It's 'crazy and confusing' for Michigan football player David Ojabo, who is stuck in Scotland

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

When the University of Michigan shut down all on-campus activities, including sports, in mid-March because of the COVID-10 pandemic, Michigan defensive lineman David Ojabo packed his bags and headed home to his family in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Ojabo, who is Nigerian-born and moved with his family to the northeast coastal city in  Scotland in 2007, carries a passport from the United Kingdom. Because of the United States’ international travel ban, he’s been unable to return to Ann Arbor to join his teammates, who have been on campus going through voluntary workouts the last several weeks.

David Ojabo

He shared a message of frustration Tuesday night on Twitter: “Sucks being locked out the country and away from my teammates – seems like a never ending dream at this point! miss my brothers man”. He then retweeted that message with another: #FreeJabo, along with a laughing emoji. That hashtag has been an inside joke between Ojabo and his Michigan teammates while he’s waited to get back to this country.

In an early morning phone interview with The Detroit News on Wednesday, Ojabo said to keep himself focused on returning to Ann Arbor to prepare for the football season – the Big Ten last week announced its member teams will play a league-only schedule – he has not allowed himself to get too comfortable all this time in Scotland.

“You would think I’m lying, but I’m living out of my suitcase,” Ojabo said, laughing. “If they say, ‘Come on,’ I wash whatever I need and literally just zip it up. I haven’t unpacked to this day. That’s how we’ve really been waiting. It’s no joke.

“I thought I was only going to be home for two or three weeks. Then quickly weeks turned into a month, turned to two months, turned to three months. This whole time, I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I could catch a break, catch a flight.’ Nothing. I’ve done it this way for my mental state. The second I unpack and get comfortable – this is me trying to not get too attached to being home.”

It was an easy decision in March to leave the U.S. to return to Scotland, but he believed the trip would be brief.

“As soon as we got signs the whole world was going to shut down, I was like, ‘Nah, I can’t be stuck in America, I need to be with my family,’” said Ojabo, who turned 20 on May 17, the first time in four years he was able to celebrate with family. “I only get to go home once a year. Last year I didn’t go home at all. I was away from home a year. So I was like, ‘Nah, there’s no way I’m going to be stuck (in the U.S.) My whole family is going to be there without me, not knowing when I’ll be back, not knowing if there’s even going to be a season.’”

International connection

Ojabo has no idea when he will be able to return. Michigan will begin preseason workouts on July 24. He has spoken to officials at both Embassies to find out how he can return and has consulted with travel agencies. He thought maybe he could fly to Canada and then enter the country, but the latest option presented was flying to Australia, where he would have to self-quarantine for 14 days, and then fly to the U.S.

“I don’t really feel like going to Australia to chill there on my own for two weeks,” he said, laughing. “It’s just crazy and confusing. Michigan has tried to help, but it’s above all of us. There’s nothing we can do. We’ve explored everything.”

Shaun Nua talks with David Ojabo during the 2019 spring game.

Ojabo has managed to stay engaged with his teammates and coaches, although he’s nearly 4,000 miles away and five hours ahead. He said defensive line coach Shaun Nua has been in constant contact.

“Coach Nua has been my biggest supporter,” Ojabo said. “I really don’t know where I’d be without him, because he’s constantly checking on me. You know coaches are busy and have their own lives, but the way he looks after me and checks up on me, it’s almost like I’m one of his, and I really appreciate that.”

More: The Detroit News' top 25 returning Big Ten football players in 2020

He is self-motivated and wakes up early, around 5 a.m. and works out. He pushed himself, but Ojabo said it’s just not the same as being in the weight room with Michigan strength coach Ben Herbert.

“There’s a difference between getting yelled at by coach Herb and then trying to motivate myself to finish a rep,” Ojabo said. “For me, that’s not hard, but it’s a different feeling. Usually when coach Herb is looking, and I’m in his presence, there’s that feeling of wanting to do five extra reps, as opposed to just finishing the drill.

“When I’m here, I’ll finish the drill easy. But when I’m in that environment just being around my brothers, being around my teammates, I want to do more. I just want to grow with them. It’s healthy competition because at the end of the day I know only 11 people can be on that field. I’m blessed with a good work ethic, so I don’t really need anybody to just keep on me every time. I’ve got that on my own, but there’s nothing that beats just being around my brothers.”

While his teammates work out at 3 p.m. here, it’s 8 p.m. in Scotland, and Ojabo’s day is winding down. On the days the players run, he will send in clips from his workout, but the other days he goes through the workouts with them via a Zoom video connection.

“It’s just another one of the difficulties I’ve got go through,” Ojabo said. “It’s all just part of the story. That’s what coach Nua has instilled in me. Instead of thinking of it as an obstacle, ‘Oh, another thing is happening,’ just think of it as, ‘I have my expectations, I have my goals, my dreams, it’s all slowly unfolding before my eyes, but at the end of the day, all the bumps in the road, who would ever thought I’d be complaining about being locked out to go back to my team to play football, when I went to America for soccer?’

“I’ve got to think of it that way. It’s all about mindset. It’s all part of this story, because what Scottish dude do you know plays Division I football? It doesn’t even sound right coming out of my mouth. This journey, man. My story from Scotland to basketball, to soccer, to football, to getting locked out of the country, I’m going to write a book. It’s already writing itself. It’s so frustrating to think about it, because I was obviously anticipating stepping into a bigger role (at Michigan). I didn’t play last year (as a freshman) and this is kind of bummer to be stuck and locked out from even showing them I’ve got what it takes.”

The journey to football

Ojabo’s journey to football has been fascinating. He left Scotland to attend Blair Academy, a boarding school in New Jersey, beginning his sophomore year. He played soccer and basketball, and ran track – he won the 2018 state championship in the 100-meters with a time of 10.93. He picked up football for the first time as a junior. Ojabo was a two-year starting defensive end and the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder arrived at Michigan last year and was named the defensive scout team player of the year.

“One of my biggest obstacles was learning the game of football,” Ojabo said. “I just started playing and the contact and everything was new. Soccer players aren’t used to it. With my speed, I was able to fall into a pass-rushing role (at Michigan), but with (Josh) Uche being there, our main guy, I was able to learn. The same thing with mindset, I could have easily been like, “Man, I could play. Why aren’t they playing me?’ Honestly, I did feel that way, because I feel like I’m a pretty damn good pass rusher. I felt that way, but at the same time, Uche didn’t play until this third year, and now he got drafted in the second round (of the NFL Draft by the Patriots), so who am I to rush the process the first year? Who am I to get scared that my second year might not go as planned due to COVID? Uche put in that work, and at the end of the day, it got noticed, so why not me?"

Michigan's David Ojabo attacks a series of tackling dummies during pregame warmups.

While at home with his parents, Victor and Ngor, Ojabo said he has benefited from his mother’s cooking and has gotten leaner eating so much good food.

“My weight has been well taken care of,” he said, laughing.

Sometimes he plays soccer with his friends, and that helps maintain his footwork.

“I’m not tooting my horn, but the reason I’m good at picking up stuff early, I’m a multi-sport athlete,” he said. “I’ve learned to control a ball proficiently with my feet. I can control it on my head. I can shoot a basketball. I can dunk. So jumping, running, foot control, hand-eye coordination, all of that and then track. From that, football. I can apply all those.

“The only thing missing, I promise you, when I get used to the contact and actually know – I didn’t even know what a hashmark was – so when I get this really down, by God’s grace, it’s going to be scary. I’m looking forward to it to see what happens when all this gets done. I don’t really reflect on stuff like this, but to pick up a sport in two, three years, I don’t think about it that way. I just think work, work, work. I  hate not knowing things. Why is this happening? They would tell me, ‘This block is about to happen.’ I didn’t know why, I just did it. When I figure out the why, I promise you, it’s going to be scary.”

More: Michigan's Nico Collins lays claim to No. 1 jersey

Ojabo said he’s living in a “fairy tale” at home. He looks out of his window and sees mountains. He wants, however, to be looking out of his window in Ann Arbor and seeing Michigan Stadium.

“The longer I stay over here, it’s only going to impact me in terms of what I could be doing there,” he said. “It’s just in my best interests to get there as soon as possible when there’s any opening to return.”

He said he spends a lot of time thinking. Ojabo doesn’t know if there will be a season, but he knows he wants to be here with his teammates. He has mostly been upbeat, but there are times, like Tuesday night, when he had to share his frustrations.

“That’s the only way because I could have been down bad,” Ojabo said of maintaining a positive approach. “There are a lot of ways I could have taken this, but I keep telling myself, ‘Come on, it’s going to be worth it.’ At the end of the day, I’ve seen it, I’ve been there for a season. The people that got to play, there’s no better feeling than playing in front of 110,000 people, and just knowing you’re part of it.”