In an era of college football where players can get paid for their name, image and likeness, or choose to transfer at the drop of the hat if their situation is not just right, getting a player to wait for their time to come is harder than ever.
Whether they sit out due to injury or talented personnel above them, it is rare to see a player express gratitude for playing time they did not see until their third or fourth year.
Waiting for your turn at this age is just not very chic, but for TCU safety Michael Onyemaobi, it was his only option.
On Saturday, Onyemaobi made his first-ever start in a TCU uniform against West Virginia, despite the fact that he has been with the program for now five seasons.
“It was a blast. It was fun to finally get back out there with the guys,” Onyemaobi said of the game. “It’s been a long road coming back to it, getting back out there and getting my feet wet, having the opportunity to compete again, it’s been a blessing. It’s been awesome.”
Part of the Frogs’ 2017 recruiting class, Onyemaobi played in just one game in his first four seasons in Fort Worth, as he battled multiple serious injuries.
With the Temecula, Calif., native now healthy, head coach Gary Patterson turned to him to try and provide a spark for a TCU defense that will be missing safeties Bud Clark and DeShawn McCuin for the foreseeable future.
Despite starting in his first football game since high school, Onyemaobi looked largely in control against the Mountaineers, recording five tackles (two missed) and giving up just one catch for five yards on the three times he was targeted.
He even had a pass defense early in the game that, if caught, would have likely been a house call for the veteran defensive back.
A three-star recruit out of Chaparral High School, Onyemaobi was just outside the top 500 of players in his class and ranked as the No. 38 athlete in all of California.
Though he committed to play for California in May 2016, the safety would go on to decommit on Jan. 18, 2017, exactly one day after he received an official offer from TCU.
Several weeks later, Onyemaobi committed and signed to be a member of the Frogs’ 2017 class and play for Patterson’s legendary defense.
“I think he’s a genius, first of all,” Onyemaobi said of his head coach. “I think he has a really great ability to draw up plays. I think he does a really good job of putting guys in the secondary and in the box in position to make plays.”
After redshirting in 2017 with safeties like Niko Small and Ridwan Issahaku in front of him, Onyemaobi was primed to be a difference maker on TCU’s 2018 squad.
Tragedy struck the young safety early on, though, as he suffered a season-ending injury in TCU’s 55-7 win over Southern in their season opener.
Onyemaobi would then be unable to shake his injured status for the next three seasons, missing 34-straight games for TCU from 2018-2020.
“I tore my peroneal nerve in 2018, dealt with drop foot for about 3 ½ years. [It took] a ton of rehab, a lot of just patience, kind of just waiting for the nerve to actually fire back,” said Onyemaobi. “My knee was always doing well, but my foot just took a little more time.”
Even Patterson admitted that he had never seen a guy go through the injury problems that his now-fifth year player has been through in all of his decades of coaching.
“He’s [Onyemaobi] a great kid. If you look at all of it, he does a great job, family wise, all of that stuff,” Patterson said. ” It’s good that he had an opportunity, you just wish we weren’t in the situation that we had to do it. But we need him to play well for us to get ready to go to win ballgames the last half of the season.”
Because of his redshirt season and the extra year of eligibility provided to him by COVID-19, Onyemaobi had the opportunity to return for 2021 and even potentially the 2022 season, if he decides to.
Regardless, the three-plus years of dealing with injury were not without a mental tole on Onyemaobi’s desire to keep moving forward.
“Definitely, 100%. I think more than I’d like to admit,” Onyemaobi said when asked if he ever thought about giving up. “Thanks to the consistency around myself with the program, with the staff, with my teammates, a lot of faith–those things really kept me going.”
A professed Christian, Onyemaobi also cites his relationship with God as something that has kept him going through unforeseen trials in his time at TCU.
Even before starting at safety, Onyemaobi made his return to football at the beginning of this year on special teams. In light of all he has been through, he said, just stepping into the field was something he did not take for granted.
“Just putting on my pads again, like I told my mom, even just putting on pads and helmet again was a blessing in itself,” said Onyemaobi. “Whatever else comes with it, it’s just icing on the cake.”
Even amidst the emotions that come with reaching personal goals, Onyemaobi acknowledged that his job was to help a struggling TCU defense get back on track for the final five games of the season.
The Frogs currently rank 8th in the Big 12 in passing defense, giving up 238.4 yards per game through the air.
“More than anything, not letting the moment get too big,” Onyemaobi said of his goals. “Understanding I had a job to accomplish, a job to get done, so I went out there and got it done.”
Despite his lack of playing time, Onyemaobi knows that his veteran status gives him a voice and personality on the team that can help push TCU towards success in the back half of their season.
While most of the team calls him “yoyo” after a nickname he earned in high school, the safety said that Patterson often calls him “Obi-wan Kenobi,” even in drills.
Whether you want to call him “yoyo,” “Obi-wan Kenobi,” or just “Michael Onyemaobi,” one thing is for certain: the fifth-year safety is an example to all of us that hard work pays off, and that perseverance always trumps uncertainty.
Expected to make his second consecutive start, Onyemaobi and TCU take on Kansas State this Saturday. Kickoff in Manhattan, Kansas, is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on ESPNU.