Makeover in Madison: How former walk-on Dare Ogunbowale broke out as a Wisconsin tailback
For all the accolades bestowed on Wisconsin running back Dare Ogunbowale during his basketball career at Milwaukee's Marquette High—including back-to-back honors as the Hilltoppers' defensive player of the year—Badgers coach Paul Chryst remains unimpressed.
"You know, he claims he was a good basketball player," Chryst says, "but we had a little summer basketball pick-up and, well, let's just say he didn't stand out like I thought he would."
Chryst may not think much of Ogunbowale's skills on the court, but on the gridiron the coach likes what he sees. When Wisconsin (3–2, 0–1, Big Ten) plays Nebraska (2–3, 0–1 Big Ten) in Lincoln on Saturday, Ogunbowale will take the field as the Badgers' second-leading rusher. Not bad considering that the 5' 11", 200-pound junior has only been playing running back for 13 months.
Ogunbowale grew up a Wisconsin fan and knew the rich history of walk-ons in Madison. The Badgers pride themselves on developing players, and their list of walk-ons is as long as it is impressive. (The walk-on program was started in 1990 by then coach Barry Alvarez, a former Cornhuskers linebacker, who modeled it on the one at his alma mater.) The headliner, of course, is Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, a former Wisconsin standout whom the Associated Press has twice named NFL defensive player of the year.
Ogunbowale, who had been an all-conference defensive back at Marquette, likely could have played basketball or even soccer, his first love, at the Division II level, but he liked his chances of playing football in Madison. (The economics major also wanted a top-notch degree.) He found his way to the Badgers' walk-on program though a conversation with then defensive backs coach Ben Strickland. That was in the fall of 2012—three head coaches ago—when Bret Bielema was in charge. Bielema offered Ogunbowale a spot at his high school position, and so he suited up as a defensive back.
In Ogunbowale's family his sister, Arike—a McDonald's high school All-American and a freshman point guard at Notre Dame—runs the blacktop.
Ogunbowale laughs when recalling his first few days of FBS football, saying that it wasn't "that traumatic," but acknowledging that he had his hands full trying to cover 6' 2", 190-pound receiver Jared Abbrederis. Though Ogunbowale weighed only 175 pounds, he says that he "kept up a lot better than I thought I would."
"I was able to hold my own because there wasn't too much live tackling on scout team," he says. "That's how I avoided getting flattened."
Focused on bulking up, Ogunbowale went to work in the weight room. He redshirted in 2012, played on special team in '13 and then in '14, after a rash of injuries to Wisconsin's running backs, then coach Gary Andersen approached Ogunbowale before the third game of the year and asked if he'd like to carry the ball.
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Ogunbowale had impressed Andersen with his elusiveness during preseason practice while carrying the ball in a one-on-one drill. While Ogunbowale was surprised by the suggestion that he play running back—he hadn't carried the ball since high school, and then it had only been as a kick returner—he did have one advantage: Melvin Gordon, the Badgers' Heisman Trophy candidate running back, was his roommate.
The two studied film together, and Gordon told Ogunbowale that the key to success was being quicker and faster—with both his feet and his reactions—than the defense. Ogunbowale carried the ball in six games, rushing 34 times for 193 yards with a touchdown. Learning a new playbook took time, but Ogunbowale caught up quickly. He says he does not remember a time that a play was called when he had no idea what to do. As for getting tackled for the first time in four years, well, "When it happened I was like, Oh. Hmm. I forgot what that feels like. It took some time to adjust."
When Chryst was hired in December, returning his Wisconsin roots, Ogunbowale didn't worry about having to change positions again. The coach—a former player and assistant for the Badgers—has a special appreciation for the team's walk-on culture. He put Ogunbowale on scholarship at the beginning of this season, adding to a surprisingly long list of players who gave gone from stand-ins to scholarship winners: In addition to Ogunbowale, starting quarterback Joel Stave and receiver Alex Erickson are former walk-ons.
"What we tell our guys is that [being a walk-on] should only be different one day a year: When you pay your expenses," Chryst says. "I think guys who come here as walk-ons know that. It's not just lip service. You're going to get an opportunity to play. There's not an agenda here, where we feel like we only have to play the guys [on scholarship]."
Chryst believes that Ogunbowale has been successful not only because of his work ethic, but also because of his personality. Guys like to be around him. He has a charismatic, laid-back demeanor, and football is far from his only interest. Besides Gordon, one of his closest friends the last few years has been Wisconsin basketball star Sam Dekker, now with the Houston Rockets. (Ogunbowale says that he and Dekker used to play pick-up basketball together and that he wisely tried to be on Dekker's team as much as possible.) He plays the piano and is a staunch supporter of the Nigerian national soccer team. When the USWNT played Nigeria in the 2015 World Cup, Ogunbowale—whose father, Gregory, was born in Nigeria—proudly wore his Nigerian soccer jersey and rooted for his other home country.
Throughout the coaching turnover of the last three years, Ogunbowale has been a steadying, mature presence in the Badgers' locker room. During all the turmoil he says it helped him to remember that "you still have the same teammates, the same guys competing and battling with you every day. That's what matters."
With starting running back Corey Clement—who underwent sports hernia surgery last month—not expected back until at least late October, Wisconsin has had to rely on Ogunbowale. He has rushed 59 times for 309 yards with three touchdowns (he also has 14 catches for 109 yards). But he knows there is still considerable room for improvement. Long feared for their formidable ground attack, the Badgers have had their share of problems this season on offense, particularly in last Saturday's 10–6 loss to Iowa, when Wisconsin rushed for just 86 yards. Ogunbowale still turns to Gordon, now with the San Diego Chargers, for advice. "Stay positive," Gordon told him. "Things are going to start opening up."
That's perfect counsel for Ogunbowale, who says he fell for football because of its emphasis on a team. Basketball and soccer are fun, sure, but it's easy for superstars to shine. In football, a good quarterback will struggle no matter what if his receivers can't catch. Likewise, a tough running back can't create holes on his own, and is only as good as his offensive line.
"You can't be successful without your team, and that's the beauty of football," Ogunbowale says. "You have to trust your teammates and work all week in practice to develop that. But on a Saturday, when everyone's clicking, man, there's nothing like that."
Plus, he says sheepishly, his best basketball days are behind him. Chryst agrees—and he likes it that way.
Know of a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.