By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 15, 2012
Where did this kid come from? This colossus of a kid who had waltzed into St. Francis DeSales High School in Columbus? There had been a kid like him in the feeder school, but that kid had been a foot shorter and with glasses — a bit awkward. It was the same kid who showed up to his first football practice in sixth grade wearing flips flops and a wristwatch. And besides, that kid was supposed to go to St. Charles, destined for academic greatness. What was he doing here?
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But there he was, Patrick Omameh — bigger, minus the flip flops and the watch — and coach Bob Jacoby was a believer. He inserted Omameh, as just a sophomore, into his triple-option offense’s keystone position: center. He was responsible for all the calls. And, as always, Omameh shined. That’s what this is, really. The story of Patrick Omameh is a story of radiance. He started for three years at DeSales and got a perfect 4.0 grade point average and gave out Christmas presents to the less fortunate members in the community. After Jacoby left DeSales, Omameh shined for the new head coach, Ryan Wiggins, and Wiggins was a believer too.
“He’s really almost too good to be true,” Wiggins said. “I think anybody who’s dealt with him feels that way.” Which is a pretty good approximation.
There’s Omameh’s offensive coordinator at Michigan, Al Borges, who said, “I hope my son grows up to be like Patrick Omameh. And I can’t think of a better compliment than that.”
There’s Mark Dantonio. After one recruiting visit with the Omameh family, the Michigan State coach felt moved to call Jacoby. “In all the years of recruiting,” Jacoby recalled him saying, “he’s never had a home visit like he had at Patrick’s house.”
And, there are the kids at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where Omameh visits each Thursday, regular as the rising and setting of the sun. Here he is again, this man, strolling into the hospital. He’s even bigger now than he was at DeSales, with a presence to match. “Yes! My guys!” he bellows to two teenaged patients. To the younger ones he must seem like a big friendly alien, dropped here by some benevolent race. Football is a hobby of his, he tells them when he introduces himself. But he’s got other priorities. “I’m kind of a big deal,” he says. “I’m the No. 1 tennis player in the world.”
And some kids laugh and some don’t know how to react and they all gravitate towards him. “Patrick always steals all the attention!” jokes teammate Mike Kwiatkowski. The kids are believers too.
Is it hard being Patrick Omameh? Being everything to everyone?
This night, it doesn’t seem like it. Omameh arrived in a white RAV4 he named Ravioli, Ravi for short. That’s the way it is with him.
He never planned to go to the hospital each week. It just sort of happened, like when he showed up for football practice that first day. Greg Frey, Omameh’s first offensive line coach at Michigan, made the freshman linemen visit the hospital. But when his obligation was up, Omameh stopped going.
At that time, David Moosman, an older lineman, caravanned players to Mott in his car. One night, he asked Omameh if he had any schoolwork. Omameh said no, and, trusting his instincts, away he went in Moosman’s car. Again and again.
Each time he went, the hospital staff would say, “Alright, see you next week.” So Omameh would reply, “See you next week,” and he’d return because he didn’t want to be a liar. He has been going for five years now, still true to his word, still radiating his light.
Omameh likes to joke that he “revolutionized the game — the hospital-visit game.” His visits are different. When he goes with teammates, they split into groups and visit every room on a floor. The kids always remember Omameh. He likes to say that his group has never lost.
“There’s my man Jalen,” he says to one young boy, giving him a cool nod. “We go way back.”
As Omameh and his teammates sign autographs for patients inside a room on the first floor, one young girl waits outside. Her medical equipment prevents her from coming in. Omameh greets her outside, then goes around to each of his teammates, making sure everyone pays a visit to the girl. Soon enough, she has collected each autograph.
A mother walks out of the room with her daughter, a new face. “He’s funny,” the mother says as the daughter smiles.
They hang on his every word, about his illustrious tennis career or about his preference for long walks on the beach, holding hands. Smiles and jokes all around. Craig Roh agrees. That’s good, Omameh says. “Holding hands is difficult when you’re by yourself. At least it looks awkward.”
“Really all I try to do is just try to make the kids laugh,” Omameh says. “Anything to put a smile on their face. A lot of the times, parents will be like, ‘Oh my god, my son hasn’t smiled in two months. He’s laughing hysterically.’
“I’m like, ‘Cool. That’s what I was trying to do.’ ”
Would you believe that Omameh’s words hang in the air just an instant longer? That when Omameh talks, the words come out cool like jazz, low and elegant? Each word sounds important — yes, never yeah.
He speaks effortlessly, like everything he does, but maybe that’s deceiving. The football seemed to come easy to Omameh, too, from the calm he inherited from his father, Patrick Sr., who had lived through a civil war in Nigeria before emigrating to the United States. But underneath this peace, there’s the drive of Phyllis, his mother.
Don’t let the relaxation fool you. By senior day of his fifth year, Omameh has started 39 straight games at guard for Michigan. He was named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team — given to 11 players in the nation for exemplary volunteer service — and he studies sociology and communications, with a concentration in business for good measure. But he deadpans, “Procrastination, it’s a lifestyle. It’s so embedded in me now.” Sure.
Everything Omameh does is meticulous. His outfits are put together with care. His notes in film study are scrupulous, his fundamentals refined. The way he eats, “I’ve never seen a more organized meticulous eater than that young guy,” said Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk.
As a freshman, Omameh weighed 251 pounds. Now, he’s 305. He likes to come early to Schembechler Hall to study film. And on top of that, he adds the volunteer work — not just at Mott — and two majors.
“Sometimes when you see a fast kid it doesn’t look like he’s fast because he’s just kind of gliding,” Jacoby said. “I think his work ethic is so much above most kids, especially lineman-type kids, he just makes it look like it’s easy.”
He lives to please others, and now it’s an expectation. As the middle child, Omameh played the peacekeeper between his older sister, Laura, and younger brother, Sydney. When the parents asked where the family should eat dinner, Omameh would always say “It’s wherever you guys want to go,” Laura said.
He comes off as quiet to some because he is reflective, Laura says, observant. When Omameh was a child, he struggled to get a word in edgewise between his brother and sister.
“When he did speak, he had a mindset of ‘Okay, if I’m gonna speak, what I say is going to be profound,’ ” Laura said.
And yes, here it is, the profound: he opens his mouth and riffs on the weight of expectations.
“At the end of the day it’s just a game,” he muses of his life in football. “It’s, really, it’s not. At this level, there’s so much more on the line. I remember somebody was saying after the last staff, they were on the hot seat, and people were saying, you could think it’s just a game, but if we come out here and we perform poorly, this man can lose his job. That means this family, these kids, have no income. You know what I’m saying?
“If we think it’s just a game, this man loses his job. He can’t get on the field or whatever, and we’re the ones performing, but his job rests squarely on our shoulders. … What it means to some people at a deeper level, it’s hard to look at it as something that is that trivial.”
College football doesn’t forgive, even for the man who always pleases, who always gives. The pressure weighs. Maybe it weighs more for him, though you’d never be able to tell. Like in Omameh’s true freshman season, the year Michigan won just three games. The Wolverines played No. 9 Wisconsin that year and trailed by 10 at halftime. The crowd booed the team all the way up the tunnel. Omameh hadn’t played — he couldn’t please.
“I was probably the most upset I can vividly remember in almost my entire life,” Omameh said. “In the locker room I was just — that was the year I redshirted, I didn’t even play that year — and I could choke somebody.
“It’s comical when you really look at it in broad terms how much pressure people put on these 18-year old kids. They really don’t know the effect that it has on some.”
Michigan came back and won that game. Omameh recalls the same faces he saw booing the team at halftime were reaching down over the tunnel for high fives.
Believe this, there is a different Omameh. Meaner.
He gave a part of himself to his family, and a part to school and a part to God. He gave himself to the younger members of DeSales’ football team and to his studies. But football is not for nice people, says Funk, the offensive line coach. “It’s a violent game. It’s a tough sport for tough people.”
What Omameh gives on the field is only pain and darkness. Two years ago, Omameh drove one Notre Dame defender 15 yards off the ball and then buried him into the ground.
“I enjoy collisions,” Omameh says. “You want it. The collisions and the impact and just hitting is something that you learn to enjoy.”
Wiggins, his high school coach, said he still shows that clip to his lineman. “He’s pretty devastating,” he said.
In a way, there is a different Omameh on the field, but in another way, it makes sense. The bookish student is meticulous with his technique. He is big-hearted with an explosiveness that could take him to the NFL. His mind can understand the defenses; can pick up a new coaching staff’s new offense quickly. The kid who doesn’t like to let people down plays on the offensive line. It fits.
Omameh’s confidence had always made everything look easy, but it hadn’t always been so. “Even though Patrick may hate me for saying so,” says Laura, Omameh’s confidence wasn’t always there. As a child, he was a bit chubby. He wore glasses and braces. He calls it his “Dark Period.”
During the Dark Period, Omameh played sports like soccer and basketball. It wasn’t until Omameh made a deal with his friend, Jacob, that he tried football. Jacob, a good basketball player, would join Omameh’s hoops team if Omameh would play for Jacob’s football team. That was sixth grade. By the end of eighth grade, Omameh had grown considerably, and so had his confidence. But Omameh hadn’t always been the biggest and best player on the team.
Then, he grew, and his personality did too. That figure that waltzed into DeSales after that one summer was different. He was confident and eager to please. He held court with his humor, and knocked anyone out on the field, with ease.
Patrick Sr. believed his life would be better in the United States, so in 1980, he left Nigeria to live with relatives in Columbus. He left behind his home, a city where the people believe in themselves but also look down on everyone else, according to Phyllis. The name of the city is Onitsha and some there believe it literally means “arrogance.”
But trusting his instincts, Patrick Sr. went back to Onitsha to visit family and friends, friends who led him to the very spot he stood now, led him to this woman named Phyllis.
Again, his instincts told him, “Look, Patrick, this is the one you’re looking for.” And again, he trusted. Patrick Sr. was calm and poised and the woman, Phyllis, driven. So driven was she that, “when I set my eyes on him, I didn’t let go.” And the two left together, back to Columbus to raise a family, leaving Onitsha, the pride and the arrogance behind.
Their middle child would never live in this land, but he would come from here. He would be calm and driven, with the confidence of Onitsha and a heart that would make you believe.