Ravens rookie offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele answers questions… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
They gathered in the living room at their mother's Northwest Houston home the way they did so many times growing up. But for Kelechi Osemele, this April night was all about moving forward rather than looking back.
The sibling rivalry he endured with his three older sisters had helped prepare him for this moment. His relationship with his mother was turbulent at times, but he now knew why Imelda Osemele had always been so strict and demanding. His father was not present for his big night, nor had he been around for much of his life. By now, Kelechi Osemele (kah-LETCH-ee oh-SEM-uh-lee) had come to grips with that.
Osemele's goal, first as an offensive lineman at Langham Creek High in Houston and then at Iowa State, was to make sure that every guy he lined up against remembered his name. On April 27, his name scrolled on the television after the Ravens selected him in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft.
"The thing that was really special about me getting drafted was it brought the family together," said Osemele, who returned to Houston to watch the draft with his mother, sisters and other family members. "We had all pretty much gone our own ways and had a little animosity toward one another because of things that happened growing up. Football really brought us together, especially in college because they'd come to games and it was a common thing for us to talk about. Everybody was in a good mood, and they pretty much just fed off my dream, and my successes were their successes."
After watching a "Monday Night Football" game when he was 8 years old, Kelechi Osmele determined that he would play in the NFL. But before he could get there, before he could emerge as a potential rookie starter on the Ravens' offensive line and one of their most impressive preseason performers, Osemele was tried and tested.
There were the recruiting analysts who didn't think he was good enough and the colleges that didn't want him. There was the challenge of carving out his turf in a house with three older sisters and a mother who spent hours upon hours at work and would come home tired and testy. There was the reality that his father lived in Nigeria, and their relationship would have to be built through phone calls, not bedside chats or afternoons on athletic fields.
"Texas didn't really recruit me. Texas A&M pulled my [scholarship] offer. Little things like that gave me the chip on my shoulder and pretty much made me realize that this was something I was doing to prove my worth and my value, even off the field," Osemele said. "Growing up without a father in the household sometimes can do that to you, not having the support system that you need with your mom always having to work to support four kids. Football was kind of my escape from reality. It was something I was good at, something I knew from an early age I was going to do for the rest of my life."
The first thing you notice about Osemele, 23, is his raw size. Once deemed by his parents too skinny to play youth football, he's now 6 foot 5 and 335 pounds, and he wears it well. He has long arms and quick feet, and big, strong mitts that leave a mark after the briefest of handshakes.
Another thing you realize when you talk to Osemele is that he's extremely comfortable in his own skin. If some of his words come across as bitter or angry in print, his tone, subdued and almost matter-of-fact, suggests neither. Asked about a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story that quoted an NFL scout questioning his toughness because he was raised by women, Osemele smirked instead of stewed.
"It ticked my sisters off more than anything," he said. "With the way we grew up, they didn't like it at all. Me? I just kind of laughed because my sisters are tough. They're not all dainty or soft. They … used to beat me up."
Osemele fielded even the most probing questions about his past as seamlessly as he has handled moving back and forth from right tackle to left guard during training camp.
"He's had to overcome," said Bill Bleil, Osemele's offensive line coach at Iowa State. "He was always his own man. That wasn't a problem for him at all."
After having three daughters, Paul and Imelda Osemele, who were born in Nigeria but came to the United States to go to college, prayed daily that they would be blessed with a son. So when one finally came on June 24, 1989, they named him Kelechi, which in Igbo — a native language in Nigeria — means "Thank God." His last name translates into "ancient warrior."
Kelechi was 3 years old when his father moved back to Nigeria to start a business that developed and supplied antibacterial products. Paul Osemele made some trips back to the United States, and Kelechi visited his father on occasion and has been to Nigeria several times. The two also spoke regularly on the phone, but Kelechi yearned for something more.