The most difficult part of DeMatha's Tobe Onyekweli's season hasn't been the wrestling. Though he rarely lifts weights, he appears to have the upper body more akin to a WWF wrestler, not a 103-pound freshman.
No, the most difficult thing for Onyekweli, what he avoided until a couple of months ago, was taking off his warm-up tights and exposing his rail-thin calves.
Onyekweli was born with clubfoot, a condition in which his feet were turned on their side and toward each other. After four surgeries on his legs, his feet have mostly flattened, but his leg muscles remain severely underdeveloped.
"It hasn't really affected me that much," Onyekweli said of his condition.
Indeed. Onyekweli won the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship and was 45-13 for the No. 2 Stags heading into the second day of the National Prep tournament today at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
Still, he is self-conscious about his legs and was nervous walking into his first practice at DeMatha this winter.
But his teammates didn't say a word about his legs, even as he continued wearing his tights. Eventually DeMatha Coach Dick Messier asked about the tights.
"He said, 'My legs,' " Messier said. "I said, 'And so? From here up [pointing to his chest] you're stronger than any 103 out there. So what? You can't be insecure about things.' "
Soon after, senior Nathan Cortes-Peck told Onyekweli that if he wore the tights again that he would take them. The pants are now hanging in Cortes-Peck's bedroom.
Onyekweli chuckled softly when told this week where his tights are stored. He said he doesn't care about them anymore.
"It was a big step in life," he said. "It showed that I could get over other things and I shouldn't worry about other things."
Onyekweli starting wearing the tights in middle school after opposing coaches instructed their wrestlers to attack his lower body. He didn't like opponents talking about his legs and didn't want them to change strategy because of them.
He sometimes wrestles on one knee and has to swing his legs to his side so they don't get caught underneath him. If they do, he doesn't have the strength to get up. But he doesn't consider that a disadvantage. Instead, he uses a repertoire of upper-body moves.
Pain still shoots through his legs when he first stands up. Because his feet aren't completely flat, he walks with a noticeable limp. His right foot bears large scars from the surgeries and he has to tape his wrestling shoes so they don't fall off during the match.
But Onyekweli seldom complains, his mother, Yetunde Onyekweli, said. When he does, his parents show him pictures before the surgeries and remind him of his good fortune.
"We would tell him, not only can you walk, but you can do anything a normal boy can do," his mother said. "Maybe not as well, but that's life."
Onyekweli was born in Nigeria, and as an infant underwent four surgeries for a blocked intestine. He was named Tobechukwu, meaning "Praise God" in his mother's native Nigerian language, Igbo.
"He was a miracle child," his mother said.
Onyekweli's first two leg surgeries were performed in Africa, but his parents heard that Children's Hospital in Washington could have better success. So they moved to the United States when Tobe was 4, and he had additional surgeries after first and second grade.
Each surgery was planned at the beginning of summer to give Onyekweli enough time to improve his mobility before the next school year.
After his final surgery, his parents took him to the Laurel Boys and Girls Club, where his two siblings enjoyed sports. Onyekweli tried soccer and baseball, but the running was too demanding. He switched to boxing and swimming, but found them too individualized and yearned to be part of a team.
He got what he wished for when he landed on the Stags -- even if he had to retire his tights.
"I just got over it one day; I just stopped caring," Onyekweli said. "Our team, it helps each other out."