through his teens and morbidly obese. He could not run properly because of his size – instead, his parents say, he moved with a heavy, shuffling gallop. His uniform barely stretched to fit.
The high school parents and kids began to snicker as they watched him take the field.
His father, Larry Sr., was mortified. What a painful thing, to hear the laughter directed at his son.
But during that third game, a man walked up to Larry Sr. and said to him, “Mr. Ogunjobi, let me tell you something. When I see talent, I know it. When he loses all that weight, and converts that weight to muscle, he will be a force to be reckoned with.”
Eight years later, Ogunjobi rode down the escalator at the Indianapolis airport, toward a sign that said “2017 NFL Scouting Combine.”
When he saw the sign, the weight of what lies before him all finally felt real.
Ogunjobi, a first-generation American who didn’t begin playing football until he got to high school, is about to become the first from his college to be drafted into the NFL.
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I’m going to be first. I’m going to build a legacy.”
Charlotte 49ers defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi
The bright lights above Ogunjobi as he spoke to a cluster of reporters at the combine in March glinted off the gold cross he wears around his neck, peeking out from under a gray, NFL-issued hoodie.
If we’re talking “firsts,” Ogunjobi was also the first in his family of four to read his Bible cover to cover. He was 16 when he got it, and he was 16 when he finished it.
“That was my sophomore year,” he said. “I’ve read my bible front to back seven times (since then).”
He needed the words. At the time, he said he was struggling to fit in at high school. He stuck out because of his size – at his peak unhealthiness, he weighed 350 pounds – and it pulled him into a cycle of introversion, accentuated by video games and strawberry Pop-Tarts.
“Always strawberry,” his 13-year-old sister, Faith, quipped. She sat next to her mother, Mercy, on a squishy, cream-colored couch at the family’s home in Greensboro, with her husband, Larry Sr., nearby. Every so often, Mercy reached out to scratch Faith’s head or lovingly twist one of her braids.
She and her husband are both nurses, and both from Nigeria. That is where they started dating before Larry Sr. moved to America to work while Mercy finished college in Nigeria.
Every month, Larry Sr. bought a pack of 30 postcards and every morning, he would write a little note to Mercy on one of them and drop it in the mailbox as he drove to work. That was more than two decades ago. She still has them all. When she admitted this, Larry Sr. grinned so widely his eyes almost disappeared.
“My friends called them ‘Larry Cards,’” Mercy blushed.
“I felt that if I wasn’t there, I at least had to make up for the time,” Larry Sr. blushed right back. “Sometimes she would get two every day.”
When video games came around, that was all he wanted to do.
Mercy Ogunjobi, on her son Larry’s unhealthy obsession as a teen
That type of love – warm and comfortable – exudes from the Ogunjobis. A feeling of togetherness pours from every inch of their two-story home. A basketball hoop stands tall over a tipped-over, just-ridden kid’s bicycle in the driveway, next to an embattled minivan with a fading “Ragsdale Varsity” sticker on the rear window.
Just inside the door, Ogunjobi’s dog, Junior, wags so hard his small body keeps turning in circles and his white-tipped paws become a blur. Moving further into the house brings more comfort – like the chairs and couches arranged in a half-rectangle in the living room.
That’s where Ogunjobi would sit, eat and play video games.
“When video games came around, that was all he wanted to do,” Mercy said.
Ogunjobi became so unhealthy that his parents would hear him struggling with apnea-like symptoms. Sometimes he would wheeze and then stop breathing while he slept.
They had his tonsils removed, which helped clear his airways, but an immediate and crucial change had to be made in Ogunjobi’s life.
They tried different gyms and paid for trainers for Ogunjobi, then 15, but soon found out that the trainers were essentially babysitting him and not working him out – and taking the Ogunjobis’ money all the same.
Larry Sr. was furious, and then frustrated and upset. He took Faith and Ogunjobi to the park down the road from their house, and sat on a bench and stewed while they played.
“As soon as I got there, there was a man (whose son was also at the park) who sat down beside me. It’s like he knew something was wrong,” said Larry Sr. “He said, ‘You look so upset.’”
Larry Sr. found himself pouring his son’s story out while the kids played.
The man said he was a coach and trainer, and offered to help get Ogunjobi into shape. Two weeks after they began, he called Larry Sr. again.
“Mr. Ogunjobi,” he said, “if you don’t mind me taking Larry to the school, they are having a football tryout there.”
“I don’t mind,” said Larry Sr. “As long as he loses the weight!”
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At first, Ogunjobi couldn’t even get into a three-point stance. Mercy said he’d come home crying every day, asking her why she was making him go to practice.
“I don’t know anything about football,” he would implore.
“You’ll learn,” she always responded.
Mercy and Larry Sr. did everything they could to encourage him. They took him to the store to buy all the gear and food he’d need.
Mercy switched from full time to part time so she could schedule shifts around Ogunjobi’s games. Faith never missed a game, pacing the bleachers because she was unable to sit still once Ogunjobi stepped onto the field.
They saw a change not just in their son’s body, but in his mind, too. Finally, he belonged to something.
“He had more friends after losing the weight,” Mercy said.
At the team’s end-of-year banquet, Ogunjobi won the award for “Most Improved Player,” and his teammates erupted in cheers.
“It seems like a small award,” Ogunjobi said. “But it was the first time in my life where it felt like I won something I earned.”
It seems like a small award. But it was the first time in my life where it felt like I won something I earned.
Larry Ogunjobi, on winning “Most Improved” award after his first season of high school football
That was the turning point, his father said.
“When he got home that day, he took off his shirt and his suit, and he started running around the neighborhood,” Larry Sr. said.
Ogunjobi started doing pushups before every meal. The same couch he used to sink softly into became the platform on which he’d put his feet, to make his pushups more difficult.
And he did cardio.
“I started off to where I was running half a mile, and then I could bike five miles,” he said. “Then I got to where I could run a whole mile, bike 10 miles. Then I got to the point where I could run 2 whole miles, bike 15 miles. That’s when my body composition started changing … It was a grind.”
His grades got better. He became happier, his parents said.
“We believe that him playing football was a divine intervention, the hand of God,” said Larry Sr. “When you look at the sequence of events, you know it has to be.”
Ogunjobi began to carry his weight differently – powerfully, efficiently – and the scholarship offers began to come.
Ogunjobi and his parents took a few visits, and ultimately settled on Charlotte, even though the program was still about a year from fielding its first full team and the football field was just a patch of grass when they visited. But Ogunjobi’s mind was made up.
“I’m going to be the first,” Ogunjobi told his parents at the time. “I’m going to build a legacy.”
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Now, Ogunjobi has the chance to do that at the sport’s highest level.
After an excellent college career, scouts marvel at the muscles that pack his 6-foot-3, 305-pound frame, and at his speed. At the combine, he ran a 4.9-second 40-yard dash, hard to do at his size.
He enters Wednesday’s pro day at Charlotte as one of national NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock’s favorite defensive tackle prospects.
He’ll run through workouts and unofficial interviews at the 49ers’ athletic facilities in front of dozens of pro scouts, many there just to see him.
Larry Sr. and Mercy will be there too. But more important to his parents than the way he carries his weight is the way he still carries his faith.
We believe that him playing football was a divine intervention, the hand of God. When you look at the sequence of events, you know it has to be.
Larry Ogunjobi Sr., on his son’s football career
“Everything that has happened is by the grace of God,” Mercy said. “In life, the journey is not for the swift. Sometimes it’s not how good you are. God places the talent in you, but sometimes it’s by His grace (that you succeed).”
Even in Indianapolis, under the brightest lights, on the biggest stage, in front of dozens of cameras, Ogunjobi was the son his parents raised in love, and warmth, and their truth.
When he spoke, it showed.
He quoted his favorite bible verse: Matthew 23:12.
“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” he said, smiling widely.
The lights glimmered off his necklace.
“And those who humble themselves will be exalted.”