“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.
But time passed, and it became clear he wouldn’t reach Olajuwon’s 7 feet. And so he found a new role model: his father. Brian saw himself growing up to be a businessman himself, owning companies and building an empire.
He developed skills as a pass rusher, and when he was in high school, football scholarship offers rolled in. Stanford and Texas A&M, Missouri and Colorado. When Texas called, though, his decision was made: He was the first generation in his family to play this game, and he would play it for the Longhorns.
For a while, anyway, business would wait.
A time to lead
Brian sat with his brother and explained the circumstances. Mike was in high school, and difficult times lay ahead.
“He was pretty much: ‘Hey guys, we’re going to have to depend on each other right now,’ ” Mike Orakpo remembered.
After Brian left for college, he said, something had gone wrong in his parents’ business dealings. They started another company that dealt with medical supplies, and Brian would say later that things “just went south.” He refused to divulge the specifics of his parents’ wrongdoing, saying only that a poor partnership led to Arthur and Gloria being indicted for a white-collar crime. Brian said his parents were unaware they had broken the law.
Gloria and Arthur were each convicted in 2007 of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud and money laundering, according to public records and news accounts. They were sentenced to 27-month prison terms. Later, Brian said, he received a phone call from his father. Arthur was being deported.
“He just said he loved us,” Brian remembered.
Still, Brian said, he was angry. Whatever his parents’ mistakes, it was their children who would suffer most. Brian worried that his teenage brother, at one of his life’s great crossroads — Mike was in high school, and he was being recruited to play college football — would stray.
Brian delivered the bad news and then returned to Austin, calling often and sending a few dollars when he could. Brian, who at the time was in his early 20s, filled out paperwork to keep his family’s household together and contacted Mike’s teachers to ask about his grades.
“Everything to make life normal for him,” he said.
Then, it was time to practice and play, focusing on his own future.
“It was tough to toggle both lives, in a way,” Brian said.
He kept his secret from his Texas coaches, he said, and told nobody unless it was necessary. This was a family matter, and he meant to keep it that way.
“People never knew,” Mike said.
When colleges contacted Mike, it was Brian who counseled his brother through the process, telling him what to look for on campus visits.
“He helped me stay focused,” said Mike, now a linebacker at Texas State. “It was a situation that a lot of people could’ve gone downhill.”
Once, Mike recalled, his Westbury High team had a playoff game. Most of his teammates had family in the stands, but Mike’s family situation was complicated. He accepted that, for this game at least, he would go it alone.
Mike was on the field when he looked into the seats, and there was Brian, who not only had driven 21 / 2 hours to be there — he had brought friends.
“Just to see his face,” Brian said. “He was just so excited for me to come, to just show support and show that he still had family.”
He wore pinstripes, French cuffs and a light blue tie, waiting at a table for his name to be called at the 2009 NFL draft.
Before the draft, one of sports’ most heavily covered events, no one asked where Orakpo’s parents were. He didn’t volunteer it. “I wasn’t going to let that ruin my moment,” he said later.
An aunt and uncle had joined him in New York, along with his siblings and his college sweetheart, Tura. Because he had family surrounding him, nothing looked unusual. With Washington making the 13th overall selection, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made the announcement: “The Washington Redskins select Brian Orakpo, defensive end, Texas,” and the cameras showed the 22-year-old smiling and clapping and family surrounding him.
“I wanted to be strong,” he said, “for myself.”
He joined the team and made an immediate contribution, finishing his rookie season with 11 sacks, which remains a career high. Kedric Golston, a defensive teammate, said Orakpo entered the league mature beyond his years.
When his mother was released, Orakpo said, the family put the ordeal behind them. Attempts to reach Gloria Orakpo, who still lives in the Houston area, were unsuccessful.
Things haven’t been so simple with Orakpo’s father, whom Brian once looked up to and whom he believed let the family down. He hasn’t visited Nigeria since his dad returned there, and telephone conversations are occasionally strained. Even now, Brian said, it’s difficult to overlook that his father has missed so much — his best years at Texas, the draft, his marriage to Tura and the births of their two children.
Brian said he was “almost ready to write my dad off,” but Arthur apologized, and Brian now speaks regularly with him.
“To this day,” he said, “we’re still building our relationship. We’re working through it every single day.”
Eager to help fix the season
Orakpo pulled into a parking lot and shut off his car’s engine. His story behind him, it was time to slip into a Redskins jersey and back into character, that quiet football player back in the spotlight.
He is a master at compartmentalizing: He and Tura agree that any stressor, no matter its burden, is set aside if it remains unsettled by Friday evening so that Orakpo can prepare for the weekend’s game. Only significant problems are revisited the following Tuesday.
“I don’t want to be dealing with nothing,” he said. “And the great thing is, my wife understands that. Because she understands what it means to me to perform well.”
With no stress waiting on this Tuesday, Orakpo sat at a table, bit into a deli sandwich and posed for photographs. The autograph line lasted nearly an hour, and when fans asked him questions, they were about curbing Washington’s poor start — far simpler topics than he has addressed before.
“We’ll get it fixed,” he told one fan.
Orakpo is one of the faces of this defense, but this season is important for him, too. This is the final year of his rookie contract, and his career lately has been defined more by injuries than ability. For these remaining 13 games, Orakpo must show that, as he proved to his family years ago, he is an irreplaceable part of the foundation.
For now, he said, he cares less about his own statistics than his team’s record.
“I’m a guy who takes a lot of responsibility,” he said, “as far as the outcome. . . . It’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”
Mike Orakpo said repairing this season is nothing; if given the chance, his brother will lead another group through a difficult time.
“You look at things like this,” Mike said of the Redskins’ start, “I already know he can get past it.”