This is the latest installment of The Banner’s occasional series about the St. Frances Academy football program that has routinely been ranked among the best teams in the country over the last few years.
Prior to the opening kickoff of their game against Connecticut’s St. Thomas More School at the new Under Armour stadium on the Baltimore Peninsula on Sept. 30, St. Frances head football coach Messay Hailemariam is finishing his pregame speech in the cramped locker room, imploring his guys, as his voice reaches a booming crescendo to “Have fun! Have fun! Have fun!”
Before walking onto the field arm in arm underneath a majestic sunset, the players are amped. They’re yelling, slapping each other’s shoulder pads and helmets. Some of them are dancing; others are excitedly hopping up and down on two feet like championship boxers getting lathered up prior to a fight’s opening bell.
Senior cornerback Ify Obidegwu is an anomaly, though. He sits still, quietly, calmly, with a serious, reserved expression etched on his face.
Throughout the game, the St. Frances defense proves once again to be one of the toughest and stingiest units in the country.
Obidegwu, in many ways, embodies its preeminence.
“Ify has an advanced maturity to go along with his amazing talent,” St. Frances assistant defensive coach Ian Thomas said. “He carries himself with the seriousness of a grown man and, when you speak to him, you have to come with respect. That’s how he carries himself. He doesn’t say much. He just works hard and delivers.”
Obidegwu, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound Oregon commit who chose the Ducks over scholarship offers from Alabama, USC, Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Tennessee and a bevy of others, effectively shuts down an entire half of the field with his ball-hawk skills and technical prowess.
Tall and lanky, yet sculpted and powerful, he backpedals, pivots and closes with smooth, textbook fundamentals. In run support, he flies downhill to deliver crushing hits, gliding with a swiftness and speed that can be shocking to the uninitiated.
“Ify’s just an athletic freak,” said St. Frances defensive coordinator Justin Winters, more popularly known around the school as J-Dub. “He’s 6-foot-1 with a 7-foot wingspan, and he can literally scratch his knees while standing straight up. He’s stronger than you, he’s faster than you, he’s tougher than you, and he can strap up and hit you harder than you’ve ever been hit before.
“What I love about being here is that it reminds me every day of what I saw from my parents, that you have to grind for everything and nothing comes easy.”
St. Frances cornerback Ify Obidegwu
“He’s a matchup nightmare for any opposing quarterback and wide receiver, no matter how good they are,” Winters continued. “He goes one on one with the most talented pass catchers and route runners in the country because of our schedule, and it’s extremely rare for him to give up a significant completion. He’s just a dog who has the potential to play on Sundays for a long time.”
Riding on the heels of an excellent performance the week prior against the top-ranked team in the country, Mater Dei from Santa Ana, California, the Panthers pummeled, bruised and pulverized St. Thomas More, one of the top teams in New England, winning 39-0.
In other ways, though, Obidegwu is the antithesis of St. Frances’ defensive personality. The Panthers not only beat you up, but they loudly, boastfully and excitedly remind you of it after every play, every fumble recovery, every sack, every interception, every thwarted offensive series.
But not Obidegwu.
“You might get two or three words out of him every week,” Panthers head coach Messay Hailemariam said. “Ify is one of the most quiet, reserved, cerebral, bright, extremely disciplined, mild-mannered young men I’ve ever coached. Everything with him is yes, sir, or no, sir. But he’s a monster on the field who’s not inclined to bark about how good he is. He lets his exceptional play do all of his talking. And it speaks volumes.”
Obidegwu’s family roots are in Nigeria. Growing up in Brandywine in Prince George’s County, he didn’t have to search far for role models.
“My parents worked extremely hard, sometimes holding down two jobs at a time,” said Obidegwu, who speaks in soft, measured tones. “I saw them grinding 24 hours a day sometimes, and that left an impression on me. I learned early on that you have to go hard, every day, to get what you want.”
Football was something he did because he wanted to play with and be near his older brother, Jimto, now a 6-foot-6, 305-pound offensive lineman at Kent State. At the end of that first season when he was 7 years old, football became more than just an activity to keep him close to his big brother.
“My brother was the reason I initially became interested in football,” Obidegwu said. “But after a while it started to become really fun. After my first year playing, I was like, ‘I can’t wait to do this again.’”
His high school career started at Archbishop Carroll in Washington, D.C., because that’s where his brother played. His first scholarship offer rolled in from Temple when he was a 14-year-old freshman.
But, when Jimto went off to college, Ify wanted to chart his own path after playing on a seven-on-seven team that was coached by Winters, who was then the St. Frances defensive backs coach.
“J-Dub was this incredible mentor who is great at teaching the nuances of playing in the defensive backfield,” Obidegwu said. “After that initial experience, I knew that I wanted to be coached by him for the rest of my time in high school. I felt like he was someone who could help me elevate to the next level.”
When he came to visit the school, he saw past the antiquated, humble building in the shadows of the city detention center and the fact that there are no football facilities, that the squad has to practice at various parks and city rec centers. There was something about the spirit inside that building that emanated not only from the coaching staff and football players but the teachers and other students.
“IMG took us out of the running for the national championship and we get another shot at them in the last game of the year. I want that win and will be somewhat satisfied if we can make that happen.”
St. Frances cornerback Ify Obidegwu
“St. Frances helped me realize my potential,” Obidegwu said. “It’s a small place, and the weight room is not fancy. But what I love about being here is that it reminds me every day of what I saw from my parents, that you have to grind for everything and nothing comes easy. I’m truly blessed to be here. Coach Messay [Hailemariam] is a phenomenal human being that treats all of his players as if they’re his own children. I feel like we have the best coaching staff in the world, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like right now if I was anywhere else.”
The environment also provided other familiar elements from his upbringing in terms of the nourishment that comes from belonging to a loving, tight-knit family. His teammates have a greater sense of connectedness than most, given that the majority of them, including Obidegwu, live together in the nearby townhouses that serve as dormitories.
“We do everything together, and it’s been an asset for me to learn from the different perspectives of people who grew up in circumstances other than my own,” Obidegwu said. “What’s also been amazing is having the opportunity to travel across the country and see places like Hawaii and California, and being able to share those experiences with people you love and truly care about.”
Over the past few years, Obidegwu and his friend, highly touted senior quarterback Michael Van Buren, would often talk about playing together in college. That came to fruition when they both decided to play at Oregon next year.
“Ify is a straight-up baller,” Van Buren said. “He’s a physical corner with long arms who can really move, and he’s smart. You don’t see passes completed against him very often. It’s hard to be successful throwing in his direction. Going against him every day in practice makes me better because that’s the caliber of players and athletes that you’re going to face on the next level. He’s been a valuable part of my success because we make each other better.”
The Panthers (2-5) have played one of the most difficult schedules in the country this year. Significant injuries on the offensive line, along with the majority of the team being underclassmen with little experience, did not bode well early on.
Losing is a different paradigm that Obidegwu and the other seniors are unaccustomed to.
Last year they were ranked No. 2 in the country and in contention for a national championship prior to losing their last game of the season, 27-16 to national powerhouse IMG.
“This year has been rough,” Obidegwu said. “There was never any doubt in my mind, coming into this season, that we’d dominate and win every game. But you have to push through in life when things get hard. It’s not always going to be easy. I’m just trying to help the team out as much as I can with my play and leadership. I’m looking forward to finishing up strong.
“IMG took us out of the running for the national championship and we get another shot at them in the last game of the year. I want that win and will be somewhat satisfied if we can make that happen, despite our early-season struggles.”
As they march toward their remaining three games, success will undoubtedly ramp up the team’s raucousness on the field, sideline and locker room that was evident against St. Thomas More.
You’ll hear coaches and players yelling, “Finish Strong! Keep our foot on their necks! They can’t score on us! Focus! All we need is us! Discipline! Have fun!”
Ify Obidegwu’s voice won’t be among them. But he’ll be having just as much fun, if not more, as everybody else.
St. Frances’ next game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 27 against Mount Zion Prep at Under Armour’s The Stadium at The House facility on the Baltimore Peninsula campus that will soon serve as the company’s corporate headquarters in Port Covington.