by Christopher Mohr
August 13, 2010 (San Diego) - For every Peyton Manning or Chad Ochocinco in the National Football League, there exist hundreds of players whose opportunities to play professional football come with no guarantees. Not only do these players not get drafted in the early rounds, many do not get drafted at all and have only an outside chance of playing as undrafted free agents.
Chargers defensive tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo (more commonly known as 'O.G.') is one such player. His path to the NFL is not typical of most players who play several years of youth and high school football before moving on to college and up to the pros.
O.G.'s first year of playing organized football came during his junior year at Mt. Miguel High School. It would also be his only year playing at the high school level.
In spite of his limited playing experience, O.G. advanced to higher levels of football quickly. After playing two seasons for Southwestern College, he transferred to Michigan State University. In the span of four years (and only three where he actually played) O.G. went from being a football player with no experience to one playing at a major college program in the Big Ten Conference.
After his college career ended, O.G. signed with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He was later cut by the Giants and went to work as a porter at San Diego International Airport.
Fortunately for O.G., the San Diego Chargers were thin at defensive tackle at the time and signed him to their practice squad in 2008. He made the team's active roster in 2009 and got the opportunity to play after long time nose tackle Jamal Williams suffered a season ending injury. O.G.'s 2009 season was cut short after 12 games with a high ankle sprain that placed him on injured reserve in December.
The 2010 season offers not only the challenge of reahabilitating that injury, but also increased competition for playing time on the defensive line.
I spoke with O.G. for a few minutes after a team practice in late July. Here are some of his thoughts he shared on his experiences playing football:
ECM: What made you decide to go out for football at Mt. Miguel High School? Obviously it was a good decision.
OG: That was my junior year. I had always played basketball and my brother always played football. I kind of just wanted to try it out. I went out there my junior year, tried it out, didn't do so well and so I said, 'Nah, maybe this wasn't for me'.
ECM: So you worked hard and came back strong your senior year?
OG: Well I didn't even play my senior year. I sat out that year because I ended up having to transfer because we moved, so I really didn't start playing until I got to Southwestern Junior College down there in Chula Vista.
ECM: Last year the Matadors had a pretty good playoff run. Did you have a chance to see any of their games?
OG: No, I didn't see any games, but I went down there a couple of times, because one of my old coaches is still there, he's a defensive coordinator. So I went down there, I talked to the team, actually hooked them up with some Nike cleats, but yeah, I go down there every now and then.
ECM: When you played at Michigan State, was the defense there similar to what the Chargers run, or was it totally different?
OG: No, that was totally different. We ran a 4-3 out there at Michigan State; it was more like a zone blitz type of team and the Chargers defense is a 3-4 hybrid. So definitely a totally different scheme, but with football it's all the same; you have to beat the guy in front of you.
ECM: So was it a big adjustment coming to the Chargers? Was it like you had to learn everything all over again?
OG: It wasn't that much of an adjustment, because it's a different scheme, but it's still the same basic principles: good technique, pad level, playing physical and all that. It was the same when I was with the Giants. You have to adjust to the speed of the game, but football is still the same.
ECM: Your season last year was cut short with the ankle injury. Did you have to go through exensive rehab, or was it simply a matter of letting it heal?
OG: It was definitely a lot of rehab; still rehabbing right now; definitely a lot of hard work. You have to work hard to catch up to where you were and then improve on that. Still working at it, it's a work in progress.
ECM: Can you walk us through what a typical day is like at training camp?
OG: Right now, we just have the rookie camp, So that's just one practice a day. You get here around 6:30, 7, you get a workout in. Then we have meetings around 8:00. At 10:30 we have practice, and when you finish practice do any rehab you have to do.
With training camp, it's a whole different story. It's two practices a day, so it's football all day. You get there at 6, you leave at 10, two practices, lifting, meetings, it's football all day.
ECM: Do you expect to play more at nose tackle this season or out on the ends?
OG: I'm not too sure right now. Definitely rotating in at both of them. You have to be prepared to play both in a 3-4. I can't say where I'll be at, but you have to be ready for both.
ECM: In the time you've played in the NFL, who would you say is the best lineman you have lined up against?
OG: That's hard to say, I'd probably give it to Nick Hardwick (Chargers center) really, I go against him a lot in practice. Dielman, the guys we have are Pro Bowlers, can't really see anyone better than that.
ECM: Did the last off-season seem like a long off-season; you had the disappointing loss to the Jets in the playoffs, or does it feel more like it just happened yesterday?
OG: It does seem like awhile, because I got hurt around week 12, actually got hurt before that, but I played my last game week 12. It was a long process for me personally.
ECM: Is the mood in the locker room any different this season? Is there any feeling that the intensity has to be turned up a notch, especially after the playoff loss to the Jets?
OG: The intensity was always there. Guys practiced hard, guys played the game hard. Just because you lose a game, it doesn't mean you didn't do things right before the game.
We prepared hard, guys played hard. I didn't actually play in that game, but the guys practiced hard, it's just doesn't always work out.
Only one team is happy at the end of the year, so you just have to go back to the drawing board, figure out what you can do better and go from there.
ECM: Do you feel that there's a lot more competition on the defensive line with the personnel moves the team made than compared to previous years?
OG: I haven't been here that long, but I can definitely say we have a lot of competition on the defensive line. There are a lot of guys who can contribute, play multiple positions. A lot of guys are out there working hard, so good things are going to happen.
ECM: What are your personal goals this season?
OG: I don't look to far ahead; just take things one day at a time. Got to get better every day, just keep working hard and go from there.
It was refreshing to speak with someone as polite and unassuming as O.G. was, especially when some professional athletes at their best behave like prima donnas, and at their worst, like hardened criminals.
Throughout the interview, O.G. never glorified himself or what he had accomplished; success was all about hard work.
It is unfortunate that O.G. and other athletes like him don't get as much press, because in many ways they fit the classic profile of an athlete better than several elite players do. Since nothing is guaranteed, they have to work harder for everything they accomplish, whether it's making the team, getting playing time or helping the team win a game.