Commentary

A brothers' tale for Omon, Nwagbuo

They plan to meet for the first time Thursday when the 49ers play at San Diego

Updated: September 1, 2011, 1:30 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Xavier OmonMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesXavier Omon, who was drafted in 2008, hopes to make the 49ers roster.

In a few days, the NFL will make its final purge, casting away pieces that don't fit. Xavier Omon, a fourth-string running back for the San Francisco 49ers, might be on one of those lists, and it won't be a stunning revelation for a man who has been cut three times. In life, like in football, Omon has struggled to fit in. He was one of just three African-American kids at Beatrice High School in southeastern Nebraska, and freshman year, he says he was called the N-word. "Honestly," he said, "I beat the hell out of the kid. It never happened again." He lost two brothers by the time he was 15 and never knew his biological father.

But Omon used to dream about what his dad was like. He'd be big and strong and look just like him, but with a beard and an older face. He'd buy him a Game Boy and take him places. The old man called once, when Xavier was in fourth or fifth grade, and promised to visit. Omon says he never heard from him again.

So for nearly 26 years, Xavier Omon felt as if he had half of a life. Then a message came that changed everything.

Afraid at first

It started, of all places, on Facebook. Delorise Omon, Xavier's mom, was catching up with an old acquaintance on the computer last winter. The man informed her that Chris Nwagbuo, Xavier's biological father, had died in 2004, and that one of his sons -- a half-brother of Xavier's that he'd never met -- just happened to play football, too. For the San Diego Chargers.

"It was crazy," Xavier Omon said. "It's like a movie."

Nwagbuo/Omon
Getty ImagesOgemdi Nwagbuo and Xavier Omon found out in December that they are half-brothers.

It should've jolted him from his chair, prompted him to rush to his smartphone to check the Chargers' roster. But Omon hesitated. He was scared. If he took that step, there was no turning back. He'd have to call Ogemdi Nwagbuo, but what if he rejected him? Or didn't believe him? After pacing for 20 minutes, Omon decided he had nothing to lose. He clicked on the website and found the face and name. Ogemdi Nwagbuo, defensive end, 6-foot-4, 312 pounds. Born in 1985, just like Omon.

He then needed roughly five friends to persuade him to make the call. Omon says receiver-turned-reality-TV star Terrell Owens was one of those supporters who helped him muster up the courage to hit the send button. And thus began a nine-month relationship via texts, Skype and late-night phone conversations. Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Xavier Omon found out how much they were alike, how their first love was basketball, not football, how their paths to the NFL were unconventionally jagged, how both of them are waiting out this final cut, though Nwagbuo is seemingly a lock to spend his fourth straight season with the Chargers.

They plan to meet face-to-face for the first time Thursday, when the 49ers play at San Diego in their final preseason game. Had the travel gods been kinder, the long-anticipated meeting wouldn't have happened during pregame warm-ups. But San Francisco is flying in on the day of the game, which means this will be short, sweet and most likely somewhat awkward. What will they say? How do you share such a personal moment in front of tens of thousands of people in a testosterone-charged environment?

Nwagbuo, the quieter one, assumes he'll hug him. That's what brothers do.

"I'm a little bit nervous and anxious all in one," Omon said. "I guess I shouldn't say nervous … I guess I should say excited. It's just weird because I don't know how to approach the situation properly.

"If we were just out in the street and meeting in a restaurant, it might be different. We're about to play each other. He could be the guy tackling me."

A brother's tale

Long before Omon came along, Nwagbuo's life was already something pulled from an inspirational made-for-TV flick. O.G. -- that's what his friends call him -- would never be the one to pitch it, of course. He's far too self-effacing for that. When he is approached at a department store and someone asks, "Hey! Do you play for the Chargers?" Nwagbuo usually doesn't admit to his fame unless a fan is completely sure and presses him.

He does not easily offer up his childhood, or what it took for him to earn that locker stall in his beloved hometown. Someone else, like his younger brother Gerald, needs to fill in most of those gaps. Gerald says the four siblings that Omon recently found are close, close in age, close because they had to be. Their father left in 1997; their mother, Vicky Bolton, worked 16 hours a day as a nurses' aide. For roughly three years, they lived in a motel.

[+] EnlargeOgemdi Nwagbuo
AP Photo/Tony AvelarOgemdi Nwagbuo is hoping to make the Chargers roster a fourth straigth season.

"We just tried to keep it a secret," Gerald said. "If you got a ride from a friend, you'd have them drop you off up the street. When you're 15, 16, or 17, you don't want people to know you're living in the motel, in one room."

Their oldest brother Michael, just a year older than Ogemdi, became the man of the house. Their baby sister Darlene grew up to be 6 feet tall and plays volleyball at Boise State.

Ogemdi and Gerald were given Nigerian first names because their parents were from Lagos, Nigeria. Gerald chose to go by his middle name -- it was less prone to be picked on in school. But Ogemdi never worried about that because when you're one of the biggest kids in school, you're never picked on for long.

In English, Ogemdi means, "My time will come."

It certainly applied to Nwagbuo. He was a late bloomer in football and didn't play until his junior season, when he logged just three snaps. After playing at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif., he received a scholarship at Michigan State. Nwagbuo got his degree, wasn't drafted, and spent the summer of 2008 with the New York Giants before getting cut at the end of training camp.

He went home to San Diego and took a job in the management trainee program at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Months later, in Week 14, the Chargers called. He still finished out his shift, and kept the job during that next offseason. It was an odd sight, Nwagbuo, a professional football player, lugging his Enterprise shirt, tie and slacks to practice every day, driving Gerald's car, a battered 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse. It was the worst car in the lot, Ogemdi joked, worse than the secretary's. And the sad thing was, it wasn't even his.

But Nwagbuo was never ashamed of what he drove or wore. He was just being practical, like his mom.

"She did her best for us and made sure we stayed focused in school and everything," he said. "I grew up in Spring Valley, and it's kind of like southeast San Diego, so it's in the 'hood a little bit.

"But everybody's got a story like that."

Not exactly. There aren't a ton of NFL players who are studying to take the MCAT and did an internship with the league office this past winter. Nwagbuo did.

He does not like to talk in great detail about whether his dad would be proud of all of it. His voice trails off a little when he talks about his father. Gerald says the last time they saw him was in 1999, and that he died of a heart attack five years later.

"He had his moments," Gerald said. "But he wasn't like a TV father or anything like that."

Godwin Iwunze, an old friend of Chris Nwagbuo's who told Delorise Omon about Ogemdi on Facebook, said in an email to ESPN.com that Chris went to technical school and was an entrepreneur. He didn't drink, he loved the Chargers and was a sharing type who was sometimes enigmatic.

"He was a good Christian who did not particularly live a monastic [life]," Iwunze wrote, "and as such, women loved him, and he loved them, too."

When Omon has questions about their dad, Ogemdi answers them. He knows he's curious. At first, when Omon reached out to his newly-found siblings last winter, he was aggressive, and to Gerald, it was somewhat off-putting.

The Nwagbuos are a somewhat insular family. For years, it was just the five of them. But in time, the awkward conversations became comfortable. They trash-talk and tease each other now, with the conversations occasionally devolving to cracks about Omon's Midwestern background.

"He definitely put forth more effort than anybody," Gerald said, "to try to make it work."

A difficult past

Omon couldn't help but be aggressive. He needed this more than they did. Back in Nebraska, his relationship with his family had been strained. Every loss seemed to pull him farther away.

He wore the No. 2 in college at Northwest Missouri State to honor the brothers he desperately missed. Demetrius Omon was killed in a car accident in 1994. He was the oldest, the rock, the one who took care of everything. He was 17, handsome and perfect, Omon says, and looked like Will Smith. "That's why 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' was my favorite show," Omon said. "I guess it was a way of keeping him around without him being there."

[+] EnlargeXavier Omon
Kyle Terada/US PresswireOmon landed in San Francisco after being drafted by Buffalo, then bouncing from the Jets to the Seahawks to the 49ers.

In 2000, Omon was the one who found his brother Effiong, who committed suicide. Effiong, Omon says, had a yearbook open to a page that had Demetrius' picture on it. Omon ran out of the house, banged on a few windows, trying to get help. He banged so hard he broke the glass.

He called the police, then laid in an alley and sobbed.

"After my first brother died, that's when I really got into football," he said. "I really wanted to make it. I wanted to do it for my mom because she'd been through a lot. She'd been through hell."

Delorise Omon is also a hard-working woman who pulled down long shifts to feed her family. They lived in San Diego for the first five years of Xavier's life, until a shooting in their neighborhood -- over a pair of shoes -- prompted her to move her family to the Midwest. They headed to Lawrence, Kan., then Beatrice, where Delorise opened a drive-through barbecue restaurant called River City Smokehouse.

Football, Omon says, was his vacation from everything else in his life. He received zero Division I offers coming out of high school, then became the first player in Division II history to run for 1,500 yards in each of his four seasons.

"He hung out with coaches a lot," said Ben Essam, Omon's junior high basketball coach in Beatrice. "We used to talk about his dreams and goals and what he wanted out of life. He always talked about the NFL."

Omon was drafted in the sixth round by Buffalo in 2008. Nwagbuo says he remembers hearing his name that weekend, probably because Nwagbuo waited through it without getting a call in the draft. Omon spent a season and a half in Buffalo before being waived in November 2009. From there, he bounced from the Jets to the Seahawks to San Francisco.

Essam, a close friend of Omon's, said at one point during training camp this summer Omon called and was frustrated about his lack of reps -- a common problem for backups throughout the NFL because of the lockout. Essam reminded him of how far he'd come, and it was just the nudge he needed.

When Omon found out the news about his siblings last winter, Essam said his friend was "so darned excited." It couldn't replace what he'd lost. But maybe it could help him finally heal.

"I always felt like an outsider," Omon said. "People didn't understand me. Maybe it's just because my relationship with my family wasn't concrete.

"He's a lot like me, and honestly, I didn't think that was possible. I've grown up my whole life feeling like I was so different from everybody else, that there was nobody like me."

Confirmed

Earlier this month, Omon and Nwagbuo underwent DNA testing to confirm that they are siblings. Bennett Greenspan, president of FamilyTreeDNA, said one test confirmed that they share the same Y chromosome, which is indicative of having a common male ancestor. Another test showed that they shared an amount of DNA in common consistent with being half siblings. "They are absolutely half brothers," Greenspan said.

It confirmed what Omon and Nwagbuo already knew after conversing nearly every day for the past nine months. They're connected forever. Still, for Omon, the tests made it official and eliminated any fraction of doubt.

"It's not that I had much doubt before," Omon said. "You turned the page, but you're flipping it back and forth because you don't completely know. But now you can close that book and open a new book. That's what it meant to me."

The next chapter starts Thursday, under the lights at Qualcomm Stadium. Initally, the brothers had planned to meet in June, at Omon's wedding, but that was called off a few months ago. So they waited for this first day in September. They talked about it for much of the summer, during the dog days of the lockout. Nwagbuo, who stands five inches taller than Omon, joked that he is so big that he'll run right through him. Whatever, Omon said. He'll run right over him.

But this week, the tone is a little more serious. Brotherly bluster has turned to genuine concern. On Tuesday night, they talked about their goals, their chances, and wished each other luck. They hoped this first game together isn't their last. And then Omon went to sleep, no longer needing to dream.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.