Football - From Nigeria with love: New Ragin' Cajuns linebacker KC Ossai backed by his devout family
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, June 4, 2021
KC Ossai’s chance at playing college football almost ended before it began.
When the UL freshman was headed into seventh grade, and about to start playing a game foreign to his parents in their native Nigeria, his parents Emmanuela and Vitus worried.
“They were just concerned,” Ossai said, “about our brain, and being able to pursue academics.”
Older sister Peace intervened.
After she did, the Ossai brothers from Conroe, Texas – Joseph, Philip and KC – took full advantage.
Joseph, an All-American who started 24 of his 36 games playing defensive end and outside linebacker at Texas, was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round of April's NFL draft.
Philip is a standout linebacker at Houston Baptist.
And KC, whose birth name is Favour, joined the Ragin’ Cajuns on national signing day and began summer workouts this week.
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Cajuns coach Billy Napier said the 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker comes from a devout Catholic family.
“Sky-high character,” Napier said.
Mark Schmid, Ossai’s high school coach, knows its roots.
“The family has a very, very disciplined, strict, strong work ethic,” Schmid said. “High expectations for their children to do the right thing and be the best that they can be in whatever they do.
“That comes from mom and dad … and he definitely exemplified and did what his parents taught him to do.”
Schmid said KC, Philip and Joseph are cut from the same mold.
“Respectful. Hard working. Don’t ever want to put a bad light on the family,” he said. “A very, very close-knit family. Nothing happens without the family talking about it and saying it could happen.”
It is a family whose journey to America came intertwined with good fortune and much labor of love.
KC played at Oakridge High School in Conroe, Texas. Courtesy of Ossai Family.
Faith over all else
Ossai originally committed to Arizona.
His flip to UL came with almost as much anxiety as Emmanuela and Vitus’ decision to let their sons play.
“Me and my family, we’re very spiritual,” Ossai said. “So we prayed on it.
“I fasted, to tell God to open my eyes, to help me pick the right place … that He wants me to be. And everything fell in place with Louisiana, so I’m grateful for that.”
Ossai trusts the power of prayer.
“That was one of the things he watched his older brothers … do through the process,” Peace said. “My parents have instilled that from a very young age: Put God before everything you do.”
When Ossai committed to Arizona last August, Kevin Sumlin was coach.
But he was fired shortly after an 0-5 season and just before NCAA’s December early signing period opened.
The Wildcats still wanted Ossai, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“So I just needed to find a way to force myself to kind of ‘take action,’ ” he said. “I didn’t know what direction to go, but I just knew Arizona wasn’t the place for me.”
New Ragin' Cajuns linebacker K.C. Ossai moving in Tuesday with other UL freshmen football players for summer workouts. Brad Kemp, ragincajuns.com
'Louisiana was the place'
In early January, Ossai figured it out.
“I knew Louisiana was the place,” he said.
“The way they want to use me is just perfect. It’s what I’ve always wanted be used as – two downs, middle linebacker, third down, rushing the passer.”
Thinking through his decision proved reassuring.
“When I committed to Arizona I was kind of second-guessing myself,” Ossai said. “But when I committed to Louisiana I was sure and I was happy that I was making the right decision.
“I just thank God for blessing me with the opportunity to play at the next level.”
Emmanuela was thrilled.
“My mom used to joke about me going 17 hours away when I committed to Arizona,” Ossai said, “so she was happy – she was thanking God – that I was going to be three hours away, staying close.”
Sister Peace a second mom
More than a decade ago, Emmanuela was traveling back and forth from Nigeria to South Africa selling health and body-care products – often leaving for days at a time – while her husband worked abroad in London at whatever jobs he could find.
Their children frequently had to fend for themselves in what at the time was a developing area on the outskirts of Lagos, Africa’s biggest city.
Peace helped keep things together.
From cooking and cleaning to making sure clothes were washed and ironed for school, she assumed responsibilities most American 6-year-olds couldn’t imagine.
“Definitely growing up I had to step into a ‘mom’ position very quickly,” said Peace, now a college student in Houston.
“Even when I was doing it, obviously, I had no problem with it because … I love all my brothers extremely much.”
Many nights, Peace bathed the boys. When Ossai was young, Peace would wrap him up and carry him backpack-style while sweeping the floor.
“KC was my baby,” she said.
“When we were going to church I would put KC on my back after getting us ready … and I would hold Joseph and Philip on my right and left.
“I didn’t know that there were other 5-year-olds and 6-year-old people that weren’t doing that,” Peace added. “That was normal. … And I enjoyed it.”
The Ossai home in Ketu Ijanikin was located about 30 minutes by foot to the nearest major road. Each night both parents were away, Peace – four years older than Ossai – locked the gate at the family compound.
At home in Nigeria, Emmanuela stands over her four oldest children (L-R) Joseph, KC, Philip, and Peace. Courtesy Ossai Family.
“It can be a dangerous place,” Peace said, “especially when you were young or you don’t have the proper care around you.
“We were very guarded. But we had to be.”
Ossai valued the experience.
“Because it made me and my siblings grow up and mature fast,” he said. “It made us be able to take care of each other, be able to be alone together and just be responsible.”
The family talked of relocating so everyone could be together.
“At first we all wanted to go to the United Kingdom, but we couldn’t win a lottery (for immigration visas) to go there,” Ossai said. “So someone just put it into my mom to try out for the American lottery, and we ended up winning it.”
A year passed before news came out of the blue.
Emmauela had forgotten she’d even applied for a United States diversity visa. The family felt shocked but blessed. Ossai, 7 at the time, didn’t know what to think.
“I was excited,” he said, “but I was young and I didn’t want to leave everybody I already knew.”
The Ossai family experienced culture shock after landing in Houston, where an uncle already lived.
“It definitely wasn’t what I expected … but it was amazing,” said Ossai, who also has a younger brother, Emmanuel, born in the United States.
At the old home in Nigeria, amenities were scarce.
“Normally to bathe my brothers I would have to boil hot water or I would have to go fetch water from the well in our compound,” Peace said.
“I remember when we first got to the motel (in Texas) it was like … we were in heaven, because there was consistent light … and there was hot water.”
The bachelor’s degrees KC’s parents both earned back home didn’t count for much in America.
His father’s first job here was at a gas station. Later, he worked as a correctional officer in Huntsville. Now, he runs his auto supply shop in Conroe.
Love for the game
Back home, soccer was Ossai’s sport of choice.
But his uncle steered the older brothers to American football, and soon all three had a new passion.
Ossai played schoolyard ball during recess, enjoying every run and pass play, treasuring each tackle.
“I just started falling in love with it,” he said.
Ossai didn’t start playing organized football, with pads and all, though, until he was in middle school.
That took considerable convincing – from him, his older brothers (who were lobbying for themselves as well) and especially Peace.
All pleaded with their parents.
Peace, ever the advocate, organized a hunger strike as she tried convincing her parents football would be safe and could even lead to college scholarships.
“I wasn’t coming down to eat,” she said. “They (the brothers) weren’t eating, and we were basically boycotting because they wanted to play sports.”
“We’d stay in our rooms crying,” Ossai added. “So, they saw how it hurt us and they just gave in.”
Now, according to Ossai, they’re grateful one son is in the NFL and two are in college.
“I remember the day they (initially) said we couldn’t play football,” Ossai said.
“A year (later), Joseph started getting offers. I still think about it to this day – what actually could have happened if we stopped playing.”
But Peace and the brothers trusted the process.
“We all believe God drives us toward our destiny,” she said, “and we believe that’s why (Emmanuela and Vitus) said yes.
“We believe that it was meant to be. God just aligned it for us.”