When Owa Odighizuwa was drafted by the Giants last year he hoped to one day join the pantheon of defensive ends that the team has produced in recent history. He grew up watching Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora dominate opponents and wanted to do the same. He was familiar with the lore.
Which is why, despite one injury-riddled rookie season, he still feels like he is on track for greatness.
“I know all about Tuck and his story, how he overcame his injury and had a great career,” Odighizuwa told Newsday at Giants training camp. “Same with Strahan. Just knowing their situations and their stories gives me confidence that hey, things happen in this game.”
They did for the two members of the Giants Ring of Honor (not to mention Strahan’s Hall of Famer status). Strahan played just nine games as a rookie in 1993 due to a foot injury. Tuck missed most of his second NFL season in 2006 with a foot injury. They were both late bloomers who overcame their situations to become major players.
“I got very, very unlucky,” Odighizuwa said. “I had an unfortunate season because of that, but the one thing I gathered just from being in this organization and the different guys who come through is that it’s just a mindset. How do you define yourself in different circumstances? Do you allow that to define you or do you bounce back and find different ways to get better and improve? I took that to heart, I took the challenge, and I embraced the opportunity to really demonstrate that this situation was a fluke incident really.
“I know that everybody was kind of scared about the college hip surgery and things like that and then I unluckily injured my foot and people were like: What are we gonna get?” he added. “My thing is I didn’t give into any of that. I embraced the mindset that things happen and what am I going to do going forward to show that, hey, this is all in the past.”
It’s the future Odighizuwa and the Giants are most excited about now. He’s having a strong camp now that he is, for the first time since the Giants drafted him, fully healthy. He’s playing an important role as third defensive end behind Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon.
“He is someone that we are counting on to come through for us,” Ben McAdoo said.
It was, Odighizuwa said, a muscle injury in his foot that kept him sidelined for most of 2015. It wasn’t anything structural, just a weird twist in a too-tight cleat that swelled up and made it too painful for him to plant or push off his right foot. Now the muscle has healed and while Odighizuwa wears an orthotic and new, wider cleats, he has yet to miss any practice time due to the condition. Nor does he plan to.
“It feels great, man,” he said. “It feels great to be back to normal, practicing every day, trying to get better every day. You can’t do that if you’re not on the field, so being available and improving every day is my key.”
Odighizuwa said he never spoke directly to Tuck or Strahan about their early physical obstacles with the Giants, but he has spoken to current teammate Jason Pierre-Paul.
“Injuries, they occur, it’s part of the game,” said Pierre-Paul, who is going through his own injury hurdle at the other end of his body. “Sometimes I think he’s a little bit frustrated, he wants to do more, but his time will come. Just fight because he will have a lot of chances to make tackles and showcase his talent.”
That’s all he wants. Odighizuwa said the thing that excited him the most about this season is that he’ll get a first opportunity to show fans, teammates and coaches his capabilities.
“I only played in four games last year so they didn’t get to see much dealing with that foot injury,” he said. “This year I’m healthy, I’m getting better at practice every day, and I’m excited to just play. I’m excited to show the fans what they all want to see, the coaches as well.”
What will they see?
“You’re going to see a guy who plays from snap to whistle, who plays hard, who is very physical,” he said. “A guy who is going to make plays . . . I’m very, very confident in my abilities and I know that when I put things together and get better every day in practice, I know the level of play I can play at.”
The same level as Tuck? Strahan? No, Odighizuwa.
“I feel,” he said, “like I can be as good as I want to be.”