Betiku's journey to big-time football

Oluwole Betiku isn't ready to go home.

Betiku hasn't seen his mother, father, or older brother and sister since emigrating from Nigeria in November 2013, but he said he has much more to accomplish in the United States before returning to his native country.

With barely a year experience playing football, Betiku is ranked in the ESPN 300 (No. 64 overall; No. 8 DE) and holds offers from Maryland, Florida State, UCLA, USC and a number of others. He's come so far so fast. It won't be easy, and the odds of going from unknown to scholarship DE to whatever's next are long, but there's no turning back now.

Growing up in the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria, much of Betiku's upbringing was wildly different than virtually all of his fellow Class of 2016 recruits. He recounts walking miles to fetch water -- which became especially important during the dry season. Washing clothes by hand, walking to school and corporal punishment were regular parts of life in the eastern African country.

"It was a different experience," Betiku said. "We played soccer in the streets with no shoes. There wasn't a 24-hour supply of electricity, so you had to be outside playing with your friends and mixing with everyone."

Betiku knew from an early age that he wanted to come to the U.S. and knew that sports would be his best vehicle. Not only was he the tallest kid in his grade -- something he hated at the time, since it meant both having to sit in the back of the class and erase the chalkboard every time it needed cleaning -- he knew athletics could lead to scholarship opportunities.

"All I wanted to do was cross the borders and find a way out," Betiku said. "I wanted to go to school or do any sport, even if it was UFC. I just wanted to come to the States and find a better life for myself and try to help my family."

After an 18-hour bus ride to a football camp in Uyo, Nigeria, 15-year-old Betiku worked out for former Maryland linebacker and fullback Ricardo Dickerson, who holds football camps in Africa and Central America while helping them make the move to the U.S.

"You just didn't want to give up," Betiku said of the exhausting workouts. "There are so many guys there that you don't want to give up no matter how tired you are. You wake up the next day and everyone is sore, but you just have to go."

Dickerson had a good reputation as a coach in Nigeria, so Betiku wasn't skeptical when Dickerson set him up with his friend, former NFL All-Pro linebacker, LaVar Arrington.

Arrington, who has mentored and trained a number of players -- both American and Nigerian - at his Xtreme Procision camp, has helped bring other players to the United States, most recently 2015 ESPN offensive lineman Abdul Bello who signed with Florida State.

After a few months of phone calls with Arrington and his wife, Arrington would eventually become Betiku's legal guardian. In November, 2013, Betiku came to America, first to Maryland then to California when Arrington took a job at the NFL Network in Los Angeles.

"All I wanted to do was cross the borders and find a way out. I wanted to go to school or do any sport, even if it was UFC. I just wanted to come to the States and find a better life for myself and try to help my family." ESPN 300 DE Oluwole Betiku

Before playing a down, Betiku received offers from Hawaii and Maryland. In California, Betiku enrolled at athletic power Gardena (Calif.) Serra, a program that has produced NFL selections Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and Paul Richardson in recent years, and has fellow ESPN 300 prospects Brandon Burton and C.J. Pollard on the roster.

Serra head coach Scott Altenberg knew he had a player he could work with.

"Holy moly," Altenberg said. "He looked really good with that soccer ball. This kid's an athlete. It didn't take long to figure that out.

"A lot of what we do and know is what we've seen on TV. He had none of that. He had to learn what was going on in general because he couldn't reference anything."

But no part of the game came easily.

"The first day we gave him pads, he had no idea about them," Altenberg said. "He said he was going to pass on the shoulder pads because they were a little too tight."

In one game, Betiku jumped off-sides three times.

"Nobody told me it was going to be that nasty and fast," he said. "I didn't know what was happening."

Before long, the disappointment from fans and his slow learning curve began to weigh on the 6-foot-4 defensive end.

"Everyone just expected so much of me," Betiku said. "I came in having never played football and already had two offers because of the way I looked and the way I was running. Everybody thought I had to be the best player on the field, but that doesn't apply to me. You can put me on the basketball court and I'll score a lot of points. If it's soccer I'll play and score a lot of goals. But this is a game I don't know."

At his lowest point, Betiku wasn't sure he could continue.

"I called my mom and said I don't think this game is possible," Betiku said. "I can't play. Sometimes I look at people's faces like they've lost hope that I can't learn the game. It was really tough on me because I'm a real emotional person."

But a broken wrist in the third game of the season turned into a blessing. With the chance to regroup, he was able to take more individual coaching from Arrington and Serra defensive line coach Stephen Pliaconis, whom Betiku credits greatly with his second-half surge, eventually finishing his first year of organized football with 11.5 sacks and 59 tackles.

Betiku still believes he has a long way to go on the football field to get where he wants to be, but few players his age show as much determination and drive on and off the field, because few have as much riding on it. Betiku is striving for greatness, holding former Chiefs star Christian Okoye and Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah -- both native Africans -- as role models.

His coach has similarly high hopes for both his senior season and for his recruitments.

"His ceiling is so high, he's literally just starting now," Altenberg said. "It's been fun watching him because he's such a sponge. Now he's getting to the point where he's one of the top recruits around."

While a successful college and NFL career could be on the horizon, the upbeat Betiku has already found his share of stories to take back to Nigeria. Within his 14 months of living in the United States, he's already met President Barack Obama -- Arrington and family were on hand for a Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit -- and rapper Snoop Dogg -- Betiku and Cordell Broadus, Snoop Dogg's son, were in Orlando together for the Under Armour All-America Game and 2015 Under Armour Elite 50.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm still dreaming," Betiku said. "I'm going to wake up and find myself back in Nigeria and say, 'That was a beautiful dream. I hope it comes true.'"