CINCINNATI — Opportunity intersected with irony Sunday in Tampa when an harm to Bengals beginning defensive finish Trey Hendrickson created an opportunity for Joseph Ossai. The second-year defensive finish performed essentially the most significant snaps of his profession on the identical discipline the place his NFL dream imploded on the launch pad 16 months in the past.
On the primary sequence within the first preseason sport of his profession, Ossai sacked Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, who was enjoying his first sport since profitable a seventh Super Bowl ring a number of months earlier. It was a heady second for the rookie third-round choose, and he solely continued to flash with promise the remainder of the sport.
But Ossai walked out of Raymond James Stadium later that evening with an injured wrist and, unbeknownst to him, a totally torn meniscus that will value him his whole rookie season.
And for the second time in his younger life, a second as soon as crackling with hope spiraled into torment and tears. The ensuing weeks had been troublesome, and so they bled into months. Instead of immersing himself within the burgeoning brotherhood of the locker room, Ossai felt like an outsider. And he stiff-armed those that needed to assist him most, his household again residence in Conroe, Texas, denying their repeated requests to go to.
“I just wasn’t myself,” he stated. “I’m not saying I let myself go, but I gained a little bit of weight. I wasn’t playing football for the first time in a long time. I was a bit too sad. I didn’t want them to see me like that. I didn’t want them to worry and waste their time feeling sorry for me.”
All the insecurities he had felt as a bullied 10-year-old immigrant from Nigeria got here dashing again.
But soccer had saved him as soon as, and he knew it may once more.
Ossai remembers he was 10 years previous when his mom, Emmanuela, walked into the lounge of their residence in Ketu Ijanikin, Lagos, Nigeria, and informed him and his three siblings to start out thanking God. And for the subsequent 90 minutes, the household prayed and sang worship songs, however questions had been racing by way of Joseph’s head your entire time.
Did we win a bunch of cash? Did we get a brand new automotive? What’s happening?
The household hadn’t gained a bunch of cash, however it had hit the inexperienced card lottery. Its official title is the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, which was created by the Immigration Act of 1990 and every year makes 55,000 immigrant visas obtainable from amongst thousands and thousands of candidates. According to authorities figures, the Ossais had been picked from a pool of 9.7 million hopefuls in 2010.
“It was an exciting moment that we knew could change our lives,” Emmanuela stated.
“We didn’t know exactly what to expect,” Joseph stated. “But we had seen ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Home Alone,’ so we had a rough idea of what America was. We were thrilled.”
Leaving Nigeria by no means felt like a dire want. The Ossais had been completely happy and owned their land, though Joseph’s father, Vitus, was working overseas within the United Kingdom and sending cash residence. There had been challenges. The electrical energy was spotty and will exit for hours, even days at a time. The Ossais had been among the many lucky ones to personal a generator. Before they did, Joseph remembers doing homework by the flame of a gasoline lamp.
“We weren’t wealthy, but we were doing OK,” he stated. “We had our land. If you have your land and can live on it and build on it, you’re fine. While we were living there, we weren’t like, ‘This is a horrible situation.’ It was just the norm. Everybody learns ways to adapt.
“But looking back now, yeah, that was a sh–ty situation to be in. You wish it could be better for the people still there.”
It wasn’t till the household residence was burglarized that Emmanuela utilized for the visa program, which explains the extended interval of rejoicing within the household’s front room when the information arrived.
“It was God’s will,” she stated.
They understood their new alternative can be saddled with challenges: discovering jobs, discovering housing, saving cash, constructing credit score and acclimating socially, to not point out coping with the guilt of abandoning their tradition.
The household of six lived in a Motel 6 till a relative provided to co-sign for them so they might transfer right into a one-bedroom residence. All of it was anticipated and accepted.
But the one factor Joseph by no means counted on being a difficulty was the language. He had spoken English his whole life. Nearly everybody in Nigeria did.
“The biggest transition of all was our accents,” Joseph stated. “They were very thick. People couldn’t understand us. And in school, kids are mean. Anything they don’t understand, they’ll make fun of it. So we got made fun of a lot.”
The Ossais settled in Texas as a result of that they had household there who may assist them get on their ft. But it was onerous on Joseph, who would come residence from faculty crying most days.
He and his siblings, older sister Peace and youthful brothers Philip and Okay.C. — one other brother, Emmanuel, was born a yr after they arrived — labored onerous to imitate the speech of their classmates and academics to attempt to assimilate.
But they might slip again into their previous diction round the home after faculty and on the weekends. The bullying continued, together with the battle to grasp and talk with their academics, inflicting them to fall behind of their research.
So Emmanuela got here up with a plan.
“She made up a game where if while you’re home you continue to talk with an American accent and go through the whole day without breaking, you would get candy,” Joseph stated. “We loved candy. Our dad has a huge sweet tooth, and we get that from him. Mine was Snickers. Man, I loved Snickers.”
The second love Ossai present in America? Football.
Having identified solely soccer and rugby rising up, he was drawn to the sport his uncle was watching on tv throughout a household gathering across the holidays. The Steelers had been on, and Joseph watched the gang explode after Antonio Brown caught a protracted landing go.
He knew immediately that’s what he needed to do — be part of a soccer crew and play vast receiver.
But enjoying youth soccer required cash they didn’t have, and the game wasn’t provided in elementary faculty. He was informed he must wait till seventh grade, however till then he may participate within the pickup video games the scholars performed at recess.
That’s when he realized the second drawback along with his plan.
“I was horrible,” Joseph stated. “I could go play defense all day, but when it comes to playing offense and passing the ball and being coordinated, you need some kind of training.”
By the time he bought to seventh grade, he figured a number of years on the playground had been sufficient of a proving floor and tried out to play receiver.
“I looked the part — big, tall, strong. But I couldn’t catch the ball to save my life,” Joseph stated. “Couldn’t remember routes. Couldn’t remember any concepts. I made the A team because of my size, but I wasn’t getting any playing time.”
He spent numerous time sitting on his helmet simply watching follow till sooner or later one of many crew’s defensive linemen didn’t present up and the coach requested if anybody needed to leap in and play. Joseph threw on his helmet and stated he’d do it — despite the fact that he didn’t know what “it” was.
“What do I do?” he requested the coach.
The coach informed him to place his hand on the bottom, anticipate the whistle to blow, beat the man in entrance of him and get to the place the quarterback was.
Tweet. Juke. Sack. Roars.
“I used to be like, ‘This is pretty dope.’” Joseph recalled.
The coach put a tackle and guard in front of him. Same thing, except instead of cheers there were “ooohs.”
The offensive linemen were pissed and staring him down. The kid everyone bullied was getting his revenge at their expense. The coach shifted a running back in the formation for reinforcement and blew the whistle. Joseph beat all three, sacked the quarterback, jumped to his feet and screamed as his teammates celebrated with him.
“Remind me to put you there tomorrow,” his coach told him.
“That was it. That’s how I began enjoying protection,” he stated. “From that practice on, my teammates started talking to me, and I started getting noticed in classes. People were inviting me over to sit with them and stuff like that. So that was pretty cool, too. Football not only helped me stop being bullied, it helped a socially awkward kid who didn’t dress the best start making friends.”
Joseph gave receiver one other attempt his freshman yr. It went about how you’ll count on. He by no means performed. Sophomore yr, the household moved, and a Texas rule prohibits gamers from transferring throughout the similar district, so he needed to sit out the season.
By junior yr, he was again on protection and dominating. His first scholarship provide got here, satirically sufficient, from the University of Cincinnati. It wasn’t lengthy earlier than they had been arriving from in every single place.
Emmanuela hated the concept of her son enjoying soccer, however the scholarship letters modified her thoughts. Instead of staying residence and praying by way of Joseph’s video games, she began attending a number of.
“After my first game, he was very angry with me,” she stated. “He told me I had been cheering for the wrong team. I didn’t know what I was watching.”
Ossai enrolled on the University of Texas and performed in all 14 video games with two begins as a real freshman. By his junior season, he was a consensus All-American and semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, offered to the most effective defensive participant within the nation.
His brothers have adopted his path. Philip is a defensive lineman who lately completed his junior season at North Alabama, whereas Okay.C. is a sophomore linebacker at Louisiana and can face Houston within the Independence Bowl on Friday.
Joseph left Texas after his All-American junior season. The Bengals chosen him with the fifth choose within the third spherical of the 2021 draft, and he had been having a powerful coaching camp main into that preseason opener in Tampa when he bought damage.
“Mom’s worst nightmare,” he stated. “I remember calling her on the phone. She’s a huge believer in everything happens for a reason. She kept telling me, ‘You’re gonna be OK, everything’s gonna be fine.’ But she was scared, for sure, even though she made sure she was composed while talking to me.”
Ossai was scared, too. And mad, depressed and alone. The misplaced season wasn’t the one factor bothering him. He additionally felt as if he had deserted a chunk of himself by transferring on from his Nigerian tradition and his second, tribal language of Igbo.
But he discovered consolation in conversations with a pair of teammates with Nigerian roots, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and offensive lineman Hakeem Adeniji. Awuzie, who was born in America and didn’t go to Nigeria till he was 15, has implored Ossai to return and go to his roots.
Chidobe Awuzie arrives for Bengals wearing his mission across his chest
“I feel like I became a man when I went back,” Awuzie stated. “I learned a lot about my history, my family’s history. Seeing the house my grandad built, the graves of my grandparents, meeting cousins I never met before. How they experience each other. No one was on their phones. We were sitting in a circle, present, enjoying each other.
“I think it’s important — not just for Nigerians because we all come from different places and different cultures — to present ourselves as that person because it allows all to learn from one another. We all have our own story. We all have our own experiences. And when we’re each being ourselves, it’s going to bring a different understanding to who your teammate is.”
Through these conversations with Awuzie and his development in rehab, Ossai labored by way of the frustration of lacking his rookie season. He stayed engaged by attending all of the conferences and being current within the locker room throughout breaks, when a lot camaraderie is shaped.
The playoff run to the Super Bowl was each thrilling and gutting, understanding he couldn’t play a component.
“I used to tell him as he was walking out of the meetings or walking into the meetings, I would say, ‘You’re missing all the fun,’” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo stated. “We had that little thing going through the Super Bowl last year. We made sure he was around the building, especially as a rookie. It’s important those guys don’t feel left out.”
Ossai has felt ignored earlier than and by no means needs to undergo it once more. And he doesn’t need anybody else to, both.
He spent a part of his harm downtime formulating an concept for a basis that may assist immigrant youngsters higher assimilate with the hope they keep away from the kind of bullying he needed to endure. It’s nonetheless within the growth stage, however Ossai is planning to crew up along with his highschool good friend Jonathan Daviss, who additionally bought previous being bullied and achieved success as an actor, starring as Pope within the sequence “Outer Banks.”
“We have a similar story, and we want to go back to Conroe and let people know you don’t have to be Mr. Popular in high school or middle school to determine that you’re gonna be successful,” Joseph stated.
Awuzie, who spoke about Ossai only a few weeks earlier than struggling his personal season-ending harm, was keen to specific his delight and admiration for his good friend and teammate.
“I think it’s really great that Nnamdi is telling his story,” Awuzie stated, calling Joseph by his Nigerian center title. “I’m really proud of how far he’s come along. On the football field and outside of the game, he’s going to have a big impact.”
Going again to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday was by no means on par with a possible return to Nigeria, however there was a component of nostalgia stepping on the sphere the place his rookie goals had been destroyed. And Ossai fought again these feelings with every part he had.
“I didn’t want to think about that,” he stated. “If you think about getting injured, it’s like you’re driving and you think about don’t hit the curb, don’t hit the curb, and then you smack the curb. I tried not to think about the injury and just take away that emotional part of it. All I could think about was there were guys who were depending on me to do my job.”
With Hendrickson out with a wrist harm, the dependence on Ossai soared. And he responded with two of the largest performs of the sport — a tipped go and hit in opposition to Brady that resulted in Germaine Pratt’s interception, and the restoration of a Brady fumble following a Logan Wilson sack.
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Most of the motion Ossai noticed previous to the beginning of December was late in video games when the Bengals had been forward by lots (Jets, Panthers) or hopelessly out of it (Browns). His stat line by way of the primary 12 video games consisted of simply 9 tackles and one quarterback hit.
Since then, he’s recorded the largest play of his profession, the third-down sack of Patrick Mahomes within the AFC Championship Game rematch in opposition to the Chiefs, and the primary go protection and first fumble restoration of his profession.
Hendrickson is anticipated to return to the lineup Saturday at New England, however the Bengals shall be with out their different beginning defensive finish, Sam Hubbard, who left the Tampa Bay sport with a calf harm.
It’s one other alternative for Ossai, and he’s responding to it the identical manner he did 12 years in the past when he was given an opportunity to return to America.
“We thank God. That’s all I can say,” he stated. “It’s been an uphill battle, for sure. We have to go to New England and attack them. And then the game after that, the Bills. And then keep going. Hopefully, we can make the same run and I can get to experience what I missed last year.”
(Top picture: Justin Okay. Aller / Getty Images)