THE north-east’s American football prodigy could soon be playing on the “biggest stage” in the game.
Westhill’s David Ojabo, 18, announced his commitment to the University of Michigan’s football programme, with the defensive lineman set to start at the college in summer next year.
The Wolverines play at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor – the second largest sports venue in the world, with 115,109 fans packing into “the Big House” when they played Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish in 2013.
The games are televised across the world, with the Wolverines also subject of an access-all-areas Amazon Prime documentary series during the 2017 season.
The idea of taking to the field is daunting, but Ojabo will most likely make this next stage in his rapid ascent in typically laid-back fashion.
After just a year of playing American football – seven matches for his New Jersey high school Blair Academy – the former International School of Aberdeen pupil racked up 35 athletic scholarship offers from across the United States and is the 32nd-ranked defensive end in America.
Ojabo said: “It’s crazy, it’s just a blessing. I know some people work their whole lives to get half of what I’ve got.
“If I can step on the field one year and get all this, I’m not going to take it for granted, I’m going to use it to my advantage and keep working.
“I was a basketball player and that was the only reason I went over there.
“If they didn’t suggest it to me I wouldn’t have played it.”
On the potential to find himself at the heart of the Wolverines’ mammoth home venue in a college game in a couple of years, he added: “It would be great to represent Scotland and represent Nigeria (at Michigan Stadium).
“Everything I do, I do it for them. It’s a big stage, time to show up and time to take advantage of that. It’s the biggest stage in America.”
Ojabo moved to the north-east from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, at the age of eight, with dad Victor, mum Ng and his two siblings.
A promising basketball player, he took the decision to finish school and pursue a future in the game across the Atlantic.
However, finding basketball competition fierce at Blair Academy, he took up sprinting.
With an 11 second 100m time, despite his six-foot-six, 105kg frame, he caught the eye of the school’s football coaches.
His decision to agree to try out the sport, which he knew nothing about, has proved to be the right one, and could one day see Ojabo in the professional National Football League (NFL).
After another year at high school to continue to learn the game and work on his “hands and aggression”, Ojabo will head for Michigan – as good a place as any to develop him into a hot property for NFL franchises. And his aim is to be a Wolverines starter by the second year of his three-and-a-half to four-year stay.
Michigan’s head coach is former San Francisco 49ers boss Jim Harbaugh, and Ojabo described defensive line coach Greg Mattinson as a “legend”, who has already given him good advice. But what else drew him to the university, over other options like Texas A&M and the Aggies, Ohio State and the Buckeyes, or Notre Dame?
He said: “It just felt like home when I visited, from the coaches to the city, the players even and the academics too were top of the range.
“We tried to see everything I’d experience if I was to go there. Obviously the players because they’ll be my team-mates, the coaches who’ll be coaching me and the quarters where I’ll be living.
“My mum and dad were there through the whole thing.
“We broke it down into the ones that were good for education and football.
“We needed that perfect balance. I want to study business, and Michigan rank high for that.
“They’re good at football, the business school is top ranked in the country, it was the best of both worlds.”
The Wolverines are number one on college football’s all-time win list and have won 11 national titles. But the future-defining opportunity of a “full ride” at a top institution like Michigan – worth tens of thousands of dollars – isn’t lost on Ojabo.
He said: “It’s life changing. Life after football is very important, if something was to go wrong and you get a career-ending injury, I know I can fall back on my business degree to help me get a job.
“They won’t even let you on the team if your grades aren’t of a certain level. They emphasise education first and if you don’t (adhere to that) you pay the price. You have to miss games and skip practices until you get it right.
“Of course (Harbaugh can help guide him to the professional ranks). It plays a role in it.
“But my sights won’t be set on the NFL. If I get there it’s fantastic, and it’s a dream of mine, but I’m not going to go in there saying ‘NFL only’.
“I’m going to go and work my tail off and if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I’ll have a good business degree to fall back on.”
For the moment, Ojabo, who admits to seeing his future in the US, is spending summer at the family home in Westhill, spending time with friends where possible and playing computer games.
He can’t “slouch” and is going to the gym every day.
Even though he’s still young himself, one of Ojabo’s main aims is to encourage other north-east youngsters to help him put the area on the US sporting map.
He said: “The story writes itself. One year in the sport, 35 offers, nationally ranked.
“If I can do it, why can’t somebody else? All it takes is hard work.
“As soon as I found out about the potential to play football, every day, in the morning, after school, I was in the gym trying to get things right.
“Now it’s come, I need to use my platform to inspire people.
“Some people over there don’t know about Scotland, what it holds – we’re talented people, too.”
For his mother, Ng, she is delighted a bold move she was apprehensive about has paid off so spectacularly.
She said: “I felt he had everything going for him here, so why America, because he was attending the International School and already playing basketball with the national team.
“But he’s always played above his capacity. There were some (basketball) games you’d have to take him aside, because once he got the ball it would go into the hoop. He’d change the game. But you want to give other children a chance.”
Ng, who says the family remain close between visits through whatsapp, video calls and by praying together despite the distance, added: “His coach felt he needed more challenge to express himself and realise his potential.
“He is very passionate, everything he does he gives it his best. He’s self-motivational. From as early as 13 or 14.
“It’s a gift, he plays every sport, and he works hard.
“I’m pleased. It’s a game I still worry about, it’s a contact sport. But I think if that’s the path god has called him to then he will succeed in it.”