How Michigan’s David Ojabo knocked on a door and it changed his life

Jim Saylor’s office at Blair Academy was the basketball referees’ locker room, attached to the gym near the water fountain. One day, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior knocked on the door, falling out of the sky like a clap of thunder.

“My name’s David Ojabo,” Saylor recalled him saying. “I’m tougher, stronger, more athletic than Jayson Oweh. Do you mind if I try playing football?”

Saylor, then Blair football’s head coach, looked Ojabo over. At Blair, a boarding school in Blairstown, N.J., students play a sport each semester. Ojabo, born in Nigeria and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland, had come to play soccer and basketball. But Oweh, who now goes by the first name Odafe, had earned scholarship offers in football — changing Ojabo’s calculus.

Saylor was the lucky beneficiary.

“Not too often a 6-foot-5, 230-pound kid comes walking [in] your door,” he said. “Figured he could do something to help us out.”

David Ojabo
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday morning, Ojabo sat at a podium in South Florida, fielding questions from reporters about the endpoint of that conversation. On Friday night, he’ll play in a College Football Playoff semifinal for Michigan against Georgia, and in April, should he choose to enter the NFL draft, he’s projected as a first-round pick.

In 13 games this season, Ojabo has 11 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, helping form one of the best defenses in the nation to pull the Wolverines out of a 2-4 morass and into their best season this side of the 21st century. All this, and Ojabo points out, “coming into the season, I had 20 snaps and I was unknown.”

Even that, though, understates the journey he’s been on — one that puts into perspective the power of knocking on a door.

Immediately, Saylor sat Ojabo down to put together a plan.

Since it was during the offseason, they put Ojabo in track and field to get numbers on his speed. He also reclassified, repeating his junior year. And when coaches came around to see Oweh, who eventually committed to Penn State and now plays for the Ravens, Saylor would be sure to point out Ojabo.

The recruitment heated up quickly. Before Ojabo ever got in a three-point stance or put on a helmet for Blair Academy, he was on visits to Rutgers and Maryland. Coaches would ask what position he played and Ojabo would look over at Saylor quizzically. After seeing him in a basketball game, then-Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison told Ojabo he’d be back in a few weeks with a scholarship offer.

There was, though, the matter of learning how to play football.

Coming from Europe, Ojabo hadn’t grown up with the game. He was a high school junior being taught the most basic of concepts. And doing so when already in a new country, an ocean away from his loved ones.

“Boarding school is new to a number of students, so our international students as well as day students and boarding students, they’re all trying to figure it out,” said Kecia Tillman, whom Ojabo calls his “Blair mom.”

Ojabo was proper and polite, but struggled to adjust at first, Tillman said. He needed a reminder to keep his phone away in class, especially when coaches started calling. Soccer and basketball, the sports he’d crossed an ocean to play, didn’t go to plan. Initially, homesickness fed into doubt.

And now he was learning an entirely new sport.

“We took things really slow with David,” Saylor said. “We didn’t overwhelm him. We laugh and joke about the fact that after three days of camp, he could barely even walk. We had to give him a couple days off during camp because his legs were so sore, getting down in three-point stances.”

Michigan linebacker David Ojabo celebrates with fans after the Big Ten championship game against Iowa on Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.
Michigan linebacker David Ojabo celebrates with fans after the Big Ten championship game against Iowa on Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.

The coaching staff at Blair was cognizant not to overload Ojabo, scrapping a plan for him to play offense and keeping him at defensive tackle, where his responsibilities would be a little easier. Slowly but surely, he figured things out.

“It was a struggle,” defensive line coach Mike Coyle said. “His athleticism really helped him. With us, we’re typically an undersized front. We move our guys around a lot, so it really creates some opportunities for him to get into the backfield and be really disruptive.”

Coyle and Ojabo spent much of the spring doing one-on-one work, learning technique from the ground up. They worked on Ojabo’s get-off. Then his footwork. Then his hips. Then his hands. Then familiarizing him with the blocks he’d be seeing.

When his first season started, it took a few weeks still for Ojabo to get used to the speed of the game, the violence, the chaos. When things got frustrating, he’d call the coaches “bullies.”

But above all, Ojabo’s physical attributes made him a weapon, even as he was still learning. Opposing teams would try to avoid Oweh in the run game, giving Ojabo opportunities to make plays.

“One play he’d look like he was an All-American,” Saylor said. “The next play he’d look like he was a first-year football player. But I think as he started seeing success, I think it just motivated him.”

Midway through Ojabo’s junior year, Coyle said, things started to click.

Michigan's David Ojabo (55) celebrates his sack on Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud with Donovan Jeter (95) in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.
Michigan’s David Ojabo (55) celebrates his sack on Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud with Donovan Jeter.
Aaron Josefczyk/UPI/Shutterstock

“There’s games where linemen would down block on him and they’d completely miss him,” Coyle said. “You’d have linemen running in circles. We’d have to run the tape back several times and be like, can you believe what we’re seeing here? They just couldn’t catch him. So his relentlessness, he’s got a motor. 

“He just does not stop until the play is over. That’s tough for some guys. If the ball is going the other way, they’ll trot behind or they’ll fit into their pursuit level. He just goes. He goes full bore until the play is over.”

Upon arrival at Michigan, Ojabo was again in a new place on his own.

Mattison, the coach who recruited him, had left for Ohio State. His support system at Blair was more than 10 hours of driving away. His parents were in Scotland. Everyone else in the building was just as good as him, if not better.

Ojabo didn’t play his freshman year, and when COVID-19 hit, he went home to Scotland. That set off an ordeal, as he ended up stuck there for months, unable to return due to international travel bans when Michigan initially brought its players back for summer workouts. As teammates gathered again, Ojabo worked out in his home on a Zoom screen.

Then Michigan went 2-4, fired its defensive coordinator and seemed to be in a moment of soul-searching about where it was as a program.

Ojabo took it all in stride.

“But he just kept grinding,” Saylor said. “That’s what I find so special about David. He’s a lower-tier Division I basketball player. He could’ve played college basketball. But how many kids at 17 years old want to try something new, that they’ve never done, at risk of failing? And that’s the same thing I told him when he was at Michigan. You’re gonna get your opportunity. Just keep soaking things up.”

Michigan's David Ojabo sacks Wisconsin's Graham Mertz during the first half of a game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis
Michigan’s David Ojabo sacks Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz during a game on Oct. 2 in Madison, Wis.

He did, and the opportunity came this year. Ojabo seized it, breaking out with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in a statement win at Wisconsin.

Since then, he’s been on a tear — all the way to Miami Gardens, and the College Football Playoff. It could take him as far as a national title, and the NFL draft stage.

All that, because of a knock on a door.

“It hasn’t surprised me,” Ojabo said, “because at the end of the day, I know the work I put in. … All we needed was a chance. We didn’t get our chance until this year.

“As soon as we did, man, we just took it and ran with it.”

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