Bengals Hope Ossai's Fire Singes The Edge

Joseph Ossai is always on the run.
Joseph Ossai is always on the run.

Those young Bengals defensive linemen have arrived as advertised. Big. Long. Hungry. Joseph Ossai, the tireless third-round pick from Texas who started running on the back side as a freshman at Conroe High School and hasn't stopped even though he's on an NFL front, is emblematic of what this draft on the edge is all about.

"An athlete," is how his new coaches see him after his first week on the field with the vets. "Quick. Explosive. Position flexibility. Look at his college tape and he's a finisher."

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, the vicar of versatility, wants his edge guys to do it all as 3-4 hybrid ends and outside linebackers and not stop while they're doing it.

They picked three of those guys in a draft that could profoundly change how they play the position around here as they back up veterans Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson and the 6-4, 256-pound Ossai is the face of all that. Early in his career in Austin he stood up and played linebacker, hooking into coverage or knifing through a blitz. Last season he put his hand in the turf at end and blew past tackles.

Numbers-wise, he compares favorably to another hybrid 3-4 linebacker in the division, 6-4, 252-pound T.J. Watt, the Steelers' quarterback-wrecker. Coming out of Wisconsin, according to SI.com, Watt ran 4.69 seconds in the 40-yard dash, had a 37-inch vertical leap and broad jumped 10-feet-7. Ossai went 4.63, 41.5 and 10-11.

And no one disputes his all-out relentless, Wattish play that the Bengals coaches called "eye-catching," on video. They call it "playing with hair on fire," and Greg Robinson is the person who fanned the flames back at Conroe, the year before Ossai moved down the road to Oak Ridge High School.

Robinson, the defensive line coach at one of those sprawling Class 6A powers that put Texas in the glare of Friday Night Lights, helped talk the tall, rangy, fast kid off the soccer field and during spring ball of his freshman year they padded him up at defensive end and put him in there with the juniors and seniors-to-be.

"He was playing the five technique. There was a throwback pass to a tight end and he was close to it and then he kind of pulled up,' Robinson recalls. "I said, 'Ossai, man, hey, you can get to that ball. Just run. You've got that."'

That's when Robinson remembered what one of his own coaches had said to him and he yanked it out of the archives to use it on a kid that would remember it the night he went to the NFL.

"Just running hard. You never know when there's a big play, so you go hard every play. Because you never know when it's coming," Robinson says. "By gosh, they ran it two or three plays later and he just remembered. You know a five technique is supposed to keep contain and he just ran his butt off to the ball to make the play and we were all in amazement."

The Bengals liked a cornerback or two that were hanging around with Ossai on the board, but either they weren't there or they didn't have his grades. Computing the intangibles, measurements and production, there was just too much to pass up.

"They're very hard workers," Robinson says of the Ossai family that he credits with setting up the play. "They're the type if they're given a responsibility or job, they're going to do it to their absolute fullest. His brothers. His sister. They're just a hard-working, humble family. It's just ingrained in his nature, his genes and his character."

When the Bengals media Zoomed in on Ossai after the pick, he remembered the snap it all changed.

"The motor came from freshman year of high school," Ossai said that night during the third round. "There was a pass that went out to a tight end and I didn't chase the ball, and the coach pulled me off and said, 'You have to chase that ball, because there's that slim chance that it might happen.' So, even the next play or another play before, the same play happened. I ran, I punched the ball out and ever since then, it was like euphoria when that happened.

"So, ever since then, I have to get to that ball. It's like Road Runner. Who does he chase? The cartoon — when he's chasing that bird. That's how I feel when I'm chasing that ball. So, maybe that could be a nickname. Road Runner, something like that."

But as he thought about it this week during the Bengals' first set of workouts of what would be spring ball in Texas, it was Robinson that fanned the flames yet the person that set his hair on fire may have actually been one of the people that gave him his first name.

His mother.

It's been 13 years now since Emmanuela Ossai won the Diversity Visa Lottery program sponsored by the U.S. State Department and paved the way for her family to move from Nigeria to Houston. But her story is about a lot more than luck. It begins long before all that, back when she graduated from the University of Lagos with an economics degree and went to work as a contractor.

"She started saving her first bit of salary that she got from her first job and she put that into buying land instead of going out and buying a car," Ossai says. "That land is where we eventually put our house and constantly over the years built it up to what it is now. After we left we donated it to the church. My mom's a firm believer in giving back."

They moved when Ossai was ten, so he still remembers Nigeria. He said he didn't grow up in a particularly easy neighborhood, but his parents were right there with him and his siblings, keeping "us focused on doing the right things."

"She always used her energy to make sure we were kept in a safe environment and took great pride in that."

Emmanuela Ossai, who never gave up on the play, either, has always seen his effort.

"It comes from being motivated by his love of family," she says. "He loves his family, so he wants to be the best for them. And trusting in God, there is nothing you can't do. That's the drive. For the family and God."

Drive? Joseph Ossai grew up in those daily, heated games of youth with his younger brothers, where he learned it felt so much better not to lose.

"I've always known I want to put my family in a better situation and do all I can for them," Ossai says, "(because) they do all the things for me."

Although Ossai left Conroe soon after he ran down the tight end, he was still in town and close enough for Robinson to follow. He remembers that competitive edge cutting into Ossai during a regional track meet, where he was running the hurdles for Oak Ridge.

"He was in lane two or three and we're talking regionals in Texas, 6A, and they're only taking the top two," Robinson says. "He tripped up on the second to last (hurdle), gathered himself back up and finished just short and let out just a big (yell). It was kind of sad. The coaches were just astonished with that size he could have that type of turnover … By that time, he was 6-4, 210, 215ish looking like a freak."

But the thing Robinson remembers is later that day when he approached Ossai and told him just how outstanding it all was and how the "Thank You Coach," humility just dripped off him.

"Very humble, very humble," Robinson says.

Now Ossai sounds like the same guy who listened to a coach all those years ago. He enjoys his emerging do-it-all role listening to defensive line coach Marion Hobby and his edge Einstein, senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner.

"I've always said I see myself playing on the field. It doesn't matter if I'm playing safety, strong safety," Ossai says. "As long as I have a coach good enough to sit down there and teach me. And I do have that in Coach Hobby and Duffner. I'm just excited."

Robinson remembers one of his friends telling him, 'Hey, Ossai mentioned your quote.' He could only say, "I'm just coaching, man." But man, a coach appreciates that.

"It kind of clicked with him. Pursuit to the back side," says Robinson, who fanned the flames. "Boy, he took that to UT and ran with it."

Hey Coach. He's still running in an NFL spring.

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