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."
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.
"A lot of times, it was unfair for him," said Millicent, now 24 and the youngest of the three sisters. "Us being all girls, of course we were always on each other's side. He probably felt ganged up on a lot. … My father not being there all the time affected all of us but Kelechi the most. He didn't have his dad there to throw the ball with. He didn't have the father-and-son time. The times that my dad was there, they were inseparable. He considered moving [to Nigeria], but [my father] said, 'You need to stay and play American football.' He was right."
For Kelechi , football provided an opportunity and an outlet.
"He played with such fury," Imelda Osemele said. "He put all his energy — both positive and negative — into it. I think he really got out his frustration through football."
He also got the discipline and mentorship he sought.
"Basically every coach that I ever had took that [father figure] role," Osemele said. "They always kind of checked up on me, made sure my grades were good, led me down the right path. My mom allowed them to discipline me, and that's where most of my discipline came from."
At home, Kelechi had long tired of his mother's rules and rigidness. Everything in the house had to be "clean and perfect" and if it wasn't, there were consequences.
His sisters had all moved out and when it came time for him to make a college decision, he had about a dozen scholarship offers, including one from nearby University of Houston, to mull over. Kelechi considered academic and athletic fit. He also made it known that staying home was not an option. So Iowa State, located in Ames, Iowa, and a member of the Big 12 Conference, seemed like the right fit.
"I wanted more space; I wanted to be more independent," he said. "College was an escape for all of us. It allowed us to breathe, to be able to see things and to experience life and not be so closed off from other people. That was pretty much the main reason I wanted to go to Iowa State. All of us were ready to become adults and not be so stifled."
Imelda Osemele initially was crushed, but the growth in her son after he departed for college was clear to see. A liberal studies major, he made the Cyclone academic honor roll three times. He had a couple of close friends, he was developing as a person and a football player, and he couldn't have been any happier.
Osemele spoke to a Ravens official earlier that evening in April and had a good idea the team would select him at pick No.60. As the tension in Imelda's living room heightened, Osemele sat calmly in front of the television. When his name and picture flashed across the screen as the newest Raven, he engulfed his mother in a giant hug.
"Now we have an understanding," Osemele said. "I see the amount of pressure and responsibility that she had in raising four kids by herself. When you're young, you have animosity and you don't understand why you can't do what other kids are doing, why your mom is being so strict, why she is punishing you for things that you probably shouldn't be punished for. Then you kind of see the desire for her to have you be disciplined and be successful, and you also understand the short temper and the anger as far as the situation with my father. You get a better understanding for why some people react the way they do and why she was in such a tough emotional state."
Paul and Imelda Osemele are now divorced. Osemele hasn't seen his father in five or six years, but the two have talked and are on relatively good terms.
"We are both grown men and he did what he felt he had to do to provide and contribute," Osemele said. "We have different mindsets about the expectations for being the head of a household. We butt heads on that, but there is really no bad blood. We understand that we see things a little differently. We respect each other."
As for his three older sisters, they read about their younger brother's exploits through Google alerts and text messages. Considered a project by some draft pundits, Osemele has wowed team officials with his physical skills. Veteran Ravens center Matt Birk marveled about how Osemele has shifted from right tackle to left guard with little drop-off. Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that Osemele has better footwork and flexibility than the organization thought when they drafted him.
Harbaugh has said all along that his best five offensive linemen will play, and Osemele clearly looks the part. He has started all three preseason games, two at right tackle and one at left guard.
Osemele said starting the Sept.10 season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals would mean a great deal to him and to his mother, who will make her first trip to Baltimore to attend the game. But whether he runs out of the tunnel as a starter or reserve, he'll already have come so far, and left so many obstacles behind.
"I can't see myself doing anything else," Osemele said. "On the days that are hard, I remind myself that God put me in this position and he wouldn't put me in a situation that I couldn't handle. That's the attitude I go into things with. I'm confident, knowing that this was pretty much what I was born to do."
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