Ifeadi Odenigbo wasn't supposed to be living in America. He wasn't supposed to play football. And he wasn't supposed to be one of the 150 best high school seniors in the country.
The Centerville (Ohio) defensive end is doing all three, though. By this time next year, he'll be doing it at the highest level of college football, playing for a BCS conference team.
"I look at him and sometimes I'm amazed at what he's been able to accomplish," his mother, Linda, said.
A change of plans leads to a new home
Odenigbo's parents are from Nigeria and lived there until Linda came to the United States toward the end of 1991. A pediatrician, Linda traveled to New Jersey to complete her residency program in New York City. Her husband, Thomas, would visit her every so often but remained home in Nigeria.
"I came over initially just to get my residency program done," Linda said. "The original plan was to then go back home.
"When I got done, we made the decision to stay back here. There are better opportunities over here."
Ifeadi, the first of the Odenigbo family born in the United States, has made the most of those opportunities, too.
Set to graduate in the spring, Odenigbo has a 3.2 GPA and doesn't plan to use his football scholarship as a means of just getting to the NFL. Odenigbo, who has offers from nearly all of the country's elite programs, has cut his list to five schools. When first looking at his list, it would appear Odenigbo is going to college on an academic scholarship, not football.
His final five: California, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Stanford.
"The NFL should be called 'Not For Long,'" Odenigbo said. "The average career is three years. I can just blow out a knee and be done.
"To be honest, I'm not the smartest person. I can get into schools my friends can't get into with 4.0s," said Odenigbo, who wants to study computer science and eventually work for a major Internet company such as Yahoo! or Google. "My mom is a physician and my dad is an engineer, so I have a lot of expectations. A full scholarship to those schools plus good football programs -- I'd be crazy not to take it."
Odenigbo, 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, was very close to just being a normal senior planning for college instead of a football star who, only days after the contact period began, no longer had any room for messages on his cell phone voicemail because of constant calls from college coaches. Growing up, he had little interest in football and played soccer instead.
Thomas and Linda did not want their son playing football. They wanted his full attention to be on academics. Football? It just didn't look like something they wanted their son to do.
"We were very unfamiliar with football," Linda said. "It's such a contact sport. Why does it have to be so brutal?"
Once Odenigbo -- or more accurately, his friends -- became interested in football, he was persistent about playing.
"I got into it basically because of peer pressure from my friends," Odenigbo said. "They said, 'Ifeadi, you're big, fast and athletic. You're meant for football.'"
It took three years of "annoying" his parents, as Odenigbo described it, until they finally gave in. The first time Odenigbo stepped on to a football field was eighth grade.
The football career that almost wasn't
Odenigbo looked nothing like the player now ranked 51st overall in the ESPNU 150 and the No. 1 player in Ohio. He wasn't even a defensive end.
"They put me at receiver. I honestly could not catch the ball to save my life," Odenigbo said, laughing. "Nobody told me you're supposed to catch it with [the formation of] a diamond. I caught it with my palms instead of using my fingertips."
That nearly led Odenigbo to stop playing, but he stuck with it because he said "I'm just not a quitter."
Odenigbo's parents make academics the No. 1 priority, and football is more of a "side show," Linda said. She played basketball growing up, but Thomas' parents didn't allow him or his eight other siblings to play organized sports in Nigeria so that their full attention could be on their education.
So there was no debate on what was going to happen next.
"We wanted him to focus on academics," Thomas said. "We didn't want him playing football initially, because we didn't want him to be distracted. [Freshman year] we set a very high bar with his grades and he was able to fulfill that, and we allowed him to play [sophomore year]."
That's when Odenigbo was placed at defensive end -- a position he hated at first -- and his first year at defensive end was a lot like his first year at receiver.
"It went awful," he said.
Centerville coach Ron Ullery said his first impression of Odenigbo was that he was "really raw," which judging by Ullery's facial expression when he said it translates to "not very good." Ullery said they knew physically Odenigbo had potential, but it was going to take some time to develop.
"What really stopped me getting the hang of it was the hitting," Odenigbo said. "It's hard for hitting to come natural. Once you get the hitting, everything else clicks."
Odenigbo said he started feeling more comfortable toward the end of his sophomore season and took that momentum into the offseason. Three spots on Centerville's defensive line were already filled, leaving one sport for Odenigbo.
"I told myself the whole offseason I'll get stronger and faster and come back hungry," Odenigbo said. "People always told me I have a lot of potential, but it's pretty annoying when people say you have a lot of potential. You want to make a name for yourself. That whole year I played with a chip on my shoulder."
Even as a junior, Odenigbo's standout moment wouldn't come until the final game of the season, a playoff matchup against Wayne and star quarterback Braxton Miller, ESPNU's No. 4 quarterback in the Class of 2011 and now the starting QB at Ohio State.
Odenigbo didn't just sack Miller twice, he ran him down.
"That would be his 'wow' moment," Ullery said. "He ran down Braxton Miller, and Braxton Miller is fast."
Scholarships start pouring in
Ullery said it was after that game that Odenigbo started catching the eye of college scouts. A few months later, in early 2011, Odenigbo was inundated with phone calls from coaches and had scholarship offers coming from "left and right."
Many of those offers were for Odenigbo to sign as a linebacker instead of as a defensive end. Three of Odenigbo's final five -- California, Notre Dame and Stanford -- run a 3-4 defense and are recruiting Odenigbo to be a rush linebacker.
"They see that I have a quick first step and get off the ball pretty fast," Odenigbo said. "It won't be that hard getting adjusted in a 3-4 defense."
If he goes to a team that employs a 3-4, it will be Odenigbo's third position in just five years. It's the first one he's finally looking forward to; the one he feels finally fits his skill set.
"I'm pretty excited about linebacker," he said. "I'm pretty undersized for a defensive lineman. ... I never did get any bigger [since sophomore year]."
Seconds later, Odenigbo shifts gears and shows again why he's wise beyond his 17 years.
While early playing time has increasingly become a major factor in recruiting and a depth chart is sometimes the first -- and only -- thing a recruit looks at, Odenigbo said he hopes he doesn't see the field until fall 2013, an entire year after he enrolls in college.
"I want to redshirt my freshman year. What I realized is patience is a key," Odenigbo said. "Every freshman's dream is to play freshman year, but my deal is to redshirt. I'm in no rush.
"I want to get into my major, have the defense down and be comfortable."
Whichever school Odenigbo ends up at and whichever position he plays, his work ethic, Ullery said, will be why he's successful on the field and in the classroom.
That work ethic was supposed to remain within the walls of Centerville High School, not within the white hash marks of Centerville Stadium.
Of course, Thomas Odenigbo isn't surprised that his son has become one of the country's most dominant high school players in only three years of organized football.
He and Linda share the same sentiment.
"I won't tell you I'm surprised -- I'm amazed," Thomas said. "The whole thing is pure amazing to me."
Jared Shanker covers Midwest recruiting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.