With NFL calling, Badgers alum Obasih puts health first

Chikwe Obasih took one look at the MRI and it cemented his decision — there’d be no professional football in his future.

This was not the way things were supposed to turn out. When he signed with Wisconsin out of Brookfield Central High School, Obasih was labeled the top recruit in the state by one recruiting service. He’d eventually be mentioned as a potential NFL player.

However, in what Obasih describes as a “gradual accumulation,” his hip began hurting in 2015, his redshirt sophomore season, and he didn’t feel right again until after he had undergone two surgeries following his junior year.

By Obasih’s count he missed only one half of football in high school, then played in 41 straight games at defensive end with the Badgers after redshirting as a freshman.

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“I had not had a significant injury. I had been pretty healthy my entire playing career and it turns out everything piled up at the end,” Obasih said.

But the surgeries had done the trick. During fall camp last year, Obasih was rejuvenated; his body feeling like it had in his early days at Wisconsin.

“People were like, ‘Yo, you look like how you used to play two years ago, you look great.’,” recalled Obasih, who was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2015 and ’16.

Obasih was to be eased back onto the field and saw limited snaps in Wisconsin’s 2017 season opener against Utah State. The plan then was for increased playing time against Florida Atlantic in the second game. But during the Wednesday practice before that contest, a teammate ran into his knee.

“It felt like my knee had been twisted off and bent half,” Obasih said. “Just very malleable, not very sturdy.”

That injury was the first time Obasih first thought about his football career being over — “That’s the first thing you think about, this might be the end, any significant injury,” he said — and it sidelined him for six games. Upon his return to action, however, his hip didn’t feel like it had back in August. Nevertheless, Obasih decided to play through the pain. He noted not playing, just sitting around, actually hurt worse. Adrenaline on gamedays eased the issue; laying on his couch during the week left his hip “throbbing.”

Every day became its own game of sorts for Obasih. He’d assign himself a percentage of how he felt based on his latest practice. After the Big Ten championship game, that number was zero — in terms of his football future. That’s when Obasih saw in his MRI that his labrum, which had been stitched up eight months earlier, had torn apart again. His body hadn’t been right since he hurt his knee (the knee injury exacerbating his hip issue) and he felt like a shell of his former playing self. The MRI was just the last straw.

Obasih let a few of his close teammates know of his decision, such as Alec James and Leon Jacobs, who of course quickly kidded him during Orange Bowl practices, telling him while they were still going to be athletes, he’d be sitting in an office somewhere and getting a potbelly. It didn’t take long for coaches to hear the banter and Obasih let them know as well. A couple of weeks before the Orange Bowl, everyone knew and Obasih put whatever energy he had left into the game. Obasih would end his football playing days with a victory, 34-24 over Miami, although he had just one tackle.

“Especially that last week of practice, it was exciting. Felt like I cramped, I had nothing left in the tank those last few weeks. It was good. Very freeing,” he said. “Wish I made more plays during that game, but did my job as best I could and pulled out the W, and that’s all I could do. Celebrate with my teammates despite not feeling like myself those last few weeks, last few games. But you do as much as you can because everyone else is out there doing as much as they can.”

While everyone at Wisconsin knew Obasih was done playing, that wasn’t the case for the rest of the football world. He didn’t feel the need to write some “thank you” note or have the school put out a press release. Perhaps that’s why a few days before the NFL draft, the Detroit Lions called. They had Obasih on their draft board, but noticed he wasn’t listed as having signed with an agent.

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“That’s the part that sucks. Knowing that I did have a shot and it’s not that I’m not going because the talent’s not there,” mused Obasih. “That’s the toughest part and knowing some guys we used to play against on Saturdays and doing a decent enough job in the league right now and how I fared against them.”

Recalling that phone conversation, Obasih later added, “Obviously it brought up feelings but I think I made the right decision.”

If the Lions had noticed Obasih hanging around at Wisconsin’s Pro Day, they likely wouldn’t have made the call. After having a third surgery on his hip after the Orange Bowl, Obasih set forth to lose some weight. He’s done that and then some.

Listed at 275 pounds by Wisconsin during his senior year, Obasih is down to 232 pounds — the lightest he’s been since he was a junior in high school. He lost nine pounds in his first week and 30 pounds in a month by working out a lot and trying something called intermittent fasting.

One side effect of his new self — “Leon was starting to call me too skinny,” Obasih laughed — is that his wardrobe is now way too big for him. While talking with others in the training room during rehabilitation about his situation, he jokingly created a GoFundMe page which includes the explanation “His funds are too low and his style is too lame to support his new clothing needs. Help him become someone you’re proud to go out in public with.” (“I didn’t know anyone could see that,” a surprised Obasih said when the page was brought to his attention, but he admitted there is a hint of truth in it because “that’s what makes jokes funny.”)

“You look at the picture of when we went to throw out the first pitch at Miller Park (on Brewers’ opening day), my jeans don’t fit me,” said Obasih, who used a photo of that moment on the GoFundMe page.

Joke or no joke, Obasih still hasn’t forked over for new clothes. He saved some money, but with food, rent, rehab, a couple of unexpected issues with his car — it was broken into once and then on the way to Miller Park it broke down — and other incidentals, that will have to wait.

Don’t feel too sorry for him, though (not that he wants you to anyway). Obasih has been working part-time in Madison and later this summer will move to Atlanta to begin work as an underwriting analyst for AIG. He’ll buy clothes then. It’s all part of his new plan.

After deciding to quit football, Obasih reached out to a number of former Wisconsin players who, for whatever reasons, also didn’t try and play professionally, such as Sam Arneson, Derek Landisch and Konrad Zagzebski. All had similar advice — be academically strong, get a good job and have an identity for yourself without football.

Check, check and check.

Academically, he was already there. Obasih made the Big Ten’s All-Academic team all four of his years and graduated in December with a double major in finance, investment & banking and risk management & insurance. Then after a couple of months of interviewing, he landed the job at AIG.

Obasih still has work to do on his rehab — he just recently was able to start jogging — and is looking forward to what life brings him next, but at the same time has no regrets on how things turned out.

“(Playing football was) 100 percent worth it,” he said. “I’m not going to be one of those parents who all of a sudden hates football. There’s a lot of value and traits (and) a lot of other people have worse injuries. I’m still able to walk, I’m still able to jump.

“It’s a game that paid so many dividends in my life, got me so many friends, joyful moments, competitiveness, mental fortitude, time-management skills, just a whole bunch of stuff I can thank football for. The character it builds. It’s tough walking away from something like that. But at the same time, it had to happen. Hopefully this decision pays off in about 10 or so years, and hopefully Leon and them will be done making fun of me for wearing suits instead of shoulder pads. I’m excited to figure it out.”

Dave Heller is the author of Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow (a Larry Ritter Book Award nominee), Facing Ted Williams – Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns