By John Lopez
April 22, 2010

As basketball teams go, it was a heck of a football team. The front-court of that traveling Houston Hoops summer basketball team in 2004 included Martellus Bennett, Jermichael Finley and Fendi Onobun.

"Can you believe it?" Onobun says now. "That was a crazy squad."

Crazier still: The most highly regarded and best-known player of the bunch at the time was Onobun, who went on to become a McDonald's All American nominee and one of the plums of Lute Olson's 2005 Arizona Wildcats basketball recruiting class. Meanwhile, Bennett and Finley decided to pursue football careers.

Just five-years later, Bennett is a rising star at tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, Finley is the same for the Green Bay Packers and ... whatever became of Onobun? Some are whispering the name "Antonio Gates" -- another basketball star-turned-footballer -- when describing Onobun's potential.

It's been a wild, bumpy path from highly recruited hoops superstar to NFL diamond in the rough. Onobun's Wildcats basketball career was not a flop, but neither was it what anyone expected from the 6-6, 252-pound star.

"I was so good at basketball as a kid, I didn't really think about other sports," Onobun said. "Basketball came easy. But you go to a school like Arizona, you've got NBA-caliber guys coming in every year. It was that way every year and there were a lot of things going on."

A smart, popular player among teammates and fans, Onobun never played more than a role behind the likes of current NBA-ers Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger at Arizona. Playing for three coaches for the 'Cats didn't help his hoops prospects, either.

The son of Nigerian immigrants who stressed academics above all else, Onobun earned his degree and finished his basketball eligibility in four years, then passed on a chance to play professional basketball in Europe in favor of a shot at earning graduate hours. And at the urging of the Cowboys' Bennett, with whom Onobun remains close friends, Onobun decided to give football a shot for his hometown Houston Cougars.

"I kind of just went with it," Onobun said. "I thought, let me roll the dice and see what happens."

If you think this is where the happy ending happened, that's not quite true. Onobun hadn't played football since seventh grade and was far behind other Cougars players. Making matters more difficult, the Coogs' offensive system rarely uses a true tight end. Onobun was relegated to mostly special teams plays. Yet he still managed a pair of catches, including a touchdown reception in his only season of college football. And against Southern Miss, his freakish athletic ability stood out with a pair of blocked extra-points, which proved to be the difference in the game and earned Onobun Conference USA special teams player of the week honors.

"I'm raw," Onobun says, "but I have no bad habits because I'm so new to the game."

But his full potential became obvious at Houston's Pro Day. Perhaps no other player in the country went from total obscurity to a legitimate draft candidate, literally overnight. In front of scouts and coaches from 15 NFL teams, Onobun stole the show. He measured at 6-6, 252-pounds. His 4.48 40-yard dash time would have ranked second among all tight ends at the position. His shuttle time would have ranked first among all tight ends.

Since the UH Pro Day, Onobun has visited the Giants, Jets, Panthers, Texans and Seahawks. He has held individual workouts with the Rams, Texans and Jets.

"I knew the Pro Day was going to be my Super Bowl, so to speak," Onobun said. "As much attention as I've received from teams in the last two weeks, I've been told free agents don't get this kind of attention. Who doesn't want to hear their name called in the Draft? But if my name gets called, or it doesn't get called, I know I'm going to get a chance. It's been a whirlwind, but football always has been in the back of my mind and the opportunity is all I've ever wanted."

You May Like