Clinton High School football star David Nwaogwugwu was sitting in the front of a classroom packed with fellow students, each, it seemed, armed with a question for the man of the hour.
Most of the queries centered on schoolwork and dedication — two things that early in his career at Clinton, Nwaogwugwu admits he had in short supply.
“I had a 68 average in my sophomore year and I was skipping classes,” the 6-foot-6 Nwaogwugwu said. “I was a rebel.”
But then his attitude changed — toward his class work, and his dedication to being the best he could be at football. And in the end, that change led to his receiving a football scholarship to Temple University.
His beaming parents, sitting in the front row of the classroom, told you all you needed to know about this turnaround story.
“This is just a blessing,” Nwaogwugwu said as dozens of teammates and well-wishers who packed the classroom waited for him to cut his celebratory cake. “I feel like other people are more happy for me than I am. My mom and dad have been talking about this day since I got the offer from Temple. It just makes me so happy to see my parents proud of me. That’s all you ever want.”
When John Applebee took over as Clinton’s head football coach this past season, he asked former coach Howard Langley if there was any Division I-level college talent on the squad he was inheriting.
“He said, ‘There’s one guy, he’s 6-foot-6, he’s our defensive end, and he’s only played football for two years,’” Applebee said. “So we walked into a (physical education) class … and there was this kid just dunking (a basketball). He’s just standing and dunking, standing and dunking.
“So I asked Howard, ‘Is that the D-end?’ And he said, ‘Yup.’ So I kind of knew right from there he was special.”
Special enough to finish second on the team with 35 tackles, as well as three sacks and even scoring a safety — all bright spots on a Clinton team that went just 1-8 this past season.
Applebee and others were instrumental in helping turn around Nwaogwugwu’s academics. And without that help, there would be no Division I scholarships coming Nwaogwugwu’s way.
“I remember going through his transcript last spring and thinking, ‘Man, we have to get you eligible for the NCAA because you’re a D-I player,’” Applebee said. “So we came up with a plan for what he had to do. We got an SAT coach for him, which helped him out big time with his SAT score. Then once colleges knew he was going to be eligible without having any problems, he started getting all his offers.”
University of Central Florida came calling, so did UConn, Syracuse, Rutgers and Boston College.
But when Nwaogwugwu got a look at Temple, he knew he didn’t need to court the other schools.
“When I went on my visit, it just felt like home,” said Nwaogwugwu, who plans to major in nursing. “I felt like I was already a player at Temple. The coaches treated me well, but the players were the main reason why I committed. They were all good, hard-working guys that made me feel welcome. I went there for a visit on Jan. 18, and once I went there, I already knew that was the school I was going to go to.”
There was an added benefit to Nwaogwugwu choosing Temple — its proximity to the Bronx will allow his family and friends to drive down to Philadelphia and see him play on a regular basis.
“That’s a bonus, because when I started the recruiting process, I said I wouldn’t hesitate to go to a school like Central Florida if I liked it,” Nwaogwugwu said. “It all depended on where I would fit the best.”
Applebee thinks his now-former player will rise to the occasion once he gets on campus.
“I really think he can be an impact player,” Applebee said. “I believe in him. I believe that he’s going to work hard enough, and I believe he’s smart enough to put himself in a position to be very successful.”