“You don’t know much about me,” he said as he waited to make a left.
The Washington Redskins linebacker, is a man of action and few words. The things Orakpo saw and dealt with years ago? No amount of talk would’ve solved that; only sacrifice gets the bills paid, the papers signed, his younger siblings a step closer to college and adulthood.
The traffic thinned, and Orakpo pulled onto the road. Washington has started the season with three losses, and it needs someone to pull it out of this early-season funk. This was on Orakpo’s mind on this late Tuesday morning, and if the past is an indicator, maybe he’s the one to carry the Redskins’ struggling defense toward better days.
Orakpo drove toward Reston, where he would sign autographs at a grocery store, and on the way he told a story he almost never shares. Many teammates have never heard it, and few strangers know this chapter of Orakpo’s life.
“It made me a stronger person,” he said of his experience.
Years ago, when Orakpo was a star defender at the University of Texas, his parents found themselves in legal trouble. They were immigrants who had owned several businesses in the Houston area, and mistakes were made; Orakpo said poor alliances had been formed. His mother went to prison, and his father was deported to his native Nigeria.
Remembering the influence his parents had on him, Orakpo decided he wouldn’t let their mistakes cripple his two younger siblings’ chances at a good life. In addition to his role as eldest brother, he added responsibilities as provider and counselor, shepherding his brother and sister through his family’s most difficult time.
“He was the one holding everything together,” said Mike Orakpo, the linebacker’s younger brother.
Years later, the Redskins need him to do the same.
Examples of ‘sacrifice’
In the old days, young Brian was the class clown with a short temper. Fights and school suspensions trailed him, and so did his parents with lessons.
“You don’t know how much work and sacrifice it takes,” he would remember them saying.
His parents, Gloria and Arthur, left Nigeria as a young couple, eager to begin a new life in the United States. Settling in Houston, where family had moved before them, they put themselves through school with minimum-wage jobs and later opened an African grocery and started a family. Brian said Arthur took pride in his work, and more than that, he was proud of what his growing business would mean to his children: They would never struggle as their parents had.
“I saw the joy,” Brian would say later, “in building something from scratch.”
The family visited Nigeria, seeing what the parents had left, and when Brian reached eighth grade, his parents’ words broke through. This elicited what he would call a “makeover.” He cut off several bad influences and began focusing on school.
“I just knew what I wanted to do,” he said.
Brian added football to his junior high schedule, along with his beloved basketball. He had dreamed of some day following in the footsteps of Hakeem Olajuwon, the Nigerian-American center who played his best years in Houston.