College Sports

Charlotte 49ers’ Larry Ogunjobi tries to live up to his Nigerian name

Charlotte 49er Larry Ogunjobi (65), shown during spring football practice in 2015, has developed into an NFL prospect.
Charlotte 49er Larry Ogunjobi (65), shown during spring football practice in 2015, has developed into an NFL prospect. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Yorubas of southwest Nigeria compose one of Africa’s largest ethnic groups south of the Sahara Desert. Their children shape their world view.

A well-brought-up child internalizes the Yoruba way, beginning with a naming ceremony, on the eighth day after a child is born.

Mercy and Larry Ogunjobi Sr. weren’t afforded such an opportunity.

A year after following her husband from Nigeria to the United States, Mercy found herself in a Livingston, N.J., hospital, giving birth to the couple’s first child.

A name hadn’t crossed their minds.

The first moments with their newborn boy were interrupted when a nurse requested a name for the birth certificate. In a panic, Larry Sr. rattled off ideas.

Every Nigerian name carries meaning, a significance that follows throughout one’s life and potentially one’s children’s, as well. Mercy and Larry Sr. refused to settle.

Soon, they arrived at one: Olumide. Translation: Our savior has come.

Now, you know Olumide Ogunjobi as Larry Ogunjobi, a 6-foot-3, 297-pound stalwart defensive tackle for the Charlotte football team who could become the first player in program history selected in the NFL draft in April.

He cherishes his given name. And he’s always aspired to live up to it.

“It just reminds me that you never forget who you are,” Ogunjobi says, “Where you’ve come from and the people who have put their faith, their trust and their hope into you.”

Finding a path

Ogunjobi was big as a child, bigger than most. By the time her son reached high school, Mercy was worried.

Eating and playing video games all day, Ogunjobi gained weight rapidly, peaking at roughly 350 pounds before his sophomore year.

“You’re killing yourself,” he remembers his parents saying. “You’ve got stop this.”

A stint at a local gym was short-lived after Ogunjobi didn’t receive the training his parents paid for. Then came Robert Mitchell, an angel in disguise.

A fitness coach running a summer program, Mitchell offered to help Ogunjobi lose weight. And he did, dropping 30 pounds. On a Friday afternoon just before school started, Mitchell drove him to Ragsdale High in Jamestown.

“You’re going to play football,” Mitchell told him.

Ogunjobi refused, but the next day he found himself running sprints across a field he swore he’d never step foot on. Parents placed bets on if the 300-plus pound sophomore would return the next day.

He did. The day after that, too. He rolled his ankle in his first game, but he pressed on.

Then came the season-ending football banquet. Ogunjobi, who couldn’t line up in a football stance a few months before, received the junior varsity team’s most improved player award.

The crowd chanted his name. And as he stood in shock, Ogunjobi saw an avenue that could help him live up to his name.

‘Something you’d expect’

A first-generation American competing in his first organized sport as a freshman wrestler at Ragsdale, Ogunjobi didn’t understand the importance of hard work and attending practice daily. His coach dubbed him “Lazy Larry,” a nickname he despised.

After earning his first football award, he’d never be called lazy again.

Football workouts at 7 a.m. were just the start. Then came the neighborhood jogs and post-practice trips to the YMCA. No longer on the wrestling team, Ogunjobi joined his former teammates for their workouts, too.

“It simply became something you’d expect of Larry,” says Ragsdale football coach Tommy Norwood.

Ogunjobi earned first-team all-conference honors as a junior and senior, drawing the interest of Howard, Furman and Presbyterian. Charlotte, a program still in its infancy, was the right fit.

The 49ers offered something others couldn’t – a chance for Ogunjobi to forever inscribe his name in the program’s history.

Claiming his name

Ogunjobi visits defensive line coach Aaron Curry’s office at least once per day.

Just a few days ago, they sat together and talked about Thanksgiving and families and mental toughness. And the NFL. Curry, a first-round pick out of Wake Forest in 2009, initiates the conversations about Ogunjobi’s future. He wants him to be prepared.

But right now, other things command his attention, like leading Charlotte to its first bowl and continuing to work toward his computer science and biology degrees.

Yes, the 49ers’ career leader in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks excels in the classroom, too. If not for his NFL prospects, he’d be applying for medical school.

The first day he met Ogunjobi, Curry watched him run stadium stairs alone and thought, “This kid is going to do a really good job of outworking a lot of people.”

Curry hasn’t been wrong. One of 19 fifth-year seniors who helped compose Charlotte’s first recruiting class and will be honored Saturday on senior day, Ogunjobi has set the standard within the 49ers’ locker room.

“It’s amazing what God will do and the places he’ll put players, the places he’ll put people,” Curry says, “And how he’ll name us and put us in positions to claim our name.”

It’s what Ogunjobi thinks about every day.

“You can have a name that can say you’re XYZ, but if you don’t ever do anything with your name, it’s just a name,” he says. “I feel like your name is what you make of it. Hopefully I’m on the right track of trying to make my name special.”

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