Standing at the podium in Schembechler Hall, graduate center Olusegun Oluwatimi kept darting his eyes down to his phone — while being asked questions, while answering them and while he was just standing there waiting.
No, he wasn’t being rude. Oluwatimi was on Zoom, doing work for a class while balancing his media duties as the starting center for the No. 3 Michigan football team. He executed both tasks simultaneously, without a hitch.
Heading into a scout room for a one-on-one with The Daily, the Zoom never stopped playing. Again, every once in a while, Oluwatimi glanced toward the screen without dropping a beat in conversation.
He was doing the work for his master’s in social work, something that’s equally as important as football for him. Most people wouldn’t have tried to do both, either scheduling a different time to talk or skipping classwork for a night. But Oluwatimi, after another peek at the phone, revealed why both are so meaningful to him.
“(My parents) always kind of preach education first,” Oluwatimi told The Daily. “They always wanted us to be better than they were because they were immigrants, and they didn’t have the same opportunities that I had being born here and just living a life that I’ve lived so far.”
And Oluwatimi wasn’t going to let his parents down.
In sixth grade, Oluwatimi had never played an organized sport before.
His parents, Yetunde and Olufemi Oluwatimi, were immigrants, and his family couldn’t afford it. But it wasn’t for a lack of hard work. The Oluwatimis had six children, Olusegun the youngest, and worked constantly to provide for their family, especially their children growing up in Upper Marlboro, Md.
“It was a struggle,” Olusegun said. “But at the end of the day, we grew up out of it. They kept pressing on, and they kept trying to put us in good neighborhoods so we wouldn’t be susceptible to violence or things of that nature.”
So, while the Oluwatimis did everything to support their children, it just took a little outside nudge to get Olusegun hooked on football.
One of Olusegun’s best friends, the quarterback on a local football team, came up to him and asked him to play. At the time, Olusegun’s friend saw that he was a “big kid,” and there was no reason a kid built like that shouldn’t be playing football. His friend and his dad drove Olusegun to and from practice, and in between car rides he fell in love with the game.
And with that love, Olusegun picked the game up fast. His first season, he played tight end and defensive line, swearing he’d never go anywhere near a position on the offensive line. A mere season later, he was playing everything from tackle to guard to center.
Olusegun’s new passion also rubbed off on his brother. Oluwaseun, just 16 months older than Olusegun, saw his brother’s newfound love for football and took it up himself. Now, they were both hooked.
As they grew together, they also played together, and they shined. Oluwaseun was recruited to Maryland to play defensive line, staying close to home. When it was Olusegun’s turn to play college ball, he tried something a bit further. He was on his way to Colorado to play football at the Air Force Academy.
Olusegun found out quickly that it wasn’t for him, but like most experiences in his life, he tried to learn from it.
“That prep year, … I learned a lot about myself,” Olusegun said. “I learned how to be far away from home. I was all the way in Colorado. I learned how to gel with certain people. I was in a new demographic that I’ve never been in. It was good for me, but at the same time, I hurt while I was in it.”
So Olusegun took a chance. Similar to his experience discovering the game of football, a friend reached out.
“When I walked on to (Virginia), one of my boys from high school, he was on the team then, and he was just like, ‘Look man, we can use your help. I know what type of player you are. I played with you in high school,’ ” Olusegun said. “And from then on, I was like, ‘I’ll trust it.’ ”
Olusegun had to make a hard decision, but once he made it, he was all in.
“F- it, I’m walking on,” Olusegun said, reflecting on his thought process. “I understand the player that I am and I understand that being at the Air Force Academy is not something that I want to do.”
The kid from Maryland was out of the mountains and back on a plane to the East Coast. But at Virginia, nothing was guaranteed. So Olusegun had to call on what his parents always taught him.
First lesson: Hard work.
“My pops is the hardest working person I know,” Olusegun said. “Just the hours he worked and then the love that he showed to all his kids, and to his wife, my mom. So he’s definitely like the gold standard of how a man should be for me. And he’s taught me a lot about just being a good person, and certain things of that nature.”
As a walk-on, Olusegun knew he’d have to put in as much work as he could muster up to make his way onto the roster. NCAA waiver rules required he take a year off, so he had plenty of time to get that work in, and he always did so with the right attitude.
“(He’s) just a guy who was always in the weight room — before, after, extra,” Nick Howell, then-Virginia defensive coordinator and Olusegun’s recruiter, told The Daily. “Always positive. Kid has a big smile and communicates well. He was a positive force on our team.”
While hard work was necessary, it wasn’t enough.
Second lesson: Education takes priority.
Olusegun’s father holds two degrees, after he went back to college to get a degree in nursing. That effort and dedication to education set the tone for his children.
“They really preached education for us,” Oluwaseun told The Daily. “That was really the (main) thing they really cared about for us. … They wanted us to be successful in everything that we do, but they knew that would start with education.”
When parents preach education, it makes smart kids. Even if his smarts didn’t come from their lessons, Olusegun still credits his parents for giving him “some good genes.”
Whatever the source, Olusegun’s quick learning was a huge benefit on the field, and his coaches noticed. His head coach at Virginia, Bronco Mendenhall, described his brain as “wicked fast,” and Olusegun only needed to hear something one time before “he got it.”
Pair that with his determination to work hard, and Olusegun was on scholarship within a year. The risk paid off; in a new environment, he was thriving.
Despite the seemingly large, uphill battle in front of him after transferring, Olusegun trusted himself. In doing so, he leaned on his upbringing, which proved key to his success.
“It just never seemed like, because of his preparation and his work ethic, that the situations could ever get too big for him,” Mendenhall told The Daily.
Earning that scholarship was one of Olusegun’s “proudest moments,” but as his career in Charlottesville went on, it wouldn’t be enough. The tenets of his parents lived inside of him, and they kept a fire burning, pushing him further.
Heading into his final year as a Cavalier, the fire turned into an inferno.
“He made a clear decision prior to his last year with us, there was a noticeable shift,” Mendenhall said. “And he was already a strong worker and had a great work ethic. But there just became an additional diligence, additional time, additional mindset where he chose … to improve and to take it to a different tier.”
And it showed. At the end of the season, Olusegun was one of three finalists for the Rimington Trophy — given to the best center in the country — and landed Second-Team All-ACC honors. He made it big on the gridiron, and he got his bachelor’s in economics at the same time. Football, hard work and education hand in hand — just as his parents preached.
But Olusegun wasn’t done with either football or his schooling, and with a year of eligibility left, he entered the transfer portal. Once again, finding the best possible combination of athletics and education, Olusegun was somewhere new — this time Ann Arbor.
And now, as the dominant leader of the Wolverines’ offensive line, history has repeated itself. Olusegun is on the Rimington Trophy watch list yet again and has anchored his team to an undefeated record and No. 3 ranking. The key to his repeated success in unfamiliar settings? Just being himself.
“You’ve got to be authentic,” Olusegun said. “If I tried to be somebody that I wasn’t, then there’ll be a longer hallway to the glory. … And then obviously you’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to work hard and have a drive in you to be the person that you believe you are.”
That person is exactly who Olusegun’s parents have taught him to be.
He holds their teachings close — in the weight room, on the football field, and in every quick glance at a Zoom call.