The first thing you need to know about Michael Ononibaku is that he likes the scent of sweaty shoulder pads.
"I don't like it like something I would want to spray in my room," he quickly added, "but it's a smell that kind of reminds me of football."
The second thing you need to know is that, as close as the 6-foot-1, 250-pound senior defensive end is to his Nigerian-born parents, he still occasionally needs to explain to them a few finer points about the game he loves -- such as the rules.
"Every time I try to teach them the sport," he said, "they say they get it. But I don't know if they're just saying that to please me or if they really do understand."
His parents, both soccer fans, came to Massachusetts in the early 1980s, before Michael or his four younger siblings were born. Charles Ononibaku is an engineer, and his wife is a nutritionist who recently opened a Nigerian restaurant.
Michael grew up playing soccer, but by the time he was in seventh grade, he was already 5-10 and weighed more than 160 pounds.
"I just got too big for the sport," he said, and so he decided he was better suited for American football.
Whether his parents understood the game, then, is not in question.
"Unfortunately, no, but I'm now learning," said Charles, who, like his wife, is a U.S. citizen. "Because of Michael we're trying to develop an interest in the football that is here."
By Michael's sophomore year, he was selected for an all-Western Massachusetts team, and by the time he finished a high school career in which he played tailback and inside linebacker, he had set an Amherst High record with 3,550 rushing yards while scoring 47 touchdowns.
Georgetown Coach Bob Benson, who went to school and later coached in New England, was tipped off to the under-recruited player and decided almost immediately that Ononibaku's strength and takeoff speed were best suited to a defensive role. Ononibaku spent his freshman season at Georgetown as a linebacker, then gained 10 or 15 pounds and became a defensive end his second year. Last season he tied for the Patriot League lead with 10.5 sacks, had two interceptions including one returned for a touchdown and was the only Hoya to make first-team all-Patriot League. Benson calls him "close to unblockable" and teammates watch with amusement as he bench-presses 470 pounds and squats 630.
"He makes everything look extremely easy," senior free safety Maurice Banks said. "It's more funny than frustrating -- kind of amazing that he can do that while everyone else is struggling, moaning and groaning."
Benson also called the finance and management double major "one of the classiest human beings I've ever met," and teammates again agree, with senior linebacker Jason Carter explaining what a nice guy Ononibaku is off the field. And on the field?
"He's a nice guy -- he'll knock you over and help you up," Carter said with a laugh.
After graduation Ononibaku plans to be either an investment banker or an NFL linebacker; in his free moments he tracks the progress of undrafted free agents and late-round picks as a way of gauging his future.
Back in Massachusetts, his younger brother, Joshua, is now a high school sophomore who plays fullback and defensive end. And the Ononibakus' parents continue to pick up the game played by their sons. "I like it more as we watch [Joshua] play, and that's made us appreciate what Michael's going through," Charles said. "I wanted him to play what he was comfortable with, and he is very comfortable with playing the football that he is right now."