Within minutes of meeting Chris Ogbonnaya, it becomes clear that his successful NFL career is just one chapter in his incredible life story. From being one of seven children raised by a Nigerian single father all the way to becoming the University of Texas’ first African-American Academic All-American, he is a testament to overcoming the adversity that life can throw at you.
Yet immediately, you’re captivated by Ogbonnaya’s sense of humility. It quickly overshadows even the brightest limelight that comes with being a history-making student athlete, an NCAA champion, and a six-year veteran of the NFL.
After retiring from pro football in 2015, Ogbonnaya continues to add chapters to his inspiring story. This spring, he earned an Executive MBA degree from the McCombs School of Business and is now six months into his new career with JP Morgan Chase in Houston as an associate banker.
Recently, Poets&Quants sat down with Ogbonnaya to learn how he went from football to finance and how an upbringing marked by multiple tragedies now serves as motivation to leave his mark wherever he goes.
Poets & Quants: Tell me about your upbringing.
Chris Ogbonnaya: I came from a fairly big family, but a single parent home. My dad is of Nigerian descent and came to the U.S. in the late seventies. He attended medical school and is a physician here in Houston. But my upbringing was tough, marked by a lot of tragedies. I have two older sisters and one younger brother. Then my dad adopted three children in 1997 after my uncle was diagnosed with and passed away from brain cancer. Three months earlier, that same uncle’s wife had been killed in a car accident.
My father was one man raising seven kids on his own. These humble beginnings set the stage for me having to mature very quickly. Then in 2002, we lost two of my adopted brothers. One in a motor accident, then one to congenital heart failure.
P&Q: I’m sorry to hear your family suffered so much loss and while you were still in your youth.
CO: Yes, but I’m a firm believer that adversity reveals character. I faced tough situations with my mother leaving and having lost my brothers at a young age. Football became my gateway and escape.
P&Q: You attended the University of Texas where you played football and earned your stripes as an Academic All-American, correct?
CO: When I attended UT undergrad, I always tried to look at the big picture. My dad taught me that football wouldn’t last forever and this always stuck with me. I promised myself while I was waiting my turn to play, since I didn’t really play much until junior year, that I would get on UT’s All-American wall. I remember not seeing any African-American faces so I’m extremely proud to have my face appear there. I knew that not everybody could make it to the pros so I wanted to find a way to leave my mark at UT.
P&Q: Why is that?
CO: In everything I do, I find it important to leave your mark. There will be kids who come in and see that picture and they’ll know there’s a story behind it. I always want my story to be viewed in a positive light, knowing that I could serve as a measuring stick or form of motivation for those who come after me; whether they play football or not.
P&Q: Tell us about your time in the NFL.
CO: I was the seventh round draft pick in 2009 by the St. Louis Rams. I was lucky to be drafted for someone who didn’t have the numbers to be drafted. I was with the Rams from 2009 to 2010 then went to the Houston Texans for a little over a year. Then I played for the Cleveland Browns ‘11, ‘12, ‘13, and split time with the Carolina Panthers and NY Giants in ‘14. In 2015, I was with the New York Giants in the 2015 offseason, and in June of that year decided to retire. So, I spent six total seasons playing and retired in my seventh year.
P&Q: Why retire after just six seasons?
CO: For me, personally, playing running back was difficult in it’s own right. I felt great physically, but mentally it was time for a change. Throughout my playing career I also had a chip on my shoulder so playing football was really to represent my family. I had done that. After playing in college four years followed by the NFL, I’d missed a lot of time with them. It was important for me to get back to that and allow myself to see my dad more as he’s begun to get a little bit older. So, it was really about my family. I also promised my dad after five years, if I was lucky to go that far, that I would evaluate playing year-to-year.
P&Q: What was your family’s response to your decision to retire?
CO: My family was indifferent. I had their full support on whatever I decided in regards to my playing career. Part of me wanted me to keep going, but ultimately I decided it was my time. But I remember I went home and had a meeting with my dad. I’d asked if he was proud of me and what I’d accomplished. When he said that he was, that was all I needed to hear to hang up my cleats. It’s not just about ball. There’s so much more to life.
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