Oluwole Betiku Jr. took a bumpy 16-hour bus ride from his home in Lagos, Nigeria, through roadblocks and down rutted streets, to a sports camp in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, he had heard about in passing. Though he had hoped to join the screening for basketball, when he realised that he was a ‘dwarf’ when compared to his 6’3 height to boys of seven-footers he opted for American football, a sport he had never played before and thart marked the beginning of his rise to stardom
Hundreds of boys from every corner of the country had made their way to the town of Uyo, sometime in 2013, hoping to impress scouts enough to earn a ticket to play sports at an American high school.
Coaches initially instructed the boys to divide themselves into two groups: football or basketball. After a weeklong camp of intense workouts and drills, scouts would identify the young men with the most potential.
Oluwole Betiku, who enjoyed playing pickup basketball, thought hoops was his route. Then he watched the majority of boys – seemingly hundreds measuring at least 6-foot-7 – stride over to the basketball group. Only 50 basketball players would be taken. Far fewer boys lined up for football.
Betiku conducted a quick risk-reward calculation.
“I’m like, ‘They’re definitely taking 48 tall guys,’ “ Betiku told the Tribune. “They weren’t interested in 6-3 basketball players. They were looking for Dikembe Mutombo types. I thought about my chances and said: ‘You know what? I’ll just pick football.’”
Never mind that he had never put on a helmet and knew virtually nothing about the rules. But this is Betiku: He ponders. He considers the long haul. He invests in himself.
His deliberate introspection and patience led “Wole” from the bustling Nigerian capital of 20 million people to become a five-star high school recruit in California, then a seldom-used outside linebacker at USC and now the nation’s co-leader in sacks as an Illinois defensive end.
Heading into last Saturday night’s home game against Nebraska, Betiku has six sacks in three games and also leads the nation with 71/2 tackles for a loss for the Illini (2-1).
“Wole has been outstanding with his play,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “He’s a physical guy. I’m anxious to see him take another step. The sky’s the limit for him.”
As a boy, Betiku believed it was too. But how would he leave Nigeria? How would he make it? What does making it even look like?
His father, a former amateur boxer and soccer player, is a mechanic who built Betiku’s first weight set out of car flywheels and gear parts. He encouraged Wole – against his cautious mother’s wishes – to play street soccer with other kids to refine his athleticism.
While he didn’t play organised sports, competing and working out became important outlets.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who’s gotten more eviction letters than my family,” Betiku said. “We had to move to really remote areas in Lagos where the roads are so bad and are flooded. It was really sad. Training and lifting weights was my way to not think about that a lot. I started playing basketball and thinking about a chance to come to the U.S. in any way I can.”
At 16, before obtaining a visa and emmigrating, he created a highlight video of himself in Lagos to showcase his abilities. The video shows him, already brawny, sprinting and working on footwork on a dirt field as scrawny kids watch. He repeatedly jumps onto a waist-high concrete wall and does squats and bench presses with his homemade weights.
He didn’t know much about football or America – but he knew it could lead to a new path.
Tears welled in Betiku’s eyes as he listened to Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” while his flight lifted off from Lagos, away from his brother, sister and parents to live with a host family on the U.S. East Coast. Only a few months had passed since he was selected at the sports camp.
“Whenever I hear that song, I get chills,” Betiku said. “I just remember thinking: ‘Damn, I don’t know where I’m going. I’ve never met any of these people before.’”
He arrived in Maryland in 2013 after the high school football season. He moved to Gardena, Calif., and attended Serra High School his junior and senior seasons.
He had idealised America. Maybe football wouldn’t be a breeze, but really how hard could it be? “You think you’re going to come to the U.S. and it’s all (perfect),” he said. “You do your first drill and get in the weight room. You think: ‘Damn, the ground is the same. It’s just a different location.’ That was the first awakening.” He barely understood the basics of the sport, let alone the intricacies of his position. The game was a puzzle.
“I would be like, ‘How did the ball get over there?’” he said.
When Serra coach Scott Altenberg provided equipment for practice, Betiku declined some of the pads, assuming they were optional.
“He really had no connection to football,” Altenberg said. “He was very talented and very eager to learn. He had a huge desire. He really wanted to be good and looked at it as an opportunity. He was very businesslike about it. It was like watching a grown-up assess something.”
Betiku broke his wrist in the third game of his junior season, yet finished the year with 111/2 sacks. As a senior, he registered 70 tackles and 17 sacks. A five-star prospect ranked No. 15 nationally and the No. 1 weak-side defensive end, he chose USC over 21 other offers, including Notre Dame, Florida State and Alabama.
Again, Betiku’s patience was tested.
In his first two seasons with the Trojans, he played in 14 games but no more than two snaps in at least half of them. He then sat out the 2018 season after hip surgery.
“Some days I would be on the sideline and a tear would just roll out my eye,” he said. “Nothing hurts more than just watching the whole game. Am I a good player? Am I a bad player? I don’t know but I know I practice hard. In order for me to know where I stand as a player, I have to go against competition .”
He studied NFL players whose success didn’t come immediately and he decided to stick with football – just somewhere else.
Betiku liked Illinois’ defensive line rotation and figured he would have a better chance at playing time. He arrived in Champaign this summer as a graduate transfer with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
“It doesn’t have to happen your freshman year,” he said. “It doesn’t have to happen in two years. It doesn’t have to happen in five years. Your path is different. You just have to keep working. Good things are going to happen.”
They seem to be happening now for Betiku.
Betiku has evolved over the last seven years – and not only on the field.
His Champaign apartment won’t truly feel like home until he buys new canvases, brushes, palette knives and bright acrylic paints. He bought a semi-hollow body guitar but hasn’t been able to strum it regularly since preseason camp began in August. The busy football schedule limits his time for his other passions. And it’s important to Betiku that fans realise he and other players enjoy various interests and talents.
“All of my life, I never played sports seriously. I was seen as a person before,” he said. “I moved to the United States, all of a sudden, everywhere I go: ‘Oh, you play football. You’re that guy. You have dreadlocks and you’re a big black guy. You must play football.’
“My social media posts were all football, and I realised I was attracting a certain type of people only interested in me because I play football. The conversation got boring.”
There is no denying Betiku’s magnificent frame. At 6-3 and 250 pounds, his biceps bulge from cutoff sleeves of a hoodie at postgame news conferences.
“The question I get tired of hearing is: ‘How much do you squat? How much do you bench press?’” he said.
Sharing his artistry has been eye-opening.
Betiku’s Instagram page is dedicated to his art: luscious landscapes, self-portraits, Egyptian queens. His music is a mix of blues and Afrobeat. He hopes to tell his story through music and aims to emulate Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Ghanaian guitarist Ebo Taylor and various American blues guitarists. “I want it to last for generations, even 200 years,” he said. “In order to make that type of music, it takes a lot of patience and investment in myself.”
His art is becoming as much a part of his conversations as football. He hopes it helps his future too.
“I’m not saying I don’t love the sport, but there’s so much more to life,” he said. “I needed to show I was more than just an athlete. In the NFL, it’s a short career. It ends fast. People go through frustration and a lot of depression because they have nothing else to do. I don’t want to be one of those guys.”
Betiku sketched and drew comics as a child. He became interested in creating art again at USC when he sat out last season. He frequented galleries and museums in Los Angeles and found Bob Ross’ 1980s how-to video tutorials.
He began meditating during this time, focusing on strengthening his body and mind. He taught himself guitar and piano. He called it “therapeutic.”
“When I listen to blues music, I get goosebumps,” Betiku said. “Guys have that emotion when they play. I listen when I paint. It adds to the strokes that I paint. It comes out beautiful.”
Betiku hasn’t seen his dad and brother, both in Nigeria, for about seven years. His sister and mom, who is a nanny, live in Dallas; he last saw them at his USC graduation in May.
He sends photos to his dad and texts his mom about his accomplishments. “She doesn’t know what a sack is, but it makes her happy,” he said.
Betiku has navigated his path in the U.S. mostly on his own, taking deliberate steps along the way. Even how he explains his pass-rushing strategy illustrates his methodical thinking.
“At crunch time, you surprise (your opponent) with something you haven’t shown the whole game,” he said. “It’s kind of a mind game. You save some stuff.”
He’s relishing the team camaraderie at Illinois, where he wants to lead the Illini to a bowl game and hopes it leads to an NFL career.
But, of course, that’s not all.
He plans to write music about his life story. Well-versed on global politics, he wants to become a diplomat one day, or maybe pair his bachelor’s degree in international relations with sports; he’s working toward a master’s degree in recreation, sport and tourism at Illinois. Perhaps he’ll have a gallery show one day.
Betiku is not in a rush.
“No matter how hard things have gotten, I’ve looked on the bright side,” he said. “Everyone has a different story. In the next 10 years, you don’t know how everyone’s career is going to pan out. I’ll ride it as long as I can and stay patient.”
- Culled from The Bellingham Herald