Roman Oben has never been able to thank Dexter Manley for being an effective if non-traditional role model. And since Manley is incarcerated in a Texas state penitentiary for two years with no parole, Oben won't be able to thank him anytime soon.
About the only thing they have in common is that Manley played football and Oben played football and both have now reached the Super Bowl. You read the entries on Manley's resume, and as irresistible as many of us found him over the years, entry after entry reads, "Trouble." Drug use was followed by suspension, followed by more drug use, more suspension, and ultimately jail. On the other hand, Oben's resume includes earning a master's degree in public administration at Fairleigh Dickinson while playing in the NFL, an internship with Democratic New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell and a stint as a congressional staff assistant for Cleveland-area Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
"You can learn from a guy who doesn't do what he's supposed to do," Oben said here Wednesday of his feelings about Manley. "I wish I could tell him how he influenced my life, what I learned not to do. We took entirely different paths, I guess, him with some real tragic turns and me with an internship with a congressman and earning a master's degree."
My favorite thing about Super Bowl week is the stories that are told and re-told that wouldn't see the light of day otherwise. And nobody on either team here has a story quite like that of Oben, the Cameroon-born, D.C. emigrant, Gonzaga High grad, longtime Redskin fanatic who will start at left tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today in the Super Bowl.
He was a third-round draft pick out of Louisville who was, as he put it, "probably the angriest guy in the 1996 draft" because he wanted to play for the Redskins (the team was looking for linemen) yet he was selected by the New York Giants. He started 72 games there, played two seasons for the Cleveland Browns, and came to Tampa Bay just this season and is a starter despite recovering from a very serious knee surgery. The football part of the story isn't particularly rare, though it is a tale of perseverance and resourcefulness. But Oben's personal journey, from soup to nuts, is riveting.
His mother, Marie Oben, emigrated from Cameroon to Washington when Roman was in first grade, and at the time an only child. "Like most foreigners," he says, "she was searching for a better life. We left poverty people in Northwest or Southwest or Southeast D.C. can only imagine. I grew up with a single mom, went to Ross Elementary School on 17th and R. And I know my work ethic comes from my mom. She was working 40 hours a week at the Cameroon Embassy, and at the same time taking 18 credits a semester toward her masters degree in computer sciences at business management at UDC."
And where was Oben while his mom was in class? In class, sitting in the back, perhaps the youngest student ever to audit graduate courses. Marie went to work at the World Bank, moved up the ladder to the job of information officer, the quintessential up-by-the-bootstraps story. A pastor at Immaculate Conception helped the Obens make connections with several Catholic schools, including DeMatha and Archbishop Carroll. But Gonzaga was close to where the Obens lived, at 12th and M, NW. And why travel all the way to suburban Maryland for Oben to goof off, which is what he did in high school academically?
"I wasn't the greatest student at Gonzaga," he said. "I just didn't work that hard."
Though he did sell hot pretzels at RFK Stadium, the better to see his heroes in burgundy and gold, starting with Manley and Doug Williams. "I'd stand outside the locker room just waiting to see them," he said. "I was probably in the ninth, 10th grade. I made about 40 dollars a game." He was hooked on football and track and field, where he was All-Met in the shot put and discus, but not so much the books. So Oben wound up at Fork Union Military Academy, then the University of Louisville, where his mother's work ethic eventually revealed itself as did his own curiosity about everything from capitalism to politics.
But twice in a conversation Wednesday, Oben was careful to point out that as many interests as he has, "I don't want to be known primarily for what I do in the offseason. I want to be known as a consistent football player in this league. It's not about showing Jim Fassel or Butch Davis (both of whom let him go) that they were wrong," he said. "But 21 out of the 31 left tackles who started for their teams last season were first-round picks. I was a third-round pick." After being released by the Browns and before being signed by the Buccaneers, Oben said he found himself thinking, "There's got to be a team out there that appreciates what I've done in the league, starting 90-plus games at left tackle."
Of course, he'd always dreamed that team would be the Redskins. He can cite just about every tackle the last six years the Redskins brought in over him, several of whom cost higher draft picks or more money in free agency but aren't even in the NFL anymore. He recalled playing Georgetown Prep once, sacking the quarterback three times. And the thrill increased exponentially the next day, "when Dexter had three sacks against, I think, Danny White. I wear No. 72 because of Dexter. I wear the black sleeves with the little white stripes, like Dexter."
But the identification has always stopped at the edge of the football field. Oben is 30 years old now, married to Linda, the father of 19-month old Roman Jr., literate and diverse, aware how personal and professional goals are intertwined. He has played for a 3-13 Cleveland Browns team, left the Giants the season before they reached the Super Bowl, but is charged with the responsibility on Sunday of protecting quarterback Brad Johnson's blind side against the carnivorous Oakland Raiders. He doesn't sleep, his wife thinks he watches too much film. His mind races now with football, but in a month it will be something else, thoughts about the next phase of his life, how a man given so much and so passionate about life should spend his time and channel his passions productively.
"I believe you can put 100 percent," he said, "into everything you do -- I believe you can do it all."