This was originally a five-page letter I wrote to Lovie Smith, but for time, privacy, and good measure, it has been modified and consolidated. (contact for the full five-page letter)
My name is Oluseun “O.K.” Arowolaju and for 2012, 2013, & 2014 seasons, I was a walk-on for Illinois Football. I sit here writing this letter, proud to be known as so much more. It didn’t use to be like that, though. Throughout my life, my physical, emotional, and mental health were all put into question. I struggled spiritually, academically, athletically, as well as financially. I struggled to find myself. Where do I belong in this world? What is my purpose? A son of two pastors, how did I find myself in this position? How could I have fallen so low? I was frustrated, bitter, and angry.
I didn’t let it ruin me, though. With faith, family, friendship, football, and fraternity, I was able to take control of my life again. I’m stronger, I’m wiser, and I’m better, much better. Everything that happened in my life was for a reason and purpose. I am who I am, and I am not ashamed of who that person is. I am unapologetically myself. My test turned to testimony, my trial turned to triumph, and my mess turned into a message. I would like to share with you all, that very message.
I was born in Akure, Nigeria on November 5, 1993. My younger brother, Dami, was born in 1995 and by then, my father was on his way to America in search of a better life for his wife and children. By 1998 we were living in a church on the North Side of Chicago in one bedroom. Our family paid rent by cleaning the church periodically. Without receiving their education in America, finding work was tough, but they did what they could. Moving from the North Side to Country Club Hills in 1999, I was introduced to something that would change my life forever, sports. Before, I couldn’t leave the church front, but now, the world was literally my playground.
The first friend I met in the neighborhood was involved in every sport, and his grandfather was the coach of his baseball team. He allowed us to join even though it was late in the season. His grandmother made t-shirts that resembled the team jersey for us. We didn’t know what baseball was, but we got cleats, gloves, pants, socks & a cup; threw on that blue Chicago Cubs hat, and we were baseball players. They accepted us, even though we would have to forfeit games we’d win because we weren’t supposed to be on the team. I didn’t understand it then, but I appreciate it now more than ever. This was love and happiness at its finest.
As a 9-year-old, I was beginning to develop a perception that money equated to success and happiness. In the school I attended, everyone wore the same uniform. We all matched until it came to the shoes. People sported Nike and Jordan, and I wore whatever we could afford. For that very reason, I was teased. The fact that I was African, didn’t have fair skin and was poor, separated me from the entire school. I was being teased for things about me that I had no control over. I didn’t choose my ethnicity or come to America. I didn’t establish my socioeconomic status for myself. I didn’t choose the skin I was in. I internalized that hate. Sports and writing became my escape, and I’ve been running and writing ever since.
Growing up, I didn’t see many people who looked like me on TV. When I did, they were either an athlete or a celebrity. If I wanted to be successful and happy, these were my only options. On February 1, 2004, I watched my first Super Bowl and instantly knew what I wanted to be, a Super Bowl champion. I would even put pillows in my shirts, pretending they were shoulder pads. I was just that in love with the sport.
By 2005, my journey to the NFL began. My dad accepted a position at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, and my younger brother and I moved with him to Sterling, IL. We started playing for the Sterling Golden Warriors and the very first year I played, I won a championship. This same year I watched the Bears go 11-5. This 2005 Chicago Bears team would solidify my love for the game of football, and my passion for making it to the NFL.
The head coach of this team looked just like me. Never before have I seen a black head coach. But this wasn’t the end of it; his players were even more like me. I began to see names like Adewale Ogunleye, Israel Idonije, and Brendon Ayanbadejo. They were all Nigerian, they were all football players, and they were all in my city, Chicago. This is why representation matters. They showed me the way indirectly. They gave me something to dream about.
February 4, 2007, three years after watching my first Super Bowl, I already had two championship appearances and a victory under my belt. On this day I was watching the Bears and Colts in pursuit of a championship of their own. My passion for the Bears already solidified, and I couldn’t help but notice the head coach of the Colts, Tony Dungy. Not only did he look like me too, but the announcers kept making a note of how he’s been a great mentor & friend to Coach Lovie Smith. They were friends, at the top of their sport, on the biggest stage, and they looked just like me. This left a lasting impression that if they could do it, then so could I. That fire and passion ignited that day would carry me through some of the toughest times in my life.
This same year is when I fell in love with the other Orange and Blue. I watched Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall take Illinois Football to the Rose Bowl. In order for me to make it to the NFL, I’d have to be as great as they were. I looked up at them. You develop a sense of pride when you see a team representing your home city and state in competition. This pride in Illinois has never departed me to this day.
That summer, one of my dad’s friends was running for Governor in Nigeria and asked him to be his aide. He accepted and would be moving back to Nigeria. As a result, we moved back with my mom. The house in Country Club Hills had been foreclosed and we would now reside in Matteson, IL. This was one of the hardest years of my life. I was beginning 8th grade and had a hard time being the new kid. I was already struggling to try to cope without my dad, but people made it worse for me. My pride hates to call it bullying, but that’s what happened to me. I was teased and struggled to fit in. I tried out for the basketball team and wasn’t chosen. I even emailed the coach asking him to reevaluate his decision.
We couldn’t afford the clothes everyone else had, but I begged my mother to buy me a pair of Air Force 1s. That was around $90 back then. She got them and that’s when I realized, it did nothing to change my situation. It probably made it worse because my mom was out of $200 between me and my brother. Those shoes didn’t bring me the happiness I was looking for. Never again would I buy another pair in my life. I was depressed and felt as if I was dead to the world. I didn’t want to live anymore. But the few friends I did have and the people that would talk to me, didn’t know what I was going through, but they saved my life.
This feeling carried on to my freshman year in high school, but now I could prove my worth on the football field. I was slowly regaining my athletic identity and establishing a core group of friends. I slowly but surely stopped trying to fit in and started standing out. I finished that year with a 4.2 GPA and was tied for #1 with my best friend, Kris.
By the summer of 2009, I was getting ready to start my sophomore year at Rich South High School. That’s when I made up my mind that I was going to get a full scholarship from Illinois and get drafted by the Bears. That’s how much passion and love I developed for the sport and my two favorite teams. I was fully confident in myself, and I was faithful.
I went to every camp, combine, and clinic there was. I participated in a 7on7 where Nathan Scheelhaase was my coach. I worked out with everybody I could. I never turned down an opportunity to get better. I surrounded myself with people that were chasing the same dream. Players that would later go on to play Divison-1 football: LaQuon Treadwell (Ole Miss), Jaylen Dunlap (Illinois), BJ Bello (Illinois), Anthony Standifer (OleMiss/EIU), Shawn Mitchell (SIU/EIU), and my younger brother Dami, (Northwestern), to name a few. We weren’t the best of friends, but football brought us together in a way that nothing else could, regardless of our differences.
By January 2012 I had no Divison-I offers. I had a 3.98 GPA, 26 ACT, and was captain of my team, but I would be taking an official visit to a Division-II school. I was ready to commit to them and compromise my education for athletics. Through guidance and prayer, I applied to the University of Illinois and only the University of Illinois. I told myself that if I couldn’t walk on their football team, I had no hope of making it in the NFL anyway. I went from wanting a scholarship to just wanting a chance to prove myself. My application to the College of Engineering was deferred, and I was later admitted to the Division of General Studies. When Tim Beckman got hired at Illinois, I told my cousin BJ Bello that he was going to offer me and I would walk on the team. Truth be told, that offer came and we both were headed to Illinois. That fall of 2012 I tried out for the team and made it. I was a Division-1 athlete and finally accomplished my dream of playing for the Illini. But this came with a price.
In the first semester of freshman year, I had the worst GPA I ever had in my life and I didn’t know how to deal with it. In the second semester, I changed my number to 25. This was my younger brother’s jersey number when we first played football. It would go on to mean so much more as on March 25, 2013, my older brother passed away in Nigeria. May his soul rest peacefully in heaven. My mom didn’t tell me because she didn’t want the news to affect my semester. That summer was painful, but I took classes at Parkland and continued to work towards earning playing time. I wanted to put the #25 out there for the world to see.
Instead, in the Fall of 2013 I got into a motorcycle accident in front of the stadium. If it wasn’t for my teammates, I don’t know where I would be. The trainers would change my bandages daily and I am forever grateful that they were there for me like that. My roommates Kenny Nelson, Teko Powell, and Vontrell Williams always made it their business to get me back on my feet. Even though I was a non-scholarship walk-on, they still cared.
The following Spring 2014, I hoped to get healthy enough to get invited to camp because I had never been before. My goal has always been to step on the field. Everything that I was going through would be worth it if I just got one second of playing time. In the summer of 2014, I worked 40 hours a week and participated in all team activities and workouts while taking two classes. I worked so hard to make camp and was told that I was going. But the very first day when everyone was getting ready, I found out that they decided to bring someone else. I was told if someone got hurt, I would be the first to replace him. It was another terrible blow, but I remained hopeful. I was later invited to camp because someone actually did get injured, but it didn’t feel the same. I didn’t feel as if I actually had a chance. Again the frustration came. I internalized everything and it was unhealthy. I started to slip into a depression and stopped caring about almost everything. That mistake cost me everything I have ever worked for in my life and is my biggest regret. My journey to the NFL came to a dead-end, or so I thought. In actuality, it was a detour, a blessing in disguise. The 2014 season would my last year ever to play football.
Instead of getting ready with my teammates for spring football, I fasted for the first 21 days of 2015. I began to focus on my spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health, my academics, and my career development. It was time to help out my campus community.
By the end of the Spring 2015 Semester, I was initiated into the Pi Psi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., and was selected to serve on the Black Greek Council as the Recording Secretary. I had the highest GPA of my career(3.5), but the struggle continued. That summer I found myself sleeping on one of my fraternity brother’s couches, looking for jobs. I found work as a painter briefly, before the labor became unbearable. I didn’t feel as if risking my life on burning hot roofs was worth the close to the minimum wage I was receiving. I was embarrassed about my situation. I’ve officially reached rock bottom. This was literally the lowest point in my life. I could’ve just gone home and lived with my mom as she asked me to, but that would be admitting defeat. She’s always been there for me, but I told her I had to do this alone. Nothing was ever handed to me before, so I wasn’t expecting that to start now. I shook the devil off me and the blessings started to pour in.
Late that summer I was hired as a Help Desk Tech for the Applied Technology for Learning in the Arts and Sciences. I also worked for Athletics IFUND group in Premium Seating sales, that’s where I met Howard Milton who’s been nothing but an angel. I served on the 2015 Illinois Homecoming Court, and the Student Organization Resource Fee Board. I was on the planning committee for the 2016 Black and Latino Male Summit. I was a volunteer for the 2016 NFL Draft in Chicago and got to witness LaQuon Treadwell get drafted in the first round. I graduated this May with a degree in Recreation Sport & Tourism with a concentration in Sport Management and Pre-Law. I currently intern for the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics’ Information Technology department. I have been admitted to both the College of Law and Business through the Master of Studies in Law and Master of Science in Technology Management graduate programs. I’ve also been offered a Graduate Mentor position in the Office of Minority Student Affairs. I get to help narrow the retention, achievement, and graduation gaps between targeted first-generation, low-income, minority, and at-risk students like myself. I get to finally serve my purpose.
I know my purpose was to come out of this struggle so that I can help people become successful. It’s not about the money, it’s about the love and compassion that I was shown. It’s about the people that wouldn’t let me stay down. My test turned into a testimony, my trial turned into triumph, and my mess turned into a message. A message that I hope can foster social change and impact the lives of many. I want people to know, they are not alone. People tell me because I lived in a suburb, I had a silver spoon when I ate with my hands. People look at me from the outside and see the good, but they don’t know about the pain. People tell me that I have so much going for me, but they don’t how much I really lost. I just smile and continue on. My mom always told me that nobody needed to know what we go through, but I have to respectfully disagree. If it can help a struggling student, athlete, or anybody for that matter, then they have to know. Everything that glitters is not gold.
On Juneteenth, 2016, as we celebrate emancipation, remember the words of Bob Marley, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” On this Father’s Day, I celebrate not only my own father, but yours as well. Every father or father figure that has mentored me, guided me, supported me, and loved me. Those coaches cared about me outside of the field. Those teachers cared about me outside of the classroom. Those employers cared about me outside of the workplace. That’s all we need sometimes to get through our individual struggles. That love and support. It is my goal now to be that figure and role model for people like me. To help people get through their struggle to find success. We’re all we have in this world; let’s not lose ourselves, or each other. We are all products of our environment. Let’s work together to create a better world, and a better environment so that we can produce better people.
My name is Oluseun “O.K.” Arowolaju, and this isn’t a success story, this is a struggle story.
In Faith & Unity, Peace & Progress,