Nov. 25, 2011
By Joanne C. Gerstner
In University of Michigan football guard Patrick Omameh's world, growing up, there was only one meaning of the word football. It was soccer, as in, the tradition of the global game instilled in him by his Nigerian parents.
Omameh was content to see himself as a soccer player and fan but soon was educated about another kind of football -- the Ohio State brand -- as a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio.
"Everybody was so into it, from the adults to the kids, my family wasn't as much, because we didn't really even get it for a while," said Omameh. "We were like yeah, okay, you like Ohio State, that's nice."
Omameh's life changed in the fifth grade, when he showed up for football practice wearing sandals and a wristwatch. After he got a quick education on the right gear, he found he had an aptitude for the game. Flash forward a few years, and Omameh decides he wants to go to Michigan to play on the offensive line.
There was a big reaction among his friends at St. Francis De Sales High School and neighbors around Columbus.
A big reaction, as in, look out.
"It's hard to convince the people down there that you're doing the right thing by going to Michigan," said Omameh, now a redshirt junior. "They don't like being reasonable with this. In that sense, they won't see there is anything other than Ohio State. I had to go through that with them, you have to be like, 'Look, I'm going to Michigan, it's what I want, be happy for me. Please.'"
His Columbus connections make the Ohio State game a very personal affair for him, a definite special game on the schedule every season.
It's personal to him, a mission that must be taken seriously.
"You don't know how bad I want to beat Ohio State. I'm tired of hearing junk when I come home about Michigan," Omameh said. "You win, you get to talk. I want to be the one talking."
Omameh is one of 20 Michigan players who hail from Ohio. Senior tight end Kevin Koger (Toledo) and junior safety Jordan Kovacs (Curtice) share similar sentiments and experiences with being Michigan football players with Ohio backgrounds.
All three have been told a familiar line from friends: that they are rooting personally for their Wolverine pal to do well, but they want Ohio State to win the game.
Kovacs, who snagged an interception and had a 41-yard return last year against Ohio State, quickly realized that his friend's loyalty to him seemed to disappear.
"I asked my friend, who was at the game, if he cheered when I got the pick, and he told me he didn't think it was a good idea to cheer for me because he was sitting in the Ohio State section," Kovacs said, with a laugh. "So it goes to show you, he's had to stay with his Ohio State loyalty."
Koger has gotten grief from his Ohio State friends too, and even a few tries at some practical jokes. They think it's funny to ask Koger to pose with Ohio State gear (preferably to get him to wear it), or some strands of buckeyes.
Omameh and Kovacs have had the same tactic pulled on them too, and were also smart enough to see through it.
"I know what they want to do, get a picture with me and that stuff, and the next thing you know, it's on Twitter or something," Koger said. "No way."
Still, Omameh's experiences are way more intense, as the two hours driving distance between the Toledo area and Columbus changes the Ohio State fans from supportive to rabid.
Omameh makes sure there's nothing Michigan on his car, from a window decal to a bumper sticker, as he doesn't want to inflame the natives.
"I've seen it, windows can get smashed, cars get kicked down there if you have Michigan stuff on it," Omameh said. "Even having Michigan plates on your car can be too much. You've got to be smart about it, especially during Michigan-Ohio State week. My family knows too, they're not going to be walking around with Michigan stuff on in Columbus, not worth the grief."
Despite the apparently over-fervent nature of some fans, others get that Omameh is playing for a good football program and getting a strong education too. Those are the Buckeye fans Omameh likes to interact with.
"They wish I was playing for Ohio State, but admit, kinda quietly, that playing for Michigan is good too," Omameh said. "Even in Columbus, some of them will admit their respect for Michigan."