Boston Globe: For Nnamdi and Obum Obukwelu, Harvard football is all in the family

Nnamdi Obukwelu in action during a 31-3 non-conference win at Lafayette on Oct. 1, 2011 Buy Now
Nnamdi Obukwelu in action during a 31-3 non-conference win at Lafayette on Oct. 1, 2011

-Courtesy, John Powers, Boston Globe

Harvard always was just a bus stop.

"We lived near Porter Square, and our mom would take the '1' bus down Mass. Ave. and it would drop her off right in front of Harvard Square," Nnamdi Obukwelu recalled. "Every day after school, we'd pick her up with our dad by the Johnston Gate, but we had no idea where Harvard's campus was."

Johnston Gate is the main entrance to the Yard, but Gladys Obukwelu had never walked through it.

"I never dreamt my children would be in Harvard," she said.

At noon on Saturday, she and husband Ebbie will be sitting inside Harvard Stadium watching her sons Nnamdi and Obum play defense against Yale in a sport Gladys once forbade them and older brother Iffi to play because she thought it too violent.

"Every time I see them together on the field, I can't tell you how proud I am," she said.

Theirs is a timeless coming-to-America tale of a couple who emigrated from Nigeria in the 1980s, raised five sons in Brockton, and urged them upward. Ifeanyichukwu, who played defensive end for the Crimson, now is an investment banker in New York. Nnamdi is a senior, bound for the National Football League, the financial world, or both. Obum is a sophomore who'd like to follow the same path. Oderah is a freshman at St. John's University and Mukky is a seventh-grader at BC High, where all of his brothers went.

"I think it's a remarkable story," said Harvard coach Tim Murphy. "To settle in Brockton without much more than a great work ethic, a respect for the power of education, and great family values — to see what they've accomplished, it will be a national story someday."

Ebbie and Gladys both attended college in Nigeria but knew that a better life beckoned in the United States.

"America is the land of opportunity," she said. "As long as you work hard, you succeed. In Nigeria, you are either up or not."

The Obukwelus understood that they likely would have working-class lives here — Gladys is an assistant at the Boston Medical Center in the South End and Ebbie is a Boston cab driver — but that their sons would have access to priceless schooling and an unlimited future.

"My parents were always telling me when I was growing up that education is the key to success," said Gladys. "No one can take it away from you. But you have to do it yourself."

While all of their sons were promising athletes, academics always came first. Video games were banned during the week and idling on the corner was prohibited.

"My boys never hang out, never," said Gladys, who converses with them in the family's native Ibo language. "They come home from school and they sit down at the table and do their work."

When it came time for secondary school, the Obukwelus chose Boston College High School, an all-male Jesuit institution known for its academic and athletic excellence. That meant 5 a.m. wake-ups, with Gladys dropping off her sons on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester on her way to work and picking them up after practice.

"My dad always said, we don't have much money but the one thing we're willing to spend our salary on is tuition to private school because that will pay off eventually," said Nnamdi. "That's the reason why we could have played football at bigger schools but we chose to go to Harvard. The issue of education has been so big in our family that we figured, why not come here?"

Harvard was mom's idea and Iffi, the eldest son, wasn't interested.

"He said, 'Mommy, do you know the kind of people who go to Harvard?' " she recalled. "I said, 'You are academically intelligent. Your background will take you to Harvard.' We argued about it. He reluctantly applied on the last day."

Iffi walked on as a defensive end for the 2007 Crimson squad that won the Ivy title by demolishing Yale at the Bowl. Three years later, Nnamdi, an imposing defensive tackle who checks in at 6 feet 3 inches, 275 pounds, followed and received a useful tutorial from his big brother.

"He was huge for me," said Nnamdi, who missed his freshman season after having shoulder surgery. "BC High was a rigorous school, but at the same time, it's not college.

"Freshman year, he sat me down and helped me map out my schedule so I could structure it around football and spring practice and make sure that I had the right schedule and took the right classes. He was like the guinea pig for the whole thing."

Obum, who is an inch shorter than Nnamdi but weighs the same, originally committed to the University of Connecticut but changed his mind. Harvard and the NFL, he realized, were not mutually exclusive.

Half a century ago, Nigerian athletes at Harvard, like the legendary Chris Ohiri, played soccer. Now, they're more likely to strap on a helmet, as defensive lineman Chucks Obi did a few years ago. They are student-athletes, Murphy says, in the best possible context.

The Obukwelu brothers relish the combination.

"Football is my stress relief," said Obum. "This side of the river, all the mayhem of the day — once you go across, you put all that stuff aside."

Once he and Nnamdi enter the Stadium, which is a hybrid of a Roman colosseum and a Greek amphitheatre, they get to be happy warriors.

"People tell me, I didn't know you were so outgoing, I saw you at the football game and you're dancing around and hitting people," said Nnamdi. "It's a completely different atmosphere over here at the Stadium. You get to unwind a little bit, be a little bit more boisterous and not be judged."

You also get to play alongside your brother, knowing that he has your back when the ball is snapped.

"It's a blessing," said Obum, who backs up on the left side while Nnamdi starts on the right. "I know for a fact he's going to make the play. He's pretty much unblockable, and I'm trying to be like that one day very soon."

Nnamdi has decided that he'd like to stick around to see it, so he'll come back for his extra year of eligibility.

"Once you're done with football, you're done with football," he said. "You can't come back and do it again. Also, being in college is fun. Iffi says, 'They're kicking my butt out here. Stay in college as long as you can and enjoy yourself. No worries. Just take exams and play football.'

"Also, I love my teammates. The camaraderie we have, the atmosphere in the locker room, you can't replicate that anywhere else."

While brother acts aren't uncommon at Harvard, Murphy never had three play for him.

"What about Mukky?" a friend asked him. "There's a Mukky?" a startled Murphy replied. Mukky Obukwelu is only 12 but he's 5-7, 214 and growing — and doing his homework at the table.