GARDENA — Rewind to 2013, and no one had ever heard of Oluwole Betiku. A tall and bulky teen who was too large for soccer but not tall enough for basketball, the Nigerian native settled on football.
At first, he couldn’t figure out how to put on his helmet. Two years later, the 250-pound high school senior is an elite defensive end commit to UCLA.
“You know, football is a scary sport,” Betiku said. “When I was in Nigeria I was like … I’m going to break my head, break my legs, but with all the support I have here, I was just able to do what I need to do.”
Only two seasons into his football career, Betiku, or “Wole” as he is more commonly called, has racked up more than 25 Division I offers. Yet the elite defensive line prospect feels he hasn’t accomplished anything yet.
“I realize that my family isn’t here yet, and I haven’t gained anything else from football,” Betiku said. “That’s how I wake up every morning. I’m still living in someone else’s house; I don’t have my own place, my own bed. So ESPN, Rivals, they can write all they want but that’s just the stories. To me, it seems like I have more work to do to make the dream become a reality.”
That dream is to one day use football to bring his family over from Lagos, Nigeria, where he grew up. As a child, Betiku became accustomed to the surroundings of a war-torn area, with soldiers and tanks roaming the streets. With Islamic extremist group Boko Haram terrorizing Nigeria since 2002, more than 2.3 million people have been displaced since May 2013 alone because of the conflict and violence.
Betiku remembers the day his life changed. In 2013, he took an 12-hour bus ride to a town named Uyo, the site of the Xtreme Procision International Sports Camp – a program intended to help young athletes in Africa attend high school in the U.S.With hundreds of participants from all over Nigeria attending the camp, Betiku wasn’t guaranteed a chance to move to the U.S.
“It was kind of like survive and advance,” Betiku said. “You had to show the coaches you were willing and ready to play. You never know if you’re going to be picked because there are so many kids.”
Fortunately for Betiku, his play impressed Ricardo Dickerson, a former University of Maryland linebacker who now runs sports camps in Africa for charitable purposes. Dickerson saw something special in Betiku and arranged for him to stay with his friend, former NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington. In trying to obtain his visa, as recounted by scout.com writer Gerard Martinezin 2014, Betiku was faced with an immigration officer that had rejected the last five applicants. Somehow, Betiku was granted his visa and found himself living with Arrington in Forestville, Md., where he attended Bishop McNamara High School. After Betiku’s sophomore season, in which he did not play at all, the NFL Network hired Arrington as an analyst, causing the two to move to West Hollywood where Betiku now plays for Junipero Serra High.
None of Betiku’s family members have ever been to the U.S., or seen him play in person. But the high school senior is quick to identify his mother as the most influential person in his life.
“She means a lot to me, you know,” Betiku said. “I watched her work hard every day, coming back late at night and leaving in the early morning. No matter how hard things on the football field are, it can’t be as hard as what my mom did for us growing up, raising three kids, you know.”
Currently 6-1, Betiku’s Junipero Serra High is chasing its fourth state title, fresh off a thrilling 41-38 victory Friday over a highly-touted Bishop Amat team that featured two USC commits. Betiku had six tackles (2 for a loss) and 0.5 sacks against a flurry of double teams, mostly consisting of UNLV commit Matt Brayton and teammate Tim Dolan, who both stand over 6-foot-4 at 295 pounds and 285 pounds, respectively.
Betiku still has work to do. He doesn’t view his college selection process as a normal college experience, but rather as a “business decision.”
“I see myself the same way NFL players see themselves when they’re free agents,” Betiku said. “You have to consider every team. Four to five years is a long time, you don’t want to regret and then transfer. So I’m going to talk to schools, but no doubt UCLA is my top school, and it’s going to take a lot of convincing.”
Funnily, one of his teammates and fellow four-star recruit C.J. Pollard, is a senior safety committed to USC. One would think that the two trash-talk a great deal in practice, but Betiku’s response linked back to the way he approaches his recruitment.
“I’m not really about the rivalry you know, I didn’t grow up here,” Betiku said. “Me and C.J. hang all the time. He tells me about USC and I tell him about UCLA. We just chill, you know? It’s really about what was the best situation for each of us.”
Whatever the case, it’s hard to miss the huge smile that Betiku boasts on the sidelines every offensive drive for the Serra Cavaliers. Despite his businesslike approach, Betiku has a great sense of humor, introducing himself as “Nigeria’s Finest” in various interviews. The highly sought-after recruit lists defensive line coach Angus McClure, the warmth of the Bruin locker room and the scheme of UCLA’s defense as the biggest factors in his commitment.
Compiled by Vikram Sairam, Bruin Sports contributor, with contributing reports by Matthew Joye, Bruin Sports senior staff.