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The transformer: Once a dangerously overweight teenager, Browns rookie Larry Ogunjobi used football to change his body and his life

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    Football helped Browns rookie defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi go from an overweight inactive teenager to a healthy, muscle-bound adult with a bright NFL future.

    STEVE MANHEIM / GAZETTE

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The inspirational story of Larry Ogunjobi’s improbable journey to Cleveland can’t be told without strawberry Pop-Tarts, concerned and supportive parents who had emigrated from Nigeria and a three-point stance months in the making.

It can’t be fully appreciated without the video shared by the Browns on social media after he was drafted in the third round to play defensive tackle. Great bodies are common in the NFL. Ogunjobi takes it to another level, with muscles upon muscles rippling across his back as he goes through a 1 a.m. workout six days before the draft.

“He’s beautiful,” coach Hue Jackson said.

Inner beauty aside, no coach in any sport would’ve said that about Ogunjobi seven years ago. He was a 350-pound 16-year-old in Greensboro, N.C., when the story begins.

Ogunjobi gave the “short” version minutes after being drafted April 28 in a 568-word answer. That’s not nearly enough to tell his amazing tale.

Pop-Tarts and Xbox

Mercy Ogunjobi knew her son was a “great kid” but that he had gotten dangerously fat. He was proficient at video games and spent too much time mastering “Halo” and “Call of Duty” rather than burning calories.

“He’d sit down, eat strawberry Pop-Tarts and just play games all day, all night,” said Mercy, who came to the U.S. in 1993. “He started packing weight.”

The concern intensified when Ogunjobi developed sleep apnea. A tonsillectomy didn’t fix the problem.

“We thought, we have to do something else, get him out, get him active,” Mercy said.

Ogunjobi’s parents hired a personal trainer but it didn’t take. Then one day while at the park, they met a coach who said he could help.

After a month of training and 20 dropped pounds, the coach went to Step 2.

“He said, ‘You’re going to play football.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ He said, ‘Yes, you are,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not,’” Ogunjobi said. “He got the permission slip from the lady at the front desk (at school), and took it to my mom and my mom signed it and I was on the football field that next Saturday.”

He was still too out of shape to complete the first workout, and the coaches were concerned he wouldn’t keep coming back.

“I thought, yes, I’m still here, Coach, but in my head I was only there because I had to be,” he said.

Ragsdale High School coach Tommy Norwood didn’t know much about Ogunjobi, except that he was “a big, old kid at school.”

“His parents were afraid he’d eat potato chips, play video games and die,” Norwood told The Chronicle-Telegram in a phone interview.

When Ogunjobi arrived on the football field, he was the last teenager in the sprints and too big to bend over and put his hand in the ground.

“He played about half the season in a two-point stance,” Norwood said. “Finally he was able to get in a three-point stance.”

Ogunjobi looked nothing like a future NFL player, but after the season he was named most improved on the junior varsity.

“Which seems like a small award, but in retrospect, that was the first time in my life where I felt like I earned an award that I actually worked for,” he said. “That is what kind of set the framework for everything that has happened up to this point.”

Just getting started

Ogunjobi suddenly was dreaming of getting recruited to play in college and was told by Norwood he needed to get faster and stronger and perfect his technique. So after practice, he’d go to the YMCA for another workout.

He started by running a half-mile and biking 5.

“Then it got to the point where I could run 2 whole miles without stopping and bike 15 miles, and my body composition started changing,” Ogunjobi said.

He went from 350 pounds to 237. After the weight loss came the strengthening.

He “bulked up” to 267 pounds by the time he was a senior and hasn’t stopped adding power, with the Browns listing him at 6-foot-2, 305 pounds and the muscles obvious when he rolls up his sleeves for practice.

“He lost all that weight and rebuilt it,” University of North Carolina Charlotte coach Brad Lambert said. “That’s what’s amazing about the story.”

Ogunjobi was 277 pounds in his first semester at Charlotte, which was in its first year with a football program and wouldn’t play a game until Year 2. The continued body transformation showed his work ethic and discipline, according to coaches, but after two months they believed he had gone “over the top” and told him he must slow down and focus on restoration.

“I didn’t understand the term overtrain because I was just so used to working so hard,” Ogunjobi said. “I realized that sometimes you have to work smarter, not harder. I made sure I understood that there is a balance. As hard as you work, you have to rest the same way.”

The work dominated the rest. He would run with the linebackers and running backs and make the required times in the 40-yard dash. And in the weight room he was in a league of his own.

Strength coach Jim Durning said they almost got into a fistfight when Ogunjobi was told he couldn’t do the full-range-of-motion bench press after a shoulder injury, and he didn’t want to stop after squatting 600 pounds.

“He always pushed himself,” Durning said. “You look at the team picture his first year here then the picture when he left and the transformation is unbelievable.

“He’s just a disciplined young man and set goals for himself.”

From JV to NFL

As good as Ogunjobi looks in the weight room, he wouldn’t have been a third-round pick if the speed and strength didn’t transfer to the field.

It took awhile.

“He started only as a sophomore and was clueless,” said Norwood, his high school coach. “By the time he was a senior, I thought he was a solid player.”

According to Norwood, the real jump came at Charlotte. He was given extra time to develop without the pressure of playing.

“It was the best move he could’ve made,” Norwood said. “That’s when he blossomed.”

Ogunjobi, who’s expected to play the three-technique tackle and nose tackle in the Browns’ new 4-3 scheme, started all 46 games in the program’s history and is the leader with 212 tackles, 49 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.

“He’s just a really good penetrator,” Lambert said. “He’s great at the point of attack. He has extremely good quickness.

“He made a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage for us.”

When Ogunjobi was a redshirt sophomore, Lambert began to think he might have a chance to get drafted. Lambert grew more confident when Charlotte made a jump in class the next year.

“He was playing against FBS competition and doing well, and I thought this guy might have an opportunity,” Lambert said. “But I never felt it would be this high.”

Genesis, Exodus, practice

Norwood wanted to yell at Ogunjobi for cutting it close arriving at practice.

He couldn’t.

“He would barely get to practice because he was reading the Bible,” Norwood said. “He was on time but barely on time. I don’t know how you fuss at somebody for doing that.”

The dedication and work ethic obvious in his physical transformation carry over into the rest of Ogunjobi’s life. He’s read the Bible several times and was a double major, getting a degree in computer science and winding up a couple of credits shy in biology.

“The most impressive thing about Larry, not only is he a good football player, he’s a great person,” Durning said. “When football is over, he’ll go back to med school, he’ll be a doctor, continue to pursue other goals and continue to be successful.”

The idea of becoming a doctor was planted when his maternal grandfather died of cancer when Ogunjobi was 7. The family stayed with him in Nigeria for the final three months.

“That really touched him,” Mercy said. “So when we came back, he said, ‘Mommy, I would like to be a doctor so I can do something about cancer.’”

Ogunjobi’s mom, dad and sister accompanied him to Berea for his introduction. He wouldn’t be where he is without them — and not just the initial kick in the rear.

“They’re solid. I think that’s the only word that can really describe them,” Norwood said. “They’re behind him 100 percent, with him 100 percent.”

“They’re a very appreciative, thankful family,” Lambert said. “Very sweet people.

“They made him who he is today.”

Mercy was asked about the pride she felt as Ogunjobi stood in front of cameras holding his Browns jersey.

“I’m not going to use the word ‘proud,’” she said. “I’m going to say I’m so thankful to God. I feel so blessed.

“It could have gone the other way — diabetic and all the other things that come with that, but now we’re here.”

After a lot of work. And a critical parental decision to take away his video games.

“It was really difficult. He cried. He thought we didn’t like him,” Mercy said. “He thought we were punishing him. But today …”

“It made all the difference,” Lambert said. “Making that change as a 16-year-old propelled him to everything he’s doing now.”

What a journey it’s been.

“From where he was to where he’s at now, night and day probably isn’t a good enough explanation,” Norwood said.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.



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