Westhill’s David Ojabo says his unstoppable American football rise with Michigan Wolverines is “like a dream”.
Former International School pupil Ojabo, having only taken up the game when he moved to boarding school in the United States in 2017, is now a starting linebacker for the University of Michigan Wolverines – college football’s most iconic team.
We caught up with 6ft 5in, 113kg athlete, now in his third – or “junior” – year at Michigan, during a breakthrough season for Ojabo personally, and also one in which legendary coach Jim Harbaugh’s team have a perfect record of six wins so far.
Ojabo, who has 16 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles so far in 2021, said: “It’s like a dream, but I’ve just got to keep going, keep playing.
“Where I was from when we last talked to where I am now, it’s crazy.
“(The difference is) vast – from my IQ, to my body, to my confidence. That all takes time.
“From when I started to where I am now, it’s been major and it has shown in my game.
“I’ve gone from a guy who contributed on scout team and was kind of in the shadows, to someone who is contributing to close wins, big time wins, any wins really.
“But that attention has definitely switched up for the better.”
Ojabo’s stand-out performance of the season to this point came at Wisconsin on October 2. His two-and-a-half sacks on Badgers’ quarter-backs Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf helped the Wolverines win 38-17 and saw Ojabo named Co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
The pass rush by @DavidOjabo on Saturday was nothin' but HEAT 🔥 🔥
— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) October 4, 2021
The 21-year-0ld, who moved Aberdeenshire from Nigeria with his family at the age of eight, said: “We went in knowing it was going to be a dogfight – we hadn’t won there in I think 20 years at their home. Of course, we had our streak going, so we knew we were going to get their best game. We went out there and just handled business.
“From an individual standpoint, I played pretty good, led the team in tackles and had two-and-a-half sacks. That was my best game so far and it was a good feeling.
“That was definitely another stepping stone. The team had recognised me for having a good game, but now the conference has recognised me for having a good game. That’s always a good feeling, but I can’t get complacent, can’t get overly happy, because there’s more awards, there’s things bigger than that – on to the next game, stuff like that.”
— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) October 4, 2021
Surrounded by elite talent at Michigan
Ojabo puts his continued, startling development as an American football player down to the players around him while he’s been at Michigan.
In his first – or “freshman” – year, he played on the football programme’s defensive scout team, training against no less than five current National Football League (NFL) starters, in Jon Runyan Jr. (Green Bay Packers), Cesar Luiz (New Orleans Saints), Jalen Mayfield (Atlanta Falcons), Michael Onwenu (New England Patriots) and Ben Bredeson (Baltimore Ravens).
Ojabo said: “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
“They helped me see what high level competition is like, and it helped me acclimate faster from somebody who had never played the sport two or three years before.
“The whole line, they all are very stout. Each of them are power rushers. I learned how to leverage – stay low, because you’re not going to move a big guy, standing up high.”
The quality of talent is everywhere at Michigan. Even now, Ojabo is playing alongside fellow defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson, who is widely expected to be hot property in the next NFL draft.
It’s inspirational for Ojabo, who added: “Having somebody opposite me who is very good at what he does – again, it just shows me that’s the next level the NFL is looking for.
“How he carries himself off the field as well. He gives that balance of how to operate on the field and off the field, he’s a great example.
“From Aidan, I’m still learning every day. He has the whole package. Just to watch his feet, his speed, his hand placement, -everything about him. I’m still watching and, when he goes to the league, I’ll carry on.”
‘The Big House’
While he’s tasted glory on the road, Ojabo also explained the unique experience of playing in Michigan Stadium, “the Big House” – one the world’s biggest sports stadiums, with room for more than 100,000 fans.
He said: “It’s crazy, it’s actually unbelievable. You can’t replicate the feeling of getting a sack and having those three, four, five seconds to celebrate and thinking: ‘wow, they’re watching what I just did and I’m helping the team get it done’.
“It’s just a great feeling and I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts. Everybody knows football’s not for long and before you know it you’re out of college, then out of the NFL.”
Playing American football, and playing it to an elite standard, is what Ojabo does now.
He isn’t letting by-products of this, like the fame which comes with playing for a winning team in a college town like Ann Arbor, or Sports Illustrated saying he’s on a one-way ticket to the pro ranks, distract him from it.
The north-east athlete – whose family watch his games from their Westhill home on live streams or BT Sport, despite the time difference – knows performances and performances alone will get him to the next level.
With another year of college to go after this one, Ojabo said: “I’m putting in the work and I’m just focusing on the season, so that can be my ticket – what I put out there for the team and for myself can be my ticket.
“I feel like I’m trending in the right direction, the team’s trending in the right direction and everything is going to work out as it should.”
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) October 7, 2021