By: Anup Shah
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
With five minutes left against Oklahoma, Texas senior running back Chris Ogbonnaya saw the hole. He waited. And waited some more. Then, he broke free for a 62-yard gain that ultimately sealed a 45-35 win over the then-ranked No. 1 Sooners.
“He's so smart,” coach Mack Brown said. "He was very patient. He waited and then just shot out of there and took off."
But off the field, Ogbonnaya’s patience has been a tremendous asset that has helped his family cope with the unimaginable.
Several stars on the 2008 Longhorns’ roster are of Nigerian decent, including defensive end Brian Orakpo, Sam and Emmanuel Acho, and Ogbonnaya – all of whose families share similar traditions and struggles.
“It’s been nice to get exposed to their background,” senior cornerback Ryan Palmer said. “[Chris] will get mad and start talking Nigerian to you like his dad does. It’s funny.”
Ogbonnaya’s father, Dr. Kalu Ogbonnaya moved to South Carolina from a small Nigerian town to attend Clemson University in 1976.
Kalu, or Dr. O as he’s better known, came to pursue his dream of becoming a physician and later moved to Houston where Chris was born.
“My dad and I share a very unique relationship,” Chris said. "For me, that’s all I want to emulate. Especially coming from Nigeria, you don’t have those resources economically, socially."
But when Chris was 11, his parents divorced and the four children slowly phased out of their relationship with their mother who had suffered from a mental illness.
Though he hasn’t spoken with his mother since high school, Dr. O has taught his son more than he needs to know about what it takes to be a successful human being.
“I'm just trying to learn everything I can from him because everybody doesn’t live forever,” Ogbonnaya said.
Ogbonnaya suffered another family tragedy during the divorce that would shape the rest of his life.
The Ifegwu family were as close to family as anyone could have been to the Ogbonnayas. Their three children grew up with the Ogbonnayas and the common Nigerian roots created an unbreakable bond.
But when Chris was just 10, Jonah Ifegwu, the father, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. A few months later, on April 30, 1997, Rose Ifegwu, the mother, lost her life in a car accident.
Jonah, with just months to live, asked Kalu Ogbonnaya to be the guardian of his children and Kalu agreed.
The struggle continued after Chris reached high school when Ifegwu Ifegwu, the oldest of the three Ifegwu children, was killed in a car accident five years after the death of his parents.
Two months later, Ogbonnaya and the youngest of the Ifegwu children, Jonathan, were playing basketball while volunteering for their church youth group in Fort Worth. Jonathan collapsed and started convulsing. As Chris held him in his arms, Jonathan passed away, the victim of a congenital heart condition.
Ogbonnaya has lost four family members - five including his mother. But the tragedy seems to only motivate him to be the best he can, a lesson he's learned from his father.
"Things happen for a reason," Ogbonnaya said. "It’s something that I’ve come to understand."
Life on the Forty Acres
Ogbonnaya hasn’t missed a beat since he arrived at Texas in 2004. A three-star wide receiver recruit, he wasn’t ever expected to have much of an impact on Texas’ roster.
Always keeping that in mind, Ogbonnaya has flourished academically. He was named a Draddy Award semifinalist – the award also known as the “academic Heisman” – and graduated last May with a 3.4 GPA and a degree in history.
In his fifth year on campus, Ogbonnaya is finishing up a second degree in corporate communications along with a minor in business. Additionally, he’s also taken the LSAT and plans to attend law school.
With all the attention he has received on the field this year – particularly after the Oklahoma game – Ogbonnaya has goals that extend far beyond the 2008 Texas football season.
"He's been extremely successful, on and off the field," senior wide receiver Quan Cosby said. "It says a lot about him, and his family. And their fight."
Winning the backfield battle
As a freshman, Ogbonnaya didn’t play in the Rose Bowl when Texas won the national championship. He didn’t expect to get much playing time the following seasons with Jamaal Charles the lead running back. But when Charles left early for the NFL last season, the Longhorns were left with limited options at the position.
Ogbonnaya lost weight and improved his speed, but he was still not one of the two expected to take the starting job. Freshman Fozzy Whittaker and sophomore Vondrell McGee were the clear favorites – until Whittaker was injured and McGee failed to produce.
Ogbonnaya’s breakout game came against Colorado where he had 116 receiving yards and rushed for 71. He started the following week against the Sooners and didn't disappoint. Ogbonnaya ran for 127 yards - his first career 100-yard rushing game.
"I’ve waited my time here at UT," Ogbonnaya said. "God has a plan for you. You just have to be patient. I’m just hoping things work out for us and we have something special to play for at the end of the year."