Canadian O.J. Atogwe enjoys breakout '07 NFL season with St. Louis Rams
Jan 10, 2008
Safety O.J. Atogwe couldn't have picked a better time to register a breakout season with the NFL's St. Louis Rams.
The native of Windsor, Ont., was one of the few bright spots for a Rams team that posted a dismal 3-13 record - the second-worst mark in the NFL behind 1-15 Miami - and finished last in the NFC West. Atogwe, 26, who becomes a restricted free agent this off-season, led the NFC in interceptions with eight and registered a career-high 75 tackles.
"I don't focus too much on it (next year)," Atogwe said. "It's not really in my control as far as what's going to happen and where I'm going to end up.
"I'd like to remain with the Rams because we've got a great bunch of guys and a great coaching staff. I really believe in my heart we're going to get things turned around and I'd love to be a part of that. But this situation is out of my hands. The onus is on the Rams and whatever team might have an interest in me. I have full faith in the fact everything will work out the way it should."
The Rams are expected to tender the five-foot-11, 210-pound Atogwe at a first-round level. That means a team signing him to a long-term contract would have to surrender a first-round pick if St. Louis didn't match the offer.
Despite the Rams' losing ways, the third-year safety registered a number of career highlights in 2007. For example:
-An interception against New Orleans on Nov. 11 helped lead the Rams to their first win of the year, a 37-29 decision on Nov. 11. The following week, Atogwe's pick against San Francisco led St. Louis to a 13-9 decision.
-He recorded two interceptions against Green Bay's Brett Favre on Dec. 16 in a 33-14 loss to Green Bay.
-Atogwe returned a Kurt Warner interception 52 yards for his first NFL touchdown in a season-ending 48-19 loss to Arizona on Dec. 30.
-Atogwe's eight interceptions were the most for a Rams player since Dexter McCleon had eight in 2000.
"The interceptions (against Favre) definitely are what I hold near and dear," Atogwe said. "Going into the season looking at the teams we were going to play I said Brett Favre was the quarterback I most wanted an interception against because he's a Hall of Fame quarterback, one of the best to ever play the game.
"It's an honour to know when you're old and grey you can say, 'I picked off Brett Farve.' The second highlight was the return for a touchdown because I hadn't had a pick-six since probably my senior year in high school so it was a great feeling."
Trouble was, Atogwe's accomplishments went mostly under the radar screen as he was bypassed for selection to the NFC Pro Bowl team.
Minnesota's Darren Sharper and Washington's Sean Taylor were named the starting safeties initially, with Dallas's Ken Hamlin moving to the starting lineup to replace Taylor, who was killed at his home during a robbery attempt. Surprisingly, Dallas's Roy Williams was named as a reserve in Hamlin's place.
Williams had more tackles than Atogwe (92), but Atogwe had more passes defended (12 to five), interceptions (eight compared to two for Williams) and touchdown returns (Williams had none).
"I wouldn't say I was disappointed because I feel the players that were selected ahead of me all had great seasons and also deserved to be in the Pro Bowl," Atogwe said. "I wanted to make it but it didn't happen so it's something I'll definitely put on my goalsheet next year and continue to work at it until I get voted in."
Still, Atogwe's accomplishments are impressive for a player taken in the third round (66th overall) of the '05 NFL draft who became a full-time starter as a sophomore.
"He has excellent ball skills, he's kind of a magnet," Rams defensive co-ordinator Jim Haslett said of Atogwe on the club's website. "He's always trying to strip the ball out.
"He's fast. He takes his job seriously. He is a great tackler in the open space. You see the range he has also. I still think he has a ways to go, but he's getting better every day out there."
Atogwe has enjoyed a productive NFL career thus far, having registered 161 tackles and 13 interceptions in 44 career games. But Atogwe said it wasn't until well into his rookie season that he fully committed himself to nuances of pro football.
"It was during my rookie season where the light kind of went on and the way I approached the game changed," Atogwe said. "I think I had the wrong attitude, the wrong outlook on how you're supposed to approach it because I was ignorant to the fact and didn't know what to expect.
"So I spent more time in the gym, more time learning my position and the defence, being punctual and becoming a student of the game. Just the little things, the details that in the end allow you to become a better player because you're taking the time to build the character of the man you want to be."
Atogwe's given name is Oshiomogho (pronounced OH-shim-ago) but he gained the O.J. monicker at the age of seven when he first took up football.
"My coach couldn't pronounce my name so for the first little while, he called me O," Atogwe said. "I was a running back and soon someone put the J in and called me O.J. and it kind of stuck."
Atogwe isn't the only Canadian on St. Louis's roster. Centre Brett Romberg is also a Windsor native and a one-time teammate of Atogwe's during their high school years.
But the two couldn't be more different.
Atogwe is quiet and reserved and enjoys reading comics. Romberg, on the other hand, is a free spirit who's never afraid to voice his opinion. Romberg was a consensus All-American at Miami, captured the Rimington Trophy as U.S. college football's top centre and was part of a NCAA championship squad.
But he enjoyed rock star status at Miami for his punchy anecdotes to reporters, flashy vehicles and willingness to do just about anything once, including pinching an opponent's posterior during games. In fact, prior to Ohio State's 31-24 double overtime win over Miami in the NCAA title game Jan. 3, 2003 in the Fiesta Bowl, Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN The Magazine called Romberg "the best Canadian import since a case of Labatt's Blue."
However, teammates aren't immune, either, as Romberg has earned a well deserved reputation of being a practical jokes master.
"He's still a wildman but it's more comical," Atogwe said. "He's definitely a free spirit.
"He plays his game with a lot of passion and a lot of intelligence and aggression. But he's a great guy in the locker-room because he cares about his job but he also keeps things light."