Owa Odighizuwa's road from tragedy to NFL draft triumph

Owamagbe Odighizuwa remembers being confused.

He was 9 years old, old enough to see the news reports about his father having killed three people and wounding three others on the campus of Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia. Old enough to understand that his life and that of his mother and three brothers had changed.

But beyond that, he was a child, the oldest of four brothers -- four confused children.

"We were in a small, small town," he said. "We were the only minorities. My mom was scared for us. She didn't know what to expect from anybody there. She acted very quickly."

The hospital where his mother, Abieyuwa "AB" Odighizuwa, worked arranged for the family to stay at a hotel that night. They fled to New York the next day to stay with AB's brother for two weeks. Then came a permanent trip to Oregon to be close to other family members in a place she felt would be safe to raise her sons.

In Oregon, hardly anybody knew what Peter Odighizuwa had done.

In Oregon, Owa Odighizuwa became the man of the house, even as a child, then a football player, then a coveted high school football recruit, a standout pass-rusher at UCLA and a college graduate. He now sits on the cusp of becoming an NFL player. ESPN.com ranks him as the sixth-best defensive end in this year's draft, and most projections have him going in the second or third round.

Tragedy and confusion began this journey for Odighizuwa, his brothers and his mother. But that journey ultimately took them toward a stable and secure life, propelled by a woman who hid her own fear and confusion because she had no other choice.

"I just told them it's going to be us now -- the five of us now," Abieyuwa said. "We have to work together as a family to make it. We cannot work against each other. ... I said, 'You guys don't have anybody else and I don't have anybody else but you guys. Let's work together to be successful.'"

She had split the family once before and didn't want that again.

When Odighizuwa was 3 years old, the family was living in Ohio, where he'd been born. With AB working and Peter at school, it was difficult for them to provide supervision for their children. Odighizuwa and his first brother were sent to Benin City, Nigeria, to live with their grandparents.

Odighizuwa remembers the dirt roads and playing with local kids. He remembers teachers were allowed to spank him if he was bad.

The separation became unbearable for AB.

And while being in Nigeria was difficult for Odighizuwa in some ways, returning home five years later wasn't easy, either. His parents' fighting took a toll.

"I would say he saved me," AB said of her oldest son. "He is the one that was hurting when their dad and I were together. He was hurting the most."

She said her husband was sometimes violent at home. Peter Odighizuwa declined to be interviewed for this story through a spokesperson for the Virginia state prison system.

One day, Odighizuwa overheard an argument in which his mother told his father she was leaving.

"His teacher noticed the change in his attitude," AB said. "His teacher said he never says anything in class. She asked him, 'Why are you so happy today?' And he said, 'My mom is leaving my dad.' That was the driving force where I decided if he's happy just knowing I said that, that will change a whole lot."

Not long after that day, Peter made a decision that changed all of their futures. According to news reports, he had just been informed he would be suspended from Appalachian School of Law because of failing grades. On Jan. 16, 2002, he ran at the dean of the school with a .380 semiautomatic pistol and killed the dean, another faculty member and a student.

Peter is currently serving three life sentences at Virginia's Red Onion State Prison for three counts of capital murder and several smaller sentences for attempted murder and weapons charges, according to court and prison records. Odighizuwa hasn't spoken to him since the day the family left Virginia to start a new life, and neither he nor his brothers ever talk about their father.

"I think naturally over time it just became a distant memory," Odighizuwa said. "Obviously we were young, so it was easy not to feel super connected to the situation. ... We're fortunate, we just weren't influenced by it. It didn't affect us in a negative way."

AB did everything she could to make sure it wouldn't.

"I had my fear and I had my doubts, but I never let it be there for them to see," she said. "When they see fear, they become fearful as well, but when they see somebody strong, they want to emulate that. That's what I think they saw. ... Behind the scenes, I was going crazy, but it was more showing up, letting them see that they have somebody they can rely on, that they can talk to, that they can trust. Give them the strength to do what they needed to do."

Life in Oregon wasn't easy either, but it wasn't until he was older that Odighizuwa, now 23, truly understood that. He was a child who loved to play. He liked school and the friends he made there.

When he was 11 years old, around the time his father's prison sentences began, Odighizuwa started taking care of his younger brothers. His mother began working an overnight shift at a hospital, relying on Owa to get his brothers ready in the morning so she could take them to school as soon as she got home from work. He learned how to cook simple meals on a George Foreman grill.

AB made sure her boys never associated with people she didn't know. They weren't allowed to sleep over anywhere but at their cousins' homes.

Odighizuwa played basketball and ran track, and in eighth grade he started begging his mother to let him play football. She relented despite concerns about the sport's violence.

"I just love the fact that it was a competitive game," Odighizuwa said. "It was a survival-of-the-fittest type of environment. You against him. Man on man. Mano a mano. Those are situations I thrive in, competing against another man."

It turned out he was good enough to play varsity football as a sophomore at David Douglas High School in Portland.

"I think he changed," said Greg Carradine, his high school defensive line coach. "He became more focused and ... I think he saw football as an opportunity to get an education."

He chose UCLA for that education. He began to see significant playing time as a junior in 2012 despite suffering a hip injury in the second game of the season. Odighizuwa played the rest of the year on the defensive line alongside two future NFL players -- Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh.

He had hip surgery after that season, but he overcompensated in his rehab and then needed surgery on the other hip. It meant a redshirt year during which defensive line coach Angus McClure treated him as a graduate assistant.

Each week, as UCLA prepared for its next opponent, Odighizuwa would study the following week's opponent. On Mondays, he presented his findings to Bruins' defensive linemen.

"He did an outstanding job, and what it did it really lifted him to a leadership position in the room," McClure said.

Odighizuwa walked in last June's graduation ceremony before finishing the classes for his philosophy degree in December. His mother attended the ceremony, feeling like she was "on top of the world."

That moment was validation that the difficult choices she made for her children were the right ones.

Exactly one week before the NFL draft, Odighizuwa sat in McClure's office watching film of the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles, two teams that have expressed interest in him, to study their systems and how he might fit in.

"I've been coaching for 23 years," McClure said. "He has been in my office and watched film more than any player I've coached. He's one of those kids who's just intrinsically motivated."

The pre-draft process can be overwhelming, but it's been fun for Odighizuwa.

"I just like everything about it, just getting ready to finally be playing and calling football your profession," he said. "All the things that it takes to be in the position to do that, from my combine, pro day, private workouts, visits -- I've enjoyed it all. It's all leading up to that day when you can say you're a professional player."

The draft process, though, is only the latest step in a path that began long ago. It was a path that forced him to grow up quickly.

"For her it was definitely a leap of faith, because she did have to start over and she did struggle," Odighizuwa said. "We did struggle. She just shielded us from all that. ... I hope she feels there will be a big -- she'll see the fruits of her labor so to speak."

AB credits her son, but from his perspective, all this happened because of the steps she took 13 years ago and every step she's taken since then.