The improbable journey of Auburn OT Prince Tega Wanogho
AUBURN, Ala. — When Todd Taylor met Edgewood Academy’s new exchange student at the Montgomery Regional Airport in late July 2014, once hands were shaken and pleasantries swapped, he suggested Prince Tega Wanogho start his new life in the United States by accompanying him to Delta baggage claim to retrieve his suitcase.
"This is it," Wanogho said, motioning to the small backpack that hung from his shoulder. "This is all I have."
Inside that backpack was one change of clothes, a Nigerian passport and a student visa, a few family photographs, a bible gifted to him by his mother, and $20 cash he’d converted from his country’s depressed naira currency. Those were the only tools he brought to pursue his goal of a college basketball scholarship and whatever prosperity he could create for his family back in Delta State, Nigeria. It was light traveling, indeed, for a one-way flight to a new world and no immediate plans to return home.
"I didn’t want to bring too much old stuff to a new beginning," he says.
He wore jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a jacket — way too heavy for a sweltering Alabama summer. But he was coming from a part of the world where there is no summer, or even four seasons. Nigeria has only two: wet and dry, and Wanogho had left his homeland in the heart of the March-to-September rainy season. In his hand was an old, dead Nokia phone that didn’t interface with chargers sold in the United States. When its battery gave out somewhere along his 18-hour flight, with connections through Amsterdam, New York and Atlanta, the phone became trash.
Life was moving at a breakneck pace for a 6-foot-7 power forward whose shoe size (17) was outpacing his age (16). But the real acceleration hadn’t even begun.
Within eight months of his arrival to the United States, his plan to play college basketball unraveled, and football — a sport he knew absolutely nothing about — became his new, golden ticket. He’ll cash it next spring when his transformational experience in the U.S. makes him a prized selection in the NFL draft, but that notoriety has come at a troubling price. The attention that comes with his success can be met with joy by some in his native homeland, but with jealousy by others. And with that comes a set of worries for Wanogho that his circle of support in America can’t fully comprehend.
It’s been a heavy burden for anyone’s shoulders to bear, even a pair as wide as Auburn’s 305-pound senior left tackle. But this much he knows: football has created an opportunity for himself and his loved ones that he never thought possible when his flight to the U.S. first hit the MGM tarmac. As it turned out, he brought a few more tools than his backpack revealed — namely, a rare physical skill set better suited to protecting quarterbacks than dunking basketballs.
And who needs a suitcase for that?
* * * * *
From purely an academic perspective, the arrangement could be seen as temporary — Wanogho would finish high school while living with Edgewood assistant basketball coach Todd Taylor’s family, and hopefully move onto college basketball from there. On the matter of guidance in life, however, Princess Onome Wanogho intended for the Taylors’ relationship with her son to be permanent.
The mothers had spoken only a few times before — a couple of phone calls, and some Facebook messaging. Still, they built a personal connection as Christians, and Christy Taylor considered it a testament to Princess Onome’s faith that she would entrust one of her nine children to the Taylor family based on so little preliminary communication. Christy’s first instinct as a new "host mom" was to have Wanogho call his mother and let her know his journey to the U.S. was completed safely. Then she took the phone after Tega had done so, and quickly realized how strongly his mother believed in her son’s ability to adapt as an American.
"I asked her what his favorite foods are," Christy said, tears welling in her eyes recalling her now-deceased, long-distance friend. "And she says, ‘His favorites do not matter now. You cook, and he will eat.’ "
Assimilating to American cuisine was Wanogho’s quickest and easiest transition. Zaxby’s chicken became an early and lasting favorite, and his appetite was voracious. Lauren Fleming, the Taylors’ oldest child, recalls her first visit home after Tega’s arrival. She came downstairs one morning and saw her mother juggling multiple trays of biscuits.
"I tell my mom I’m going to go back to change (from pajamas) into nicer clothes, because it was obvious company was coming over for breakfast," said Fleming, the director of events and outreach for the Senior Bowl.
"Nobody is coming over," Christy replied. "I’ve been doing this since Tega got here."
Despite Wanogho’s instant taste for American food, the cultural divide was steep.
As a child, Tega thought American kids were spoiled because they could pull money from public boxes at will. He later learned those greedy ATM grabs had to be backed by deposits. Then there were the ignorant confusions on this side of the Atlantic. Tega was asked so often at Edgewood whether he’d hunted lions or tigers that he began, in fun, attributing a scar on his right arm to a tiger scratch.
The first time Christy took Tega clothes shopping, she handed him a pair of shorts to try on, he wrapped them around his head and declared that they would fit just fine. If half the length of the waistband fits well around the neck, he explained, the shorts will fit the waist just as well.
"I don’t know what you’re doing," Christy replied, "but you’re trying those on in the dressing room before we get them. "
Of course, there was no need. Having passed Wanogho’s neck test, the shorts fit perfectly.
* * * * *
Edgewood coach Bobby Carr knew Wanogho had arrived in the U.S. to pursue a basketball dream, but surprisingly had little trouble convincing him to give football a try. He certainly had no doubt an athlete of Wanogho’s size, even with no experience, could be a big help to a team that competed in the Alabama Independent Schools Association, a collection of smaller schools, often with limited roster numbers, that competes apart from the regular state association.
It would be a fine way, Carr told him, to stay in good physical shape while he awaited the start of basketball season. Wanogho didn’t tell his mother in Nigeria that he was participating; she surely would have objected.
"Football wasn’t the plan," Wanogho said.
During Wanogho’s first week in the United States, he showed up for his first football workout and was measured at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds. Carr also was timing his players in the 40-yard dash in advance of preseason practice. There were certainly no pairs of size-17 cleats at Edgewood, so Carr timed Wanogho in hi-top tennis shoes, on grass rather than a track, and couldn’t believe the two readings: 4.62 and 4.64.
Carr already knew a special athlete was coming to Edgewood after seeing a video of Wanogho dunking basketballs in Nigeria in advance of his enrollment. But the 40-yard dash times let him know just how special.
"I’d never seen a kid that big move that fast," Carr said. "But I had no doubt he could impact the team without much base knowledge."
Or, as it turned out, none at all.
The Taylors’ son, Zach, taught Wanogho the different parts of the uniform, and how to fit his jersey over empty shoulder pads, then put both on at once. Eleven players per side? It had to be explained. The object of the game and the definition of the line of scrimmage? Those concepts alone took time to absorb.
Carr put him at defensive end with the simplest of marching orders: chase the ball. The day of his first game, Zach and an assistant coach explained to him the concept of scoop-and-score for defensive players recovering a fumble. That night, in his first game, he picked up a fumble and scored. He also served as Edgewood’s kickoff specialist — his background in soccer gave him a powerful leg — and he’d frequently make the tackle on kickoff returns, covering his own kicks unblocked because the opposition wasn’t inclined to get in his way.
Still, Wanogho’s head was swimming in basics, and things were about to get much more complicated.
He initially entered Edgewood as a 16-year-old junior, but when the school received more information from his Nigerian equivalent of an academic transcript, they realized he had the necessary credits to be reclassified as a senior. He adapted to classroom work with ease, making straight A’s at Edgewood.
"I used to get on our players who were making C’s in English," Carr said. "I told them, ‘Tega just got here from Nigeria and he’s making an A. You’ve lived here all your life and you get a C. ‘ "
Wanogho’s academic standing, however, put an even bigger rush on his athletic development. Reclassifying as a senior meant he’d play just one year of high school sports, instead of two. Before he’d even played his first high school basketball game — which is where his plan to earn a college scholarship was supposed to have begun — top football programs were already buzzing with excitement about him. A game film of Wanogho that Carr had distributed to top colleges had caught wildfire; AU coach Gus Malzahn said Wanogho’s combination of size and speed were so evident from even a small sample of film, that a scholarship offer was merited after the AU staff had a chance to meet him.
Soon after the attention began to intensify, college coaches learned of Wanogho’s reclassification, which meant they would have to squeeze him into the 2015 signing class, rather than 2016. Barely more than two months after Wanogho had to be shown where to insert pads into the pockets inside a pair of football pants, SEC coaches were in the Taylors’ living room, inundating him with attention and vying for his signature. He was offered scholarships by Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Ohio State, Notre Dame and many others. Florida asked Carr for a photo of Wanogho standing in a door frame to properly assess his size before the Gators traveled to Edgewood to recruit him in person.
They didn’t care that the most basic rules of the game were entirely new to him. They didn’t care that things as simple as proper tackling form would take time — maybe years — to instill in a kid with none of the instinctiveness that comes with experience.
"The first school to offer him was Kentucky," said Carr. "And at first, he thought it was John Calipari calling to take him for basketball. "
To help Wanogho understand the distance from the Taylors’ home to each school that offered a scholarship, Christy bought a U.S. map and displayed it with a red pin stuck on Montgomery, and pins in each campus town that was an option for him. Throughout his recruitment, the Auburn pin was never unseated as the closest to the home pin; Montgomery and Auburn are just an hour apart.
By season’s end, the map had been pricked about 30 times.
"From that point, our house was a zoo," Todd Taylor said. "It was like every coach in the SEC was lined up outside. It just took off."
The following January, Wanogho broke his leg playing basketball. He called home and told his mother — not long before the NCAA signing day for football — that he tried the new sport the previous fall, and that his basketball injury signaled a change in plans. Onome wasn’t happy, but her goal for her son was a college education. The importance of a good education is deeply rooted in Nigerian culture — parents commonly make significant sacrifices for their children to be afforded the best possible schooling. Onome was jarred by the idea that her son wanted to abandon basketball as an educational pathway, but this much she understood: he hadn’t drawn scholarship offers in basketball they’d once hoped for, but for this other sport, the world was at his feet.
* * * * *
Last fall, Wanogho sat in the plush confines of the Auburn Athletic Complex — the 100,000 square-foot home of his NFL pursuit — and felta bit helpless. He was surrounded by teammates also working to better their families’ lives with an NFL career, but Wanogho’s wish to do the same is a more complicated undertaking.
The internet shortens the 6,000-mile distance from Auburn to Delta State down to a mouse-click, so his success as a college football player is well known there. But there is a lack of understanding in Nigeria that college success is merely a precursor to an NFL payday. He says there is a misguided perception that he’s already flush with cash; indeed, simply moving to the U.S. creates a presumption of wealth in his homeland. As such, his siblings — seven sisters and a brother — must become increasingly more careful, increasingly more cautious, as his notoriety grows.
Spite and jealousy, Wanogho said, are at the heart of the danger. The primary risk: abduction for ransom.
"There’s all types of violence over there, and you never know," Wanogho said. "You don’t know what people are thinking, what they are planning. That’s what scares me over there. I try to advise them to stay on the low, do nothing out of the ordinary, not to act like you’ve arrived at something, and be vigilant of their surroundings. That’s my advice to them every time I talk to them."
Kidnappings in the Delta State are more often attributable to the acrimonious relationship between its people and the Nigerian government over the oil business. The area produces the bulk of Nigerian oil, and the prevailing sentiment is that the government claims, seizes and profits from that oil while failing to enrich the lives of the residents. Eminent domain runs amok, and tempers can flare. Non-violent protesters have been known to block the roads traveled by oil tankers, but more serious crime, such as abductions, can befall those thought to be oil-rich.
Prominent athletes and their relatives, however, can be targets as well. Earlier this year, the mother of Samuel Kalu, a soccer player on the Nigerian national team who also plays professionally for the French club Bordeaux, was kidnapped. It happened in the Nigerian city of Abia, about 120 miles from where Wanogho grew up in Warri, and she was released following multiple ransom payments. An initial demand was paid, but was reportedly followed by a second demand of 50 million naira (about $138,000). The Nigerian team captain’s father was taken for ransom in 2018 for the second time in seven years.
The man who discovered Wanogho’s potential as a basketball player and helped facilitate his move to the United States, Eyo Effiong, is a former college basketball player himself and now a CPA from Oklahoma who runs a basketball camp in Nigeria for kids. According to Effiong, the risk for Wanogho’s family members can be significantly reduced by the way they conduct themselves. The most dangerous thing they could do, Effiong said, would be to boast about a brother on the brink of an NFL jackpot.
"Your appearance and things you say can put you more at risk. When I go back, I am careful about where I go, about what I say," Effiong said. "There can be abductions for ransom. Sometimes I change the way I talk a little bit. I wear traditional garb. You don’t want too many people to think you are from America."
Wanogho’s rise to draft-worthy status as Auburn’s All-SEC left tackle already has been noted in the Delta State in some concerning ways. When it became known he had left for the United States, his mother’s rent was raised by her landlord. So, she moved, but when it later became known that he’d accepted a college scholarship to Auburn, the rent in the new place went up, too.
"With what he’s told me of how corrupt it is over there," said one of Wanogho’s best friends on the AU team, Gary Walker Jr., the son of former NFL DE Gary Walker, "they’ve got ways of handling stuff that people here wouldn’t even understand."
* * * * *
The one-hour drive from Prattville, Ala., to Auburn was gut-wrenching.
That’s how long the Taylors had to decide how they would break the news to Wanogho that his mother had died. It was February 2017, and Wanogho’s oldest sister, Tina, was hysterical when she called the Taylors, but obliged when the couple asked that they be allowed to tell their adopted son in person. Details were vague — the Taylors gathered she had some heart trouble and might have taken some incorrect medication.
Wanogho already lost his father when he was 10, also to illness, and now the Taylors had the unenviable task of telling him he’d lost his mother as well.
"That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. The team chaplain came. The position coach (Herb Hand) was there, Gus (Malzahn) was there," an emotional Christy said. "Gus told us to get him out of there and take our time."
Back in the bedroom he occupied in the Taylor home while attending Edgewood, Wanogho laid on the floor between his bed and the wall for about 36 hours, looking at some of the photos of his family he’d initially brought in his backpack. He declined food until Zach finally broke through with a plate of chicken wings.
In subsequent weeks, his grief was compounded by a recommendation from his oldest brother and oldest sister that he not return to Warri for his mother’s memorial service, due to concerns for his safety. Such services in Nigeria are conducted months after death, not days, and Wanogho considered ignoring that advice and going anyway.
But if his siblings were at risk for crime because of his success in the U.S., Wanogho himself would certainly be a target, as well. And ignoring the advice of an older brother or sister isn’t as easy for a Nigerian as it might be in the United States. Socially, status in Nigeria can be gained and lost not through material possessions, but by the way one honors or dishonors the local community. Elders are respected to the point that their advice on certain matters can be all but binding. With both parents deceased, the recommendation of Wanogho’s two oldest siblings, Kelvin and Tina, carried its share of weight. And it was echoed by various Nigerian-Americans Wanogho knows, as well as pastors from his Nigerian Christian church, Winner’s Chapel, and the Taylors.
Besides, he wouldn’t risk the possibility that his very presence might put his family in a less safe position.
"They agreed I should just continue my education and go back one day when the time is right, which was really tough because everything I try to do, try to accomplish, it wasn’t for me. It was for her," Wanogho said. "She made big sacrifices for me to be here. Everything I do is to make her proud. And it doesn’t feel the same now. But I still have family and sisters to take care of."
Wanogho eventually returned to Nigeria for the second time out of necessity, as his student visa was due for renewal. But for the same reason — worries that a return to Warri could draw spiteful action — he never left Abuja, the country’s capital and home of the consulate where his visa must be handled. Instead, his siblings traveled from Warri and spent several days with him before seeing him off on his return flight.
Christian Okoye, the NFL’s first Nigerian-born non-kicker who was best known as the Nigerian Nightmare at the peak of his career in 1989 (when he won an NFL rushing title), regularly consulted his father about how his success in the United States could impact his family in Nigeria, but there were never any problems. Just as Wanogho has advised his siblings to maintain a more low-key existence, Okoye said his family knew the value in that as well.
"They kept things to themselves until I started making the money that I made," Okoye said. "Then, of course, you can’t really hide it because it’s all over the newspapers and television."
Told Wanogho was advised to avoid his hometown upon returning to Nigeria, Okoye was not surprised.
* * * * *
NFL scouts see great promise in Wanogho’s physical traits but still consider him raw from a technique standpoint.
They profile him as a special athlete still facing a significant learning curve, which makes it difficult to project him as a rookie starter.
"He definitely looks the part. You hear talk about potential first-round grades for him. Maybe that happens but based on the way he’s played football to this point, that’s a stretch to me," said an AFC personnel executive. "Getting his eyes, feet and hands all working together, he’s not there yet. But he’s a big guy who can really move."
Indeed, he might not be running in the 4.6s anymore at 305 pounds, but he’s still running under 5.0 — a benchmark of sorts for his position. But it’s the more relevant clocking for offensive linemen — the 10-yard split — that will really grab attention at the scouting combine later this month. Auburn strength coach Ryan Russell has recorded Wanogho’s split times (the first 10 yards of a 40-yard dash) as low as 1.65 seconds, very swift for someone of Wanogho’s size. For comparison, Jonah Williams — the first offensive tackle selected in the 2019 draft — ran a 1.77 10-yard split at the combine.
The scouting word on Wanogho isn’t in dispute among the Auburn coaches who have had a hand in his development. He’s an All-SEC left tackle based more on athleticism than technique. His transformation into an offensive tackle, nearly four years in the making, isn’t yet complete. He spent his first year at Auburn redshirting as a defensive end and didn’t move to the offensive line until 2016. Herb Hand, who has since moved onto Texas, was his position coach. And since Wanogho had only played defense in his short exposure in the sport, the teaching had to begin with the most rudimentary of fundamentals. Forget assignments; Hand began with stance, establishing proper foot splits with guards, learning snap counts. Hand likened the challenge, in its earliest stages, to coaching at a children’s clinic.
"You talk about a ball of clay," Hand said. "We could see he was a great athlete with a great attitude, but he had no foundation for the position. It was ground zero."
Ironically, one of the most difficult things for offensive linemen to do — reach linebackers and sustain blocks in space — is what comes easiest to Wanogho. Hand said the first flashes of potential Wanogho showed in practice came on screen passes, reverses, and other plays that challenged him to run and block moving targets in the open field.
"He can really play in space, and for most offensive linemen, blocking in space is extremely tough," AU coach Gus Malzahn said.
Still, there is much yet to learn. His Auburn position coach, J.B. Grimes, said last fall that Wanogho was in the second of three educational stages for offensive linemen.
"There’s who you block, how you block, and then … why am I doing it this way?" Grimes said. "He’s got the first part down. He’s now mastering the how — getting his eyes and hands and hips and feet right. He’s come a long way already. And his decision to come back and play another year is going to help him get to the why of it, which is the PhD level of understanding."
* * * * *
Wanogho’s grandfather had the title of king in the family’s rural-set village, Orogun, although Wanogho described the title, in U.S. terms, as a mayor established without a formal election. Wanogho’s parents raised their children in Warri, about 40 miles from Orogun; returns to the village were usually reserved only for ceremonial events. Traditions abound in Nigeria, but they’re splintered among nearly 300 ethnicities. The official language is English, but local dialects are common.
This much, however, translates in any language: Wanogho is in this to better the quality of life for what remains of his family.
Much of the NCAA cost-of-living stipend he received was sent homes. His sisters’ well-being is a constant in the back of his mind.
Okoye said Wanogho’s motivation — his siblings’ quality of life — can be especially powerful coming from Nigeria.
"We are by nature a very determined people," he said. "When we find something that gives us a chance to succeed, we’ll work extremely hard at it. … I brought my foundation back home, and kids there are begging for the opportunities kids here might ignore, because opportunities (in the U.S) are everywhere."
On his first visit back to Nigeria, long before he was regarded as a 2020 NFL Draft prospect, Wanogho ventured all the way to his hometown. He arrived with little more in tow than what he had in his backpack when he first set his feet in the U.S. But he brought a lasting gift he’s thankful his mother got to see before her death: a scrapbook that Christy compiled as a written and pictorial chronicling of his experiences in the U.S. He’s hoping the only two siblings younger than him, sisters Gloria and Victoria, still of high school age, can visit AU for a 2019 home game, and perhaps one day finish their educations here as he has. As Okoye has done, he also wants to establish a foundation for Warri’s youth, and perhaps build a children’s recreational facility.
But most of all, he’d like all his siblings to come to the U.S. to stay.
Kelvin, the oldest, in his 40s, works in the oil business and has always helped provide for his sisters.
Tina married a pastor and has four children.
Princess handles the cooking.
Dolly has a temper.
Joy, Tega says, is soft on the inside but sometimes acts tough.
Mimi can be a bit paranoid.
Gloria is, along with Tega, the most athletic of the children.
Victoria, the baby, is a touch spoiled.
"If I’m able to provide protection for them, I’m going to do it. I grew up in a big family and our parents made us understand that family comes first, that it’s not about making money," Wanogho said. "There are a lot of things I could do. I could try to get them in a safer environment, somewhere better to stay. … I just hope I can make things better for them."
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