EAST RUTHERFORD. N.J. - His mother was right.
This was something Owamagbe "Owa" Odighizuwa couldn't help but think as he ran onto the pristine field at the Giants practice facility Friday. His mother had told the rookie defensive end that he could get here. Every day, for the past 13 years, she had told him and his three younger brothers that they could get anywhere they wanted in life, if they worked hard enough and believed in themselves.
"There's no doubt," Odighizuwa said, "that she's the big reason I'm where I am today."
Getting children to believe in themselves is what parents are supposed to do. Yet, few have had to do it under the trying circumstances that Abieyuwa "AB" Odighizuwa suddenly found herself in on Jan. 16, 2002.
That was the day that her husband, Peter, a 42-year-old former student at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, took a .380 semiautomatic pistol onto the campus and went on what news reports of the day described as a "murderous rampage,'' killing the school dean and Bellport native Anthony Sutin, 42; another faculty member and a fellow student, as well as injuring three others.
Peter Odighizuwa is serving three life sentences at Virginia's Red Onion State Prison.
"I was at work and they pulled me off the floor and told me what had happened. My first thought was my, 'My kids. My kids,' " AB said Friday in a phone interview. "I was in shock, I was afraid. But I knew I had to be strong for them."
Peter, who initially was ruled not mentally competent to stand trial, had not been an easy person to live with. "We were always fighting," said AB, 48. "It was hard on everyone."
She said she had told her husband, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Nigeria, that she was considering leaving him when he took the action that turned their lives upside down. According to news reports, Peter had been recently told that he had failed out of law school.
In 2005, after three years of treatment, Peter was found mentally competent and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to three life terms plus an additional 28 years, all without the possibility of parole
Owa remembers odd snippets from that January day. He said one of his most vivid memories is how he felt when a teacher asked him to gather his belongings and meet his mother in the principal's office.
"I was 9 years old and I was excited about getting out of school early," Owa said.
That excitement quickly turned to confusion and horror. The school was in a small town that had few minorities and AB remembers being worried for her family's safety. The hospital where she worked arranged for them to stay in a hotel that first night. The next day, they fled to New York, where AB had a brother. She had four boys, ranging in age from 3 to 9, and she knew she had to do something drastic to give them all a shot at a good life.
Two weeks after the shooting, she said, she moved her family permanently to Portland, Oregon, where she had some family. It was far enough from Virginia that few people there talked about, or even knew, what Peter had done. A large profile on Owa that ran in the Portland paper during his senior year in high school mentioned only that his father lived in Virginia.
"It was the kind of place I knew it would be safe to raise the boys," AB said.
AB had emigrated to the United States from Nigeria at age 23.
Earlier in her marriage, she said, Owa, then 3, and a younger brother were sent to Nigeria to live with relatives for five years because she couldn't take care of them and earn enough money to support her husband while he was in school. The separation had been heartbreaking and she vowed it would never happen again.
Life in Portland wasn't easy on the family. AB took a job at a hospital, where she worked 12-hour shifts. It was up to Owa to get his younger brothers ready for school in the morning. At night, she would leave meals to be warmed up and taught him how to cook on a George Foreman grill.
At first, Peter sent his sons letters from prison and called a few times. Currently, Owa says he does not have a relationship with his father, whom he hasn't seen since the family left Virginia. Though they didn't talk outside their home about what had happened, AB made sure to let her children know that their father's mistakes were not their own.
"She talked to us about it," the 6-3 Owa said. "I told myself that what happened with my father would never be me. A lot of it was my mom's love. I always saw great opportunity ahead for myself. I knew what had happened in the past, and I wanted something better."
AB said she believes one of the most important things she did as a parent was get her sons to talk about their feelings.
"You need to talk about what's going on, talk about what's bothering you," AB said. "What happened with their father was not going to be our lives."
AB was a strict mother who demanded her sons work hard in school. She did not let them sleep over at anyone's home except their cousins. There were curfews. Initially, AB did not like football. She was too worried that Owa would get hurt and she didn't know how she would take care of him and support a family. She finally relented and let him play in eighth grade.
Eight years later, thanks to football, Owa has a degree from UCLA and is a third-round draft pick of the Giants, likely to make millions of dollars. Her youngest son, Osa, signed a letter of intent last week to play at UCLA and another son, Ihoghama, is at Oregon State on a wrestling scholarship.
Though she always told their sons that they could determine their own future and make a better life for themselves, AB admits that she never could have imagined that her life would turn out the way it has.
"I have a son in the NFL. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself that I'm not dreaming," AB said. "They won't tell me what I'm getting for Mother's Day. I feel like right now I have everything. I couldn't have asked for anything better than the kids God gave me."