On the pivotal defensive play of the Ravens’ victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, weak-side linebacker Patrick Onwuasor knocked the ball out of the hands of tight end Jared Cook and cornerback Jimmy Smith scooped it up and coasted untouched into the end zone.
As a host of Ravens players celebrated in the end zone, Onwuasor turned to the visiting sideline and took a bow.
Ravens fans have heard this story before — an undrafted free-agent inside linebacker impresses team officials in training camp, becomes a core special-teamer and ultimately earns a starting spot on defense. Bart Scott, Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, Albert McClellan and Zachary Orr all did it.
Onwuasor is following in their footsteps, but he has quite a story of his own. It nearly didn’t include football.
After his freshman season at the University of Arizona, he was kicked off the team following an arrest on gun and drug charges. The charges were ultimately dismissed and Onwuasor convinced coaches at Portland State he was worthy of a second chance. In two years at the school, he persevered through a learning disability to graduate with a degree in social sciences and played himself onto the radar of a handful of NFL teams.
As a rookie last season with the Ravens, he led the team with 11 special teams tackles despite playing just 11 games. After rotating with fellow second-year player Kamalei Correa for the first four games this year, Onwuasor started against the Raiders and played full time alongside C.J. Mosley. That will likely continue Sunday as the Ravens (3-2) face the Chicago Bears (1-4) at M&T Bank Stadium.
“I overcame a lot of stuff and I didn’t give up,” Onwuasor, 25, said before practice Wednesday. “I stayed strong. If you just put your mind and effort into it, you can do it. I thought it was over with. I thought everything was done for me. I thought nobody was going to want me no more. I just kept playing football and stayed positive and focused and I’m here now.”
His name pronounced oh-WAH-so, the Inglewood, Calif., native goes by the nickname “Peanut,” which was bestowed on him by a youth basketball coach. He even has a tattoo of the Planters’ Mr. Peanut logo on his forearm.
His style, which was first evident as a rookie, when he drew the ire of veterans with a few big hits early in training camp is straightforward: Find the ball and arrive at it as quickly and as physically as possible. In five games, he has 17 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass deflection that resulted in an interception by Brandon Carr, furthering his reputation as a player who always seems to be around the ball.
“ ‘Peanut’ is one of those guys that can just find the ball [and] try to blow up everything that gets in the way,” Mosley said.
“You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to be a playmaker. You’ve got to go out there and want to hit somebody and that’s what he wants to do,” Ravens safety and special teams ace Anthony Levine Sr. said.
Onwuasor was recruited to Arizona as a receiver, but his love of contact and a coaching change spurred a position change to safety. In his first season with the Wildcats, he played in 12 games, starting two, and had 36 tackles.
It was a promising start, but in the summer of 2013, Onwuasor was arraigned on four felony charges related to drug and gun possession. His arrest came after a search warrant was executed on his Tucson apartment. Onwuasor maintained all along that the drugs and gun weren’t his and that he was guilty only of keeping the wrong company.
The legal system ultimately agreed and all the charges were dismissed. Onwuasor, though, was no longer welcome on the Arizona football team.
“I thought that was the end of it. I’d made some wrong decisions, hanging around the wrong crowd. That was my learning point right there, but yeah, it was tough,” Onwuasor said. “I had to figure out how I was going to tell my mom. That was probably the hardest thing, letting my mom know that her first son just got kicked out of the school and now I don’t know what to do. But I didn’t give up. I fought the case, beat the case. I bounced back.”
Onwuasor still credits Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez and other members of the school’s athletic department for standing by him after he was dismissed from the team. They even let him train on campus as he awaited another opportunity. That came at Portland State, via a connection from his high school coaches.
“I told them I changed. I don’t hang around the same people and I’ve grown up,” Onwuasor said. “Me going to Portland matured me a lot. They wanted to work with me, and I wanted to work with them.”
It proved a great fit on and off the field. In 2015, he finished second in the Football Championship Subdivision with nine interceptions to go along with 85 tackles and 10 passes defended. Off the field, he gained additional perspective through his volunteer work at the Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp, which works with people with disabilities.
Onwuasor, who has an easygoing nature off the field, befriended a man name Deric Tomkins, who had Down syndrome. He invited Tomkins to Portland State games and still keeps in touch with his family. But it was the whole experience that made such an impact on him.
“Me being around special needs kids, that impacted me because I have a learning disability as well,” he said. “I bonded with them right away.”
Onwuasor’s disability affected him in the classroom, but he said that he’s never had a problem learning plays or defensive responsibilities or absorbing coaching. If he doesn’t understand something, he’s also not afraid to ask a teammate or a coach, and that wasn’t always the case in the classroom.
He concedes that he’s still learning how to be a professional as situations such as talking to a group of reporters create anxiety and take him out of his comfort zone.
“’Peanut, he’s really sensitive,” said Levine, who has taken a mentorship role with his teammate. “People don’t know that, but he’s really quiet, really shy.”
Levine stayed with Onwuasor during the offseason program and organized team activities. They confided in each other and Levine regularly reminded Onwuasor of the opportunity he had. The Ravens have had tremendous success with undrafted free agents, but it’s still quite an achievement for an undrafted rookie to become a starter by his second year.
“A lot of people don’t get second chances,” Onwuasor said. “I’m really grateful and I thank God that I did. I’m trying to make the most of it, make my family proud and try and hopefully people can forget about all of that other stuff.”