Triumph and tragedy – Michigan heart Olu Oluwatimi’s journey

WHEN IT CAME time for heart Olu Oluwatimi to take the stage on the Michigan expertise present final August, he grabbed the microphone with a transparent plan in thoughts.

It was time to let his new teammates actually see him, the way in which his former Virginia teammates noticed him for the majority of his faculty profession.

“I already know what song it was,” his previous Virginia roommate, Richard Burney, says with amusing.

Burney stated Oluwatimi, who began 35 video games at Virginia earlier than transferring to Michigan, would sing the tune within the bathe, or alone in his room, or wherever, actually.

I by no means know whenever you may stroll by
So I gotta be proper on time
Once I see you
Once I see you

There’s something surprising however notably endearing about watching a 6-foot-3, 307-pound man belt out “When I See U,” a sluggish jam by former American Idol winner Fantasia. His Michigan teammates began clapping and singing alongside.

Sherrone Moore, Michigan’s offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, remembers watching the response of the gamers within the room. “It was a really cool moment, and just to see him open up like that was super awesome,” Moore stated.

Shortly after the expertise present, his teammates voted Oluwatimi an alternate captain — seven months after his arrival to campus. Offensive linemen not often take the highlight, however that isn’t the case this season with Oluwatimi, one of the best participant on one of the best offensive line in faculty soccer. “When I See U” may as nicely be the unofficial theme to his season.

Michigan performs TCU within the Faculty Soccer Playoff Semifinal on the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN), and it is Oluwatimi who drives among the finest dashing groups within the nation. He is additionally a veteran presence for first-year beginning quarterback J.J. McCarthy because the Wolverines attempt to win their first nationwide championship since 1997.

His affable persona, smarts, work ethic and management have made him a locker room favourite. None of that is stunning to anybody at Virginia, who watched Oluwatimi develop from walk-on to Rimington Award finalist over 4 years with the Cavaliers. When he determined to switch to Michigan for 2022, those that know him greatest understood.

Certainly, former teammates and coaches may as nicely run the Olu Oluwatimi fan membership, as they soak in every little thing he has earned.

They noticed this — noticed him — way back.

“When preparation meets opportunity, there’s no luck involved in that,” former Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall stated. “Anyone on the previous staff at Virginia, just smiles, like of course. What else would you expect?'”

However the journey itself has been surprising and crammed with challenges, as Oluwatimi went from largely missed highschool recruit to walk-on to one of the best heart within the nation. Then final month, amid one of the best season of his life, Oluwatimi needed to confront essentially the most gutting problem he had ever confronted when tragedy hit Charlottesville, his former dwelling.

THIS SEASON HAS supplied Oluwatimi with readability, each to anybody who may need doubted whether or not he might carry out on an even bigger nationwide stage and to himself. He at all times believed he was an elite heart, at all times knew he could possibly be the important thing cog in an influence run recreation. He thrives on being bodily. Scratch that. He has a ardour for being bodily.

It was not onerous to see, and simple to grasp why Oluwatimi racked up a number of awards earlier this month — the Rimington as one of the best heart within the nation, and the Outland Trophy, given yearly to one of the best inside lineman on offense or protection. The person honors are good, however Oluwatimi will let you know the one which means essentially the most is the Joe Moore Award, introduced to one of the best offensive line within the nation.

For sure, Oluwatimi is a giant purpose Michigan received that award for the second straight 12 months.

“The way he attacks his preparation, the way he attacks the game, he’s an extraordinary player,” Sherrone Moore stated. “He’s got elite ability, he’s got strength, he’s got power, he’s got physicality. And he uses all that very well in every situation, and his leadership traits have really pushed the guys because they see how he works, how he is, and they just want to emulate that.”

Oluwatimi has at all times taken nice pleasure in being an important teammate, now at Michigan and beforehand at Virginia. After he left the Cavaliers, he stayed in contact together with his former teammates and was a part of a number of group texts — together with one with offensive linemen who transferred on the similar time he did.

The Monday earlier than Michigan’s Nov. 19 recreation in opposition to Illinois, Oluwatimi discovered that Virginia soccer gamers Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry had been shot and killed after returning dwelling from a category journey. Oluwatimi performed with Davis for 2 years, with Perry for 3. Chandler had arrived after Oluwatimi left.

Oluwatimi performed in opposition to Perry, a defensive lineman, each on the scout crew and in observe. The textual content exchanges between pals and brothers continued that day and all through the week as he tried to discover a option to grapple with the loss whereas feeling disconnected from these struggling again in Charlottesville.

“It was a rough week,” Oluwatimi stated. “To see them gone so soon, it was definitely rough, and I wasn’t around with the team when all that happened, so that was hard not being there with my guys. The team ended up going to three funerals within two weeks, so all the mourning and tears and the family members that have to deal with the loss, it hits home. It’s tough. But they’re in heaven. They’re proud of their teammates. They’re proud of me. We’ve got some angels up in heaven.”

There have been cellphone calls, too, together with to teammates who had additionally left UVA.

“It is a hard thing being detached from the situation, but also being so close to it,” stated former Virginia teammate Ryan Swoboda, now at UCF. “We’re in contact with a lot of the guys still on the team, so just being able to talk to them and share stories was the most helpful.”

On the day of the memorial in Virginia, Oluwatimi suited as much as tackle Illinois. Earlier that week, his father was getting into for surgical procedure to take away a mind tumor. Oluwatimi had so much to cope with, however being on the soccer subject supplied him a measure of solace.

“When we’re on that football field, it’s a beacon of togetherness, a beacon of hope, and it’s my happy space,” Oluwatimi stated. “When I’m with my guys here, it was definitely a break from the grieving process. So playing football, it was easy for me, and it was actually needed for me.”

Stated Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh following the Illinois recreation: “He has the strength of 10 men. The week he had this week, not only the physical strength of 10 men, but the mental strength of 10 men. The victims at Virginia, that tragedy was personal for him. Those were some of his teammates. And his dad had successful surgery to remove a tumor in his brain. All that was going on for Olu this week. I think back to being that age and there’s no way I could’ve handled that.”

With a heavy coronary heart, Oluwatimi pushed ahead to complete the season robust with a Huge Ten championship and a spot within the CFP. His dad has since recovered from the surgical procedure, a ray of hope heading into the ultimate stretch of the 12 months.

There is no such thing as a doubt the most important on-field checks stay, but when Oluwatimi is aware of one factor, it’s methods to deal with challenges and doubters.

IT MIGHT FEEL anticipated now, however out of soccer hotbed DeMatha Catholic highschool in Maryland, no one noticed Oluwatimi for what he might develop into. With zero Energy 5 presents, Oluwatimi opted to go to Air Power as a freshman in 2017, however after a 12 months he realized, “This is not for me.”

He determined to switch to Virginia, partially as a result of a former highschool teammate informed him he thought it could be a great match. Plus, it was a lot nearer to dwelling. Because the youngest of six kids to Nigerian immigrants, household has at all times been a bedrock for him.

Oluwatimi arrived as a walk-on in 2018 with familiarity among the many teaching workers. Virginia recruited him out of highschool however didn’t supply a scholarship as a result of, largely, the projections about whether or not he might add sufficient weight and mature sufficient bodily had been unclear.

“A lot of times, there’s a risk aversion by a program when they don’t know for sure,” Mendenhall stated. “After one year of seeing his growth and progress at Air Force, we wish we would have done something earlier. So when we had the second chance to act, it was a much easier decision.”

Enjoying on his second faculty crew in as a few years presents challenges, particularly in terms of attending to know a brand new set of teammates. However Oluwatimi took a easy method.

“Every coach and every teammate loves somebody that’s going to lay it on the line and work hard for the squad and be selfless,” Oluwatimi stated. “You can’t be fake. So if you’re yourself and you have those qualities of being humble and a hard worker, everybody’s going to love you, and that’s how I’ve been able to mesh with the teams that I’ve been on.”

Certainly, Oluwatimi set to work, placing in lengthy hours each with the crew and on his personal. Within the weight room, he needed to work on gaining higher flexibility in his hips and useful motion together with his total physique. He ran stiff at occasions, so gaining higher fluidity together with his decrease physique was on the high of his listing.

All that further work, whether or not that meant waking up early, watching further recreation tape or staying late to assist a teammate, stood out instantly. Swoboda describes Oluwatimi’s preparation as “surgical” as a result of “he takes everything into consideration and works to perfect his craft.”

“He’s in the top 1% of people in strength, speed, agility,” Swoboda stated. “He’s in the top 1% of people in terms of his mental understanding of scheme and techniques, and he’s in the top 1% of people who finish plays and are tenacious on the field. So when you’re in the top 1% of those three categories, as an O-lineman, it’s probably a nightmare for defensive lineman.”

Oluwatimi needed to sit out 2018 due to the switch guidelines that existed again then, however he and then-graduate assistant Jackson Matteo received right into a routine. Matteo informed Oluwatimi in regards to the Rimington Award. Each drill they did collectively, Matteo would repeat: Rimington, Rimington, Rimington. “All those words can just mean nothing,” Matteo stated. “Or you can literally watch a young man take full responsibility for his destiny and turn it into reality.”

By the point 2019 rolled round, Oluwatimi had earned a scholarship and the beginning heart job, basically turning into the assistant to then-offensive line coach Garett Tujague. The 2 spent numerous hours collectively watching tape. Oluwatimi was liable for setting the entrance and calling all protections, and his preparation supplied a chilled presence on the sphere, even when issues would go incorrect.

Former teammate Jack Keenan referred to as it “ironclad emotional control.”

“It is almost impossible to ruffle his feathers,” Tujague stated. “I never saw him lose control of the situation he was in. I would come over to the sideline to talk to the linemen and Olu would tell me, ‘Coach, we got it.’ He and I had invested so much in preparing for Saturdays that it made it that much easier.”

Maybe extra indicative of what was to return, Mendenhall had his gamers undergo assessments to find out the easiest way they discovered and communicated. Oluwatimi’s scoring was tilted closely towards factual, analytical, logical and sequential studying and determination making.

“That is magical for the position he plays,” Mendenhall stated. “His ability to identify defensive fronts, in a sequential, thorough way, and then have us in the appropriate run play, check or protection, the number of times that he misses that is almost zero.”

Mendenhall stated he seen Oluwatimi work even more durable forward of the 2021 season. Power coaches would textual content him continuously, “Olu is here again.”

“If you put a camera outside of our outdoor and indoor facility at UVA, he probably walked in and out of that building more than anybody,” Swoboda stated.

Oluwatimi would maintain movie periods to assist freshmen and sophomores, and keep after observe to assist anybody who wanted it. If anybody had a query about approach, formations or alignments, they’d textual content Oluwatimi and he shortly responded.

“Coach Mendenhall had the mantra ‘earned not given,’ and Olu embodies that probably more than anybody else that came to that program,” Keenan stated.

When the 2021 season ended, Oluwatimi had earned second-team All-ACC honors and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy — a primary in Virginia historical past. However when Mendenhall stepped down in December of 2021, Oluwatimi needed to decide.

“I honestly wanted to go to the NFL, but the draft grades and scouts were telling me to come back to school,” Oluwatimi stated. “So I decided to look for a different opportunity to try to elevate my draft grade, because I felt that I did all I could do at the University of Virginia. I wanted to go to a place where I felt that we could compete for a national title and win a conference championship.”

OLUWATIMI WAS TRANSFERRING for the second time in his profession. Solely this time, Michigan noticed precisely who he was.

The Michigan recruiting workers alerted Sherrone Moore as quickly as they noticed Oluwatimi’s title enter the portal. Michigan was shedding heart Andrew Vastardis, the anchor of the Joe Moore-award profitable offensive line, so this was a place that wanted a veteran presence — particularly with three starters on the offensive line returning.

“I knew right away who he was, and I went back to watch the film and was like, ‘This guy’s really good,” Moore stated. “When he came on his visit, we knew right away he would be awesome, just from a personality standpoint, how he acted, very humble. It was love at first sight for everybody.”

Whether or not Moore knew it on the time or not, Michigan had at all times been a dream faculty for Oluwatimi. The chance to showcase his capacity as an influence run blocker — one thing that Virginia didn’t do as an Air Raid offense — solely added to the enchantment.

“It was a perfect fit,” stated Burney, his Virginia roommate. “I remember telling him, ‘If you can put it all together, the sky’s the limit,’ and now we’re here. It’s crazy.”

The identical traits his Virginia teammates and coaches raved about had been on show as quickly as he arrived in Ann Arbor final January. He merely labored, and basically had the playbook down by the point spring observe began.

“He was asking me in the first days of spring ball, ‘Hey, Coach when are we going to put this play in?'” Moore stated. “And I was like, ‘It’s not going in until like install seven. He’s like, ‘Oh because I was just looking at them last night and just want to make sure I had it down.'”

His play this season may need been a revelation to these unfamiliar with Virginia and ACC soccer, however those that have watched Oluwatimi over the previous three seasons can not help however smile.

Former Virginia teammate Martin Weisz determined to go to Oluwatimi in Ann Arbor for the Wolverines’ recreation in opposition to UConn in Week 3. Although the sport was a 59-0 blowout win, Weisz recollects watching Oluwatimi work together together with his coaches and teammates on the sideline, and once more after the sport.

“I could just tell even though he was in that offensive line room at Michigan for less than a year, he had already emerged as somebody who everyone could lean on,” Weisz stated. “After the game, they always have a tailgate for players and their families, and one of the younger centers was going over film with Olu, asking him all these different questions about football, life, how he manages it all. I know how much they value Olu’s experience, and they truly take his words very, very seriously, just because he’s been through it all.”

With out query, Oluwatimi has elevated the offensive line in Ann Arbor. Michigan ranks No. 6 within the nation in dashing offense, and Moore stated his presence was “huge” for McCarthy as a result of “you’ve got somebody in the middle that can help you and get you out of things if you’re unsure.”

Now the most important check stays. Michigan misplaced within the CFP semifinals to Georgia final 12 months, largely as a result of it couldn’t deal with the Bulldogs’ defensive entrance.

That is all new to Oluwatimi however don’t count on him to lose focus. That’s merely not in his nature. He is aware of what’s at stake, and the way a lot his teammates are relying on him in what’s now the most important recreation of the season in opposition to TCU.

“Through the first 13 games of the year, I’m happy with how I performed and what I’ve done,” Oluwatimi stated. “We’ve got two more, and I’ve got to show some more. I’m excited.”

Oluwatimi is now rated the No. 2 heart headed into the 2023 NFL draft by each Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, a far cry from being informed to return to highschool a 12 months in the past. NFL scouts are recognizing Oluwatimi, too. However any NFL draft speak has been shoved to the aspect.

As a substitute, there was time for reflection. The night time earlier than the regular-season finale in opposition to Ohio State, Michigan held a crew assembly. As Harbaugh talked, Oluwatimi seemed round, taking every little thing in, appreciating each second over the past six years as if he was seeing all of it for the primary time.

“I could have never imagined my college journey bringing me here, being able to compete for a national title,” Oluwatimi stated. “As I look back and reflect on the journey, I’m just speechless.”