UCLA Sports

Unlikely journey leads Sunny Odogwu to UCLA’s offensive line

WESTWOOD, CALIFORNIA AUGUST 2, 2017-UCLA’s Sunny Odogwu practices with the team at the Bruins facili
UCLA football’s Sunny Odogwu practices with the team at the Bruins’ facility on Aug. 2.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Like many boys, Sunny Odogwu got a flat top growing up. His came as the result of steadying massive bowls of water atop his head during walks from his small Nigerian village to the nearest stream.

He’s not exactly sure how far it was, but compared the distance to traveling from Westwood to Culver City, which is several miles.

The bowls were so heavy that they compressed the top of his head, and he lost sensitivity.

“I can actually pull hair off here,” Odogwu said, yanking out a few strands, “and not feel it.”

Odogwu was selling the water one day when a man approached and asked if he played basketball. No, Odogwu told him, he played soccer. The man wouldn’t relent, buying the teenager his first pair of basketball shoes and shorts. He showed him how to play the game and helped him attend a basketball camp for prospects, the best of whom could go on to the United States.

“From there,” Odogwu said, “everything just took place.”

It was the start of a journey so unlikely that Odogwu likened it to “a waterfall that is going uphill.” He joined UCLA’s football team this summer as a graduate transfer after shuffling through three sports and six schools. And he could be the starting right tackle on an offensive line in need of size and spunk after being pushed around for most of last season.

Odogwu, who is 6 feet 7 and 315 pounds, provides both. He once told reporters covering the Miami (Fla.) football team that he didn’t speak English, before breaking into a wide smile. He cracked up UCLA coach Jim Mora by asking him to play “Cotton-Eyed Joe” during a team meeting because it was the first song he heard after arriving in America.

Each time Odogwu speaks, he punctuates his words with a laugh or a smile, sometimes both. He said he earned his given name as an “oops baby” — the last of eight siblings — who brought sunshine to the family.

“Just his attitude, his personality is infectious,” Mora said. “The guys love him and I think he’s really going to help us this year.”

Odogwu used to run up a 70-foot man-made hill in South Florida while training for the Hurricanes during his first four years of college. The payoff was a view of surrounding ritzy neighborhoods that couldn’t have been any more different than the village of Ezeagu where he grew up.

There was no electricity or running water back home, where Odogwu lived in a hut made of straw and cinder blocks. He slept on a flimsy mat to prevent bugs and other creatures from biting him, pulling a mesh fabric over his body to keep away the mosquitoes. His departure for the United States at 16 was bittersweet, Odogwu leaving behind a family grieving the death of his father in hopes of a better life for himself and those he loved.

UCLA football's Sunny Odogwu practices with the team at the Bruins' facility on Aug 2.
UCLA football's Sunny Odogwu practices with the team at the Bruins' facility on Aug 2. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Just his attitude, his personality is infectious. The guys love him and I think he’s really going to help us this year.

— UCLA Coach Jim Mora

He enrolled at Village Christian Academy in Conyers, Ga., because of a connection with the school’s basketball coach who had seen him play on a recruiting trip to Africa. It was the first time Odogwu had slept on a bed, but it wasn’t exactly a peaceful slumber.

“When I fell asleep, I thought I was flying,” Odogwu recalled. “I kept waking up thinking I was still in Africa . . . but I wasn’t because I was lying on the beautiful bed.”

Odogwu liked to go into the bathroom and repeatedly turn the faucet on and off, delighting in what he called “magic water.” He left after his sophomore year for basketball power Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, where his coach and host family quickly decided he was better suited for football because of his size and ferociousness.

“He just ran over you,” said Rob Fulford, the Huntington Prep basketball coach who is now an assistant at Akron. “I would have to say the drop-step-and-get-out-of-my-way was his favorite move.”

Everyone agreed it was time to find another sport.

Scott Thomas, whose family housed Odogwu in West Virginia, took him to a high school football game to formally introduce him to the sport. When a fight broke out on the field, Odogwu stood up and prepared to jump the fence and join the fray, Thomas holding him back. Odogwu explained that it was custom in Nigeria for spectators to participate in fights on the field.

Odogwu was equally uninhibited when it came to eating. Thomas would buy three-pound clusters of bananas only to find them gone by the time he completed the 10-minute drive from home to basketball practice. Jars of peanut butter were also endangered species.

“Whatever he could put with it — bread, crackers, it didn’t matter — he would just eat peanut butter all day,” Thomas said.

Odogwu’s switch from basketball to football necessitated another transfer because Huntington Prep didn’t have a football team. So he enrolled at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, where he played offensive tackle and also put his soccer skills to use as a reserve kicker who handled a few extra-point conversions and punts. He was so raw that it was decided a postgraduate season at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., was necessary to enhance his technique before college.

Miami won a recruiting battle that also involved Texas Tech, Mississippi State and West Virginia. Odogwu redshirted his first season before making his debut on special teams and along the offensive line. He scored a touchdown against Duke in November 2015 when he pounced on a fumble in the end zone.

Sunny Odogwu (66) celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the end zone for a Miami Hurricanes touchdown during their game against the Duke Blue Devils on Oct. 31, 2015.
Sunny Odogwu (66) celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the end zone for a Miami Hurricanes touchdown during their game against the Duke Blue Devils on Oct. 31, 2015. (Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

But injuries limited Odogwu to 14 starts in three seasons and have prompted the Bruins to closely manage his practice workload. He sustained a torn knee ligament during Miami’s final regular-season game of 2015 and missed the final eight games of last season after hurting his ankle. He called Thomas’ wife, Lesley, in tears after sustaining the latter injury.

“I said, ‘Sunny, God has a plan for you,’” Lesley recalled, “‘and you just have to trust it.’”

That plan has led Odogwu to Los Angeles for his final season of college eligibility despite a recruiting pitch to play at Marshall from the woman whom he calls his “American momma.”

“We tried to get him back home with us but he was like, ‘Mom, Marshall … UCLA?’” Lesley Thomas said of their conversation while Odogwu was weighing his options. “‘Uh, I think I’m coming to UCLA.’”

Odogwu struggles to articulate his decision, saying only that it involved lots of prayer.

“Leaving was the hardest thing I had to do, but the transition was just something that I could not explain,” Odogwu said. “It came beyond me. I believe it was God’s call for me to come here.”

He’s working toward a master’s degree in social sciences and said he’s also only three classes short of completing a master’s in arts and international administration from Miami. However, Odogwu’s most recent studies have involved the nuances of the UCLA playbook.

Hank Fraley, the Bruins’ offensive line coach, called Odogwu a perfectionist whose size forced the team to “rearrange some stuff” inside a meeting room, but his roommate found him to be a surprisingly picky eater.

Leaving was the hardest thing I had to do, but the transition was just something that I could not explain.

— UCLA football's Sunny Odogwu

“He doesn’t like sweets, which is kind of funny for an offensive lineman,” guard Andre James said. “He doesn’t like to eat bad things.”

Odogwu has consumed enough that the family he left behind almost nine years ago barely recognizes him.

“They’ve seen my picture and they’re like, ‘. . . What are you?’” said Odogwu, who will turn 25 in January. “I’m like, ‘I’m your little brother, the one that left a long time ago.’”

He intends to return, using his degrees to help others just like the mysterious man who discovered him and then disappeared, never to be seen again.

“It’s difficult but it’s not because it’s a journey and I believe God is taking me somewhere,” Odogwu said. “When I get there, I’ll be able to see them whenever I want to, to take care of my mom, which is the most important thing in my life right now, and take care of my siblings and everybody else.”

Twitter: @latbbolch

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