With a football helmet and a pair of cleats, Eric Ogbogu has carved out quite a nice living. The former University of Maryland linebacker is a solid role player and pass-rush specialist for the Dallas Cowboys, and he's about to enter his seventh year in the NFL.
But that's not the reason people interrupt his meals in restaurants or ask for autographs while he's pumping gas. The reason Ogbogu is famous has more to do with throat lozenges than football. Turn on your television tonight and you're bound to see -- and definitely hear -- Ogbogu screaming the words that have transformed him from anonymous football player to pop culture celebrity: "WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE!"
"People come up to me all the time and say, 'Hey, you look really familiar,' " said Ogbogu, pronounced uh-BAH-goo. "One time a guy came up to me in a restaurant, and he was all excited. I was all proud, because I thought he must be a big Cowboys fan. But then he said, 'Hey, you're the protect-this-house guy!' It's kind of flattering to have that happen."
Since Ogbogu first belted out those words in a commercial for Baltimore-based apparel and uniform company Under Armour in 2002, his life hasn't been the same. In the commercial, set in a shadowy warehouse that doubled as a weight room, Ogbogu was front and center, calling out to his fictional teammates, demanding they work harder to maintain their status as top dogs. It immediately resonated with viewers, and before long, the company's slogan had taken on a life of its own.
"Protect This House" was being belted out by kids on playgrounds, referenced during highlights on SportsCenter, and even used by NFL teams (including the Ravens) during warmups.
"We got the kind of exposure you could only dream of," said Under Armour marketing director Steve Battista. "The chaplain for the Notre Dame football team used 'Protect This House' when he would speak to the team before games. Stuart Scott was saying it on SportsCenter. I even had a guy send me a tape of his wedding, where at the reception, he and his buddies did the whole breakdown and right at the very end he points to his bride and says, 'I will protect your house!' That was probably my favorite."
Tonight -- during ESPN's annual award show, the ESPYs -- Under Armour will debut its second commercial in the "Protect This House" campaign. This one will feature not only Ogbogu, but also Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen and the Terrapins' locker room. Filmed last month at Byrd Stadium, it is considered the second installment in what will be a "Season" trilogy.
It's also another major step for a company whose visibility and brand-awareness has soared since 1996, when Kevin Plank, now Under Armour's president, maxed out his credit cards and took out a loan to start Under Armour. The first year it sold $17,000 worth of clothing that wicks moisture from the skin. Last year, sales reached $110 million, and this year the company signed a $2.6 million deal to provide uniforms for the Maryland football team. (Those uniforms will be featured in tonight's ads.)
And while Under Armour, which hopes to hit the $250 million mark in sales this year, has numerous professional athletes to endorse its products (among them Barry Bonds, Barry Zito and Roger Clemens), Ogbogu and the "Protect This House" campaign remains its bread and butter.
"People were asking me all the time, 'What happens next? When is the next one going to run?' " Battista said. "It turned out, people still wanted to see more. The first one, we had the guys working out in sort of a post-apocalyptic weight room. It was like they were getting ready for the season. So with this commercial, we wanted to take it to the next step. We wanted to try and show them in the locker room and then out on the field."
Ogbogu got the part because he had played at Maryland in the mid-1990s with Plank, who was certain Ogbogu's incredible physique and booming voice would be perfect for the part. Ogbogu had no acting experience, but that didn't matter to Plank, who wanted everything to be authentic.
"When we show guys lifting weights, it's real weights," said Rip Lambert of Baltimore-based Producers Video, the director for the first two commercials. "The guys really are benching 300 pounds and squatting 800. Actors couldn't do what we ask these guys to do, and I think that's one of the reasons the spots work."
Under Armour's Marcus Stephens, the creative director for both commercials, said: "We'd always been pretty disappointed with the way Hollywood portrayed football players. That's why we wanted to make sure we did it right."
As a result, Under Armour made certain every actor in the commercial -- from Ogbogu to the last extra -- was a former football player. (The brutal contact during the game scenes is also authentic, though choreographed.) Look closely and you might recognize former Maryland linebacker Leroy Ambush in the commercial, as well as players from Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Morgan State, Delaware and Howard.
The star, however, continues to be Ogbogu, 29, who is 6 feet 4 and weighs 270 pounds. He plays defensive end for the Cowboys.
"He's just so charismatic," Stephens said. "And he's really a leader out there. When we're doing a 12-hour shoot, and everyone is tired and we still haven't got it right yet, he's able to get everyone to jell immediately. The guys respect him. You have to when he looks like that."
Ogbogu -- who drinks tea on the set and keeps a bag of lozenges handy to save his voice as much as possible -- said it doesn't bother him that his acting career has overshadowed his athletic one. (He has just 4 1/2 sacks in six years.)
"I think I was kind of a natural showman as a kid," said Ogbogu, who was raised in Irvington, N.Y. "I grew up thinking I could conquer the world, so this stuff is fun for me."
Plank, Battista and Stephens came up with the idea for "Protect This House," a slogan that Ogbogu believes has widespread appeal.
"I think it symbolizes a lot, and not just for athletics," Ogbogu said. "You can use it in your job and in your life. Even with the war going on, you can think about it like we have to protect our country. Everyone has their own take on it, but whatever it is, it seems to work."
Sun staff writer Ed Waldman contributed to this article.