Onobun playing football for Houston
Everything happens for a reason with Fendi Onobun.
Lute Olson pulled him from a redshirt his freshman season on the UA men's basketball team, and instead of spending five years on the roster, Onobun played four active years with the Wildcats.
That left his fifth year of NCAA eligibility open to play another sport.
Onobun, who graduated from the UA in May with an interdisciplinary studies degree, is using that fifth year as a walk-on for the University of Houston's football team. Last week, on the day it was announced that Greg Paulus would be Syracuse's starting quarterback after four years on Duke's basketball team, Onobun received clearance from the NCAA to play immediately for the Cougars, rather than sitting out a semester.
In Onobun's eyes, it's a stepping stone to the NFL.
""I've been told that I have the potential to get there,"" Onobun said, ""but first I need the experience and the right coaching to make that a possibility.""
Now Onobun, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end, wears 81 for a spiritual reason. In the Bible, No. 8 stands for new beginnings and No. 1 signifies an audience of one: God. Onobun knows there must have been some divine intervention to get him where he is today, playing just 30 minutes from where his family lives in Houston, and 30 minutes from Alief Taylor High School, where he was once one of the best basketball recruits in the nation.
Before Onobun started school yesterday as a full-time human resources development graduate student, he was spending 11 hours per day, six days a week getting ready for the football season. He'd go strong from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., learning a sport he hasn't played since middle school. He's blocking better than the coaches expected, and he's catching the ball well, too.
Houston uses a four-out wide receiver set, so the ball gets airborne often. There are plenty of third downs and red-zone situations in which Onobun has been seeing time in practice.
""I've already caught a few touchdowns during red-zone plays,"" he said.
On the fifth day of practice, Onobun proved he could take a hit. The coaches put him up against 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior linebacker Matt Nicholson, the hardest hitter on the team. Only Onobun didn't know that.
The Oklahoma drill placed Onobun and Nicholson about a yard away from each other. Onobun's task was to block Nicholson while a running back behind him took a handoff from the quarterback.
""It's just physical, man-on-man, powerful, quick, two bodies exploding into each other like never before,"" Onobun said. ""I watched some other people do it, and I thought, ‘That's cool.'""
Then it happened.
""I attacked, he attacked, and this dude just rung my bell. He hit me so hard,"" Onobun said. ""Not just that: he hit me, and he hit the running back, and the running back slipped. That was my welcome hit.
""I like getting physical,"" Onobun said. ""I can't foul out now.""
During his April 11 NFL pro day, Onobun produced great numbers but had a hard time getting teams to commit to him due to Onobun not having an agent and lacking experience. Scouts suggested he walk-on to a college football team and get a year of experience, then try for the NFL again in 2010.
Onobun went to Rice University first. Tight end James Casey was taken in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, leaving a spot for Onobun, but the Owls weren't interested.
UA assistant basketball coach James Whitford suggested Onobun try the University of Houston, and called the Cougars' tight ends coach, Tony Levine. After about two weeks, Levine hadn't returned the call.
""I thought, ‘Man, I'm going to give this football thing up,"" Onobun said. ""‘I'm wasting my time on this. I'm going to just go with what I love.'""
At that point, Onobun resigned himself to playing basketball overseas. Just days before he was going to sign with a basketball agent, Whitford's phone rang.
It was Levine.
Onobun called Levine, but said it was an unsure situation. He didn't have a scholarship and wasn't sure if he was going to be admitted into Houston.
""But the more I spoke with the coach, the more I felt comfortable in keeping all faith,"" Onobun said. ""Everything kind of took care of itself.""
Onobun spent about a month taking tests, submitting transcripts and filling out paperwork to transfer. For a waiver to play right away, he sent letters of recommendation to the NCAA that were written by a UA academic advisor, Lisa Napoleon, UA President Robert Shelton and Levine.
About two months later, it's official. Onobun is a collegiate football player.
""Shout out to my boys on the UA basketball team,"" he said. ""But also, go Cougs.""