Mike Singletary registered nearly 1,500 tackles, played in 10 straight Pro Bowls and was among the most feared NFL players of his era. Just a fleeting glance from the middle linebacker’s bulging, threatening eyes was enough to make a tailback want to take a knee. So it’s no wonder that his five daughters thought twice before bringing boyfriends around the house.
“I was very strict with my daughters, about what they did, who they hung around with, what activities they got involved in,” said Singletary, the Hall of Fame former linebacker with the Chicago Bears. “. . . They were always afraid to bring a young man to the house because they thought I’d run him off.”
But after his daughter Jill had been in a relationship long enough with a young football player, Oshiomogho Atogwe, it was time to introduce him to her father, years removed from his playing days but an imposing figure nonetheless.
“The reputation preceded the man,” Atogwe said. “I was intimidated for the first 15 seconds. But the moment we said hello and started to speak, that went out the door.”
On the field and off, Atogwe isn’t easily shaken. Now the Washington Redskins’ starting free safety and married to Jill, Atogwe managed to impress Singletary quickly.
“He simply was not intimidated by me, and that was good to see,” said Singletary, now the linebackers coach for the Minnesota Vikings. “He was just very open and very real. That came across very clear. And to me, that’s really what I liked. I like to sit down and talk to people with no agendas, just talk and let the conversation take us where we need to go.”
They talked a little bit of football in that initial meeting, but a lot of faith and family. Atogwe’s background, after all, is an unusual one for the NFL.
His father, Aigbomoidi, emigrated from a small Nigerian village before Atogwe was born, settling in Windsor, Ontario, in 1974. Atogwe still has plenty of extended family in Nigeria and has visited three times. Though neither of his parents played organized sports, Atogwe credits his genes for his quick rise through the NFL ranks. His grandparents were farmers who grew yams, nuts and a root called cassava.
“They knew about hard work,” Atogwe said. “You get a lot of strong men and women. They just naturally grew up that way because people had to work and provide for themselves to make a living.”
In Windsor, Atogwe grew up just across the river from Detroit. He played American sports and had a particular affinity for football. His father adopted the sport shortly after moving from Nigeria, rooting especially hard for the Chicago Bears and their menacing middle linebacker.
Atogwe eventually earned a scholarship to Stanford, where he received a degree in biological science and planned to go to medical school had the St. Louis Rams not selected him in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft.
In St. Louis, he established himself as one of the most consistent safeties in the league. He collected 22 interceptions, forced 16 fumbles and made nearly 400 tackles in six seasons there.
“Any time he’s around the ball, it seems like he makes a play on it,” Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said. “Whether he gets a deflection or whether he picks it off, he's always got his hands around the ball. I think he’s got a great instinct. He always seems to be in the middle of the action.”
Rather than pay Atogwe an $8 million bonus in March, the Rams released him. Washington pounced, signing the 30-year-old to a five-year, $26 million contract. The move paired him in the defensive backfield with LaRon Landry and reunited him with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who coached in St. Louis from 2006 to ’08.
“He is everything that you would want from a player playing for your football team . . . as a player, as a competitor and as a person,” RamsCoach Steve Spagnuolo said.
Redskins linebacker London Fletcher says the “cerebral” Atogwe has quickly become an important part of the Washington defense. Slowed throughout the preseason by a sore hamstring, Atogwe will only get better with time, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said.
Atogwe, however, said: “I wouldn’t say I’ve played out of this world. That’s the type of standard I set for myself — really playing above what other people expect of me.”
Atogwe’s family has always called him Shum. When he was on the playground in Windsor, kids called him O.J. In high school and college, teammates called him Juice. But when Atogwe signed with the Redskins, he asked the team to use his birth name, Oshiomogho. Given to him by his grandmother, it means “God owns the day.”
“When you enter into a new city, come around new people, folks who don’t know you, you want to introduce them to who you really are,” he explained. “So they learn who you are before they get comfortable enough to call you by a nickname, so they know there’s significance in your name and the traditions of your name and they respect that before they go into your nickname.”
That kind of pride was quickly evident to Singletary. Atogwe first met the Hall of Famer’s daughter, Jill, at a conference for Christian athletes in the Bay Area. He re-connected with her on Facebook, and the two were soon dating.
But before they could get too serious, Atogwe needed to meet her family. He flew to the Bay Area and took a seat in the family room.
“I was impressed with the things that he asked and the things that he talked about,” Singletary said. “He was a guy who had a lot of depth for a young man.”
The two men share not just a love of football but a strong faith. Atogwe, who married Jill this spring, regularly consults his father-in-law on matters big and small.
“I think the biggest thing we talk about is family, our faith, relationships,” Singletary said. “We talk about being men — men of honor, men that can make a difference. We talk about being a good father and being a good husband and the responsibilities that come with it and what kind of legacy we want to leave as a husband or father.
“I talk to him like he’s my son. I never looked at it like I was losing a daughter. I always thought of it as gaining a son.”