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From walk-on to Pro Day: Olugbode’s underdog story

(ALISON EPSTEIN/The Stanford Daily)

The inside of the Stanford weight room on a Tuesday morning in February resembles a National Football League red carpet as Coby Fleener (Colts), Zach Ertz (Eagles), Chase Thomas (49ers) and Tyler Gaffney (Patriots) stretch after training. These Stanford alums have achieved what all college football players hope to achieve: a chance to play in the NFL.

Five feet away, a young man grabs a towel weighted on the end with duct tape, wraps it around equipment and begins a round of pull-ups. His name is Kyle Olugbode, and he’s hoping to emulate the former teammates who now stretch next to him in the weight room.

On March 19, NFL scouts from almost every team in the league will arrive at Stanford to assess the skills of 13 Cardinal football players attempting to prove themselves worthy of playing in the NFL. Olugbode is one such player.

“Once I saw I could play in college, it was like, ‘I’ve made it this far, why can’t I go to the next level?’” Olugbode said.

Olugbode is the ultimate underdog. Having come to Stanford in 2010 without a scholarship, he struggled to show he belonged on the field. Now, after five seasons in which he earned both a scholarship and a starting spot, Olugbode must once again prove himself. Since he didn’t have an invitation to the NFL Combine, Pro Day is Olugbode’s last chance to demonstrate he is worthy of playing professional football.

Pro Day is an opportunity for draft-eligible players, including those who have attended the NFL Combine, to showcase their talents on their home turf. As NFL scouts observe, players complete broad and vertical jumps, 225-pound bench presses, a 40-yard dash, a 20-yard short shuttle, a 3-cone drill and position-specific exercises.

Andy Ward, a sports performance coach at Stanford, said it is difficult for a player in Olugbode’s position to leverage a Pro Day appearance and earn a spot on an NFL roster after not having gone to the Combine, but it has been done before. Stanford’s Johnson Bademosi ’12 is one example, having signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns after a phenomenal Pro Day.

At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, with only 4.4 percent body fat, Olugbode started eight games and recorded 38 tackles as a free safety in the 2014 season. Having not made any all-conference teams, he did not expect to get an invitation to the Combine, nor does he anticipate getting drafted in the seven-round draft. Olugbode hopes to emulate Bademosi and other former teammates such as Griff Whalen (Colts) and Doug Baldwin (Seahawks) by signing as a free agent.

(ALISON EPSTEIN/The Stanford Daily)
(ALISON EPSTEIN/The Stanford Daily)

To prepare for Pro Day, Olugbode trains daily in the weight room, following a program designed by Shannon Turley, Stanford’s director of sports performance and dictated by Ward. Olugbode completes his regimen of pull-ups, bench presses and leg lifts, then runs outside on the practice field. Ward critiques Olugbode’s technique after each exercise.

“Kyle is one of my favorite athletes to train,” Ward said, “He’s one of the athletes that you don’t have to tell to do much, and he makes you look good because he does exactly what you need him to do.”

Though Olugbode once dreamed of playing basketball professionally, his skillset in high school favored football. The eldest of four, with parents who emigrated from Nigeria, Olugbode was unfamiliar with college recruitment. He made a highlight reel because he saw others at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose making them, and he attended summer football camps but was unaware that he had to make a name for himself there.

“You have to stand out in a spectacular way most of the time,” he said. “It’s all about selling yourself, which I had no idea about.”

Olugbode did not receive scholarship offers from higher-level programs, but former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh asked Olugbode to walk onto Stanford’s team in 2010 without a scholarship. He arrived on campus ready to prove himself, hoping one day to move up the depth chart to the No. 1 spot.

“I just want to touch the grass,” Olugbode said. “I’d always say that to myself.”

The spot at safety opened in the offseason before Olugbode’s redshirt sophomore year. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason told the players that whoever performed best in practice would earn the spot, but that proved difficult for Olugbode.

“Every new period we were in, I’d put so much energy to build my status up, to try to move up the depth chart, that every period I’d end up dropping back down. As a walk-on, that just happens,” Olugbode said.

That offseason, a pain in Olugbode’s wrist began to worsen, and an X-ray confirmed a break, requiring season-ending surgery.

“I wanted to cry,” Olugbode said. “That moment, it just felt like something I couldn’t overcome.”

He recovered, playing 14 games in the 2013 season, mostly on special teams, after which head coach David Shaw told Olugbode he would receive a scholarship. After four years of being a walk-on, Olugbode had overcome a large hurdle.

A reporter first told Olugbode that he had won the starting spot for the 2014 season. The competing safeties were rotating in practice, so Olugbode wasn’t aware that he was winning. He knew that congratulations were not yet in order.

“I was like, ‘I haven’t actually played yet,’” Olugbode said. “This team has a bunch of goals we’re trying to accomplish and we haven’t accomplished any of them yet. That’s not what it’s all about right now.”

Olugbode did play “meaningful snaps,” as he had hoped. He was on the field for the losses to USC and Notre Dame, and played important snaps in Stanford’s win against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, where the team had played in the BCS bowl for two consecutive years.

“Kyle is a walk-on who came here and just kept knocking down doors,” said Duane Akina, Stanford’s defensive backs coach. “In his fifth year, he really emerged as one of the leading players on a massively ranked defense. He was such a major player in our success this year.”

Should Olugbode succeed at Pro Day and sign as a free agent, he must make it to camp and then survive several cuts before making it to the 53-man roster.

“Given the opportunity, he’ll be one of those guys that will be really difficult to cut,” Akina said. “He does everything right, he’s very unselfish.”

But first, there’s Pro Day to attend to.

“I hope he has a phenomenal Pro Day,” Ward said. “I hope the world for him.”

Contact Alison Epstein at alisonkepstein ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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