Kelechi Osemele

Ravens rookie offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele answers questions from the media during training camp. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / June 6, 2012)

They gathered in the living room at their mother's Northwest Houston home the way they did so many times growing up. But for Kelechi Osemele, this April night was all about moving forward rather than looking back.

The sibling rivalry he endured with his three older sisters had helped prepare him for this moment. His relationship with his mother was turbulent at times, but he now knew why Imelda Osemele had always been so strict and demanding. His father was not present for his big night, nor had he been around for much of his life. By now, Kelechi Osemele (kah-LETCH-ee oh-SEM-uh-lee) had come to grips with that.

Osemele's goal, first as an offensive lineman at Langham Creek High in Houston and then at Iowa State, was to make sure that every guy he lined up against remembered his name. On April 27, his name scrolled on the television after the Ravens selected him in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft.

"The thing that was really special about me getting drafted was it brought the family together," said Osemele, who returned to Houston to watch the draft with his mother, sisters and other family members. "We had all pretty much gone our own ways and had a little animosity toward one another because of things that happened growing up. Football really brought us together, especially in college because they'd come to games and it was a common thing for us to talk about. Everybody was in a good mood, and they pretty much just fed off my dream, and my successes were their successes."

After watching a "Monday Night Football" game when he was 8 years old, Kelechi Osmele determined that he would play in the NFL. But before he could get there, before he could emerge as a potential rookie starter on the Ravens' offensive line and one of their most impressive preseason performers, Osemele was tried and tested.

There were the recruiting analysts who didn't think he was good enough and the colleges that didn't want him. There was the challenge of carving out his turf in a house with three older sisters and a mother who spent hours upon hours at work and would come home tired and testy. There was the reality that his father lived in Nigeria, and their relationship would have to be built through phone calls, not bedside chats or afternoons on athletic fields.

"Texas didn't really recruit me. Texas A&M pulled my [scholarship] offer. Little things like that gave me the chip on my shoulder and pretty much made me realize that this was something I was doing to prove my worth and my value, even off the field," Osemele said. "Growing up without a father in the household sometimes can do that to you, not having the support system that you need with your mom always having to work to support four kids. Football was kind of my escape from reality. It was something I was good at, something I knew from an early age I was going to do for the rest of my life."

The first thing you notice about Osemele, 23, is his raw size. Once deemed by his parents too skinny to play youth football, he's now 6 foot 5 and 335 pounds, and he wears it well. He has long arms and quick feet, and big, strong mitts that leave a mark after the briefest of handshakes.

Another thing you realize when you talk to Osemele is that he's extremely comfortable in his own skin. If some of his words come across as bitter or angry in print, his tone, subdued and almost matter-of-fact, suggests neither. Asked about a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story that quoted an NFL scout questioning his toughness because he was raised by women, Osemele smirked instead of stewed.

"It ticked my sisters off more than anything," he said. "With the way we grew up, they didn't like it at all. Me? I just kind of laughed because my sisters are tough. They're not all dainty or soft. They … used to beat me up."

Osemele fielded even the most probing questions about his past as seamlessly as he has handled moving back and forth from right tackle to left guard during training camp.

"He's had to overcome," said Bill Bleil, Osemele's offensive line coach at Iowa State. "He was always his own man. That wasn't a problem for him at all."

Sibling rivalry

After having three daughters, Paul and Imelda Osemele, who were born in Nigeria but came to the United States to go to college, prayed daily that they would be blessed with a son. So when one finally came on June 24, 1989, they named him Kelechi, which in Igbo — a native language in Nigeria — means "Thank God." His last name translates into "ancient warrior."

Kelechi was 3 years old when his father moved back to Nigeria to start a business that developed and supplied antibacterial products. Paul Osemele made some trips back to the United States, and Kelechi visited his father on occasion and has been to Nigeria several times. The two also spoke regularly on the phone, but Kelechi yearned for something more.

"He didn't have that male role model that he needed," Imelda Osemele said. "Kelechi was not very expressive and he never told me his problems or issues. I'd go to him and ask him, 'Why aren't you outside playing like you used to? Why are you always in your room?' I had to finally press him to let me know that he was depressed not having a male role model around."

Determined to support her four children, Imelda worked double shifts as a nurse, spending as many as 15 hours a day at the hospital while also serving as pastor of a local church. She said she always had enough money for her children to be taken care of, but the living conditions for the kids did present some challenges.

There were times that Imelda Osemele was so busy that she forgot to pay electric or water bills, and both would be turned off. Kelechi had to share not only a room until he was a little older, but also a bed.

"The toughest part was her emotional state every day," Osemele said. "You never really knew if it was going to be a good day at work or if somebody would pass away that was close to her. She was very close to her patients. You never really knew if she had gotten into an argument with my dad because she'd call him at work. Really, that was our main concern. We were pretty much in the house to fend for ourselves."

As the youngest and the lone male, Kelechi didn't stand a chance. He was the target of watermelon fights and other household pranks. His three sisters — Chiemeri, Ebere and Millicent — sang loudly in unison to taunt him and then blamed him for every mess or squabble.