Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Oklahoma kid

Upper Marlboro resident takes the long road to college football

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Photo courtesy of Lackawanna College Athletics
Mike Balogun returns an interception for Lackawanna (Pa.) College last season in a game against Alfred State. Balogun, a 2002 Suitland High graduate, will play for the University of Oklahoma this fall.
Once there was a linebacker on county semi-pro football teams who played with an unusual intensity. Word was opposing running backs collapsed rather than take his hits. He was one of the youngest among players whose college days and professional prospects were in the past. But he was hardly a boy among men.

‘‘Oh my god,” said Charles McGriff, a 15-year semi-pro coaching veteran. ‘‘It’s like an NFL player against Boys Club. Everybody knew who 52 was.”

After three years out of football, three years playing with athletes on the downsides of their careers and two years raising his stock at a junior college, Upper Marlboro resident Mike Balogun is adding to his story. Balogun, who will turn 25 in September, will be a vital part of the University of Oklahoma’s linebacker corps when the junior debuts with the national title contenders this fall.

Balogun attended Parkdale High School as a freshman and graduated from Suitland in 2002, but football was history by then. He was academically ineligible his junior year and decided not to play as a senior.

But a year out of high school, he came back to the game, joining the Maryland Marauders of the semi-pro North American Football League. At the time, McGriff was the Marauders’ linebackers coach. Initially, he didn’t ask why such a tremendous player was playing semi-pro ball. But others wondered: How old is he? Has he gone to school?

‘‘If you saw him play, you would wonder what he was doing there,” McGriff said.

On a bus trip that first season, McGriff asked Balogun why he had never gone to college. Balogun told him it was a long story.

McGriff told Balogun he wanted to help him get his foot in the door at a school. Semi-pro ball was where most players’ football careers tapered. College was where they grew. In late 2005, when McGriff became the head coach of the Explosion and the P.G. Jets, a winter semi-pro team, Balogun came with him.

That winter, Balogun met Bloi-Dei Dorzon, a running back who graduated from Parkdale in 2003. Dorzon had been out of football, too, since an ankle injury cost him his senior season. He figured his football days were over, but his desire returned and he joined the Jets in 2005. When Balogun arrived the next year, both players stuck out.

‘‘It’s kind of rare,” said Jason Blackman, an assistant with the Jets and Explosion. ‘‘Semi-pro is for people who have already been there, done that. When you’ve got a kid who had never been to school, it’s eye-catching.”

Both wanted to give football another serious shot. They also had a college connection. Yemi Shonibare, Dorzon’s Parkdale teammate, was playing at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa. Shonibare told Lackawanna coach Mark Duda about Dorzon. And when Dorzon visited Scranton in the spring of 2006, Balogun came with him.

Stories like Balogun’s are not surprising for Duda. He once had a Marine who went on to play at Miami. He also had a player who played only one year of high school football, but reached the NFL.

Duda liked what he saw in Balogun, although his football skills at the time were just average. His body, athleticism and attitude made a promising starting point.

‘‘I didn’t know what I was getting,” Duda said. ‘‘I had a big, physical player, but I didn’t know if he could play.”

With several linebackers ahead of him the first season, Balogun played defensive end and mainly saw time on special teams. That fall was frustrating, Duda said, but Balogun committed himself to the playbook and got himself into game shape. He also returned to linebacker, his most comfortable position, during spring practices.

Balogun transformed that spring, Duda said, and he got better every game that fall. He led the Northeast Football Conference with 8.4 tackles per game and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Balogun, who hadn’t been given a star rating or a camp invitation or a scholarship offer out of high school, suddenly was on every major college coach’s list.

‘‘This kid made an unbelievable jump,” Duda said. ‘‘Five or six games in, he’s being recruited by everyone in America.”

Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables zeroed in on him when starter Curtis Lofton left after his junior season for the NFL Draft. Over the last year, coaches from schools like Illinois, Tennessee and Texas called Nick Lynch, Balogun’s coach at Suitland, about the player who spent just one year with the Rams.

Lynch said he has a good memory for most athletes who play until their junior or senior years. Names of the others usually don’t come across Lynch again. Balogun was an exception.

‘‘I try to remember every kid who comes through,” Lynch said. ‘‘I had to go look in the yearbook to find out who he is.”

Balogun had come far since he faded from Lynch’s memory nearly a decade ago. The coach now uses him as an example for his current players. Just because you can’t follow the most common path, he tells them, doesn’t mean you can’t follow a dream.

‘‘He made things work out,” Duda said. ‘‘This kid wanted a better life and he did something about it.”

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