NORMAN — Charles McGriff remembers when Mike Balogun tried out for semi-pro football five years ago. "From that first day,” McGriff said, "I knew there was something special about him.”
In Saturday's season opener, Balogun will start at outside linebacker for Oklahoma. His road to Norman, though, was anything but normal. Balogun's journey began eight years ago when he decided not to play football his junior or senior year at his Maryland high school. After graduating in 2002, college wasn't available for him because of grades. Nor was football, at first. So Balogun began working in construction to help support his young daughter. A year later, however, several of Balogun's high school buddies were trying out for the Maryland Marauders. He decided to join them. "His attitude was phenomenal. He was a very upbeat kid,” said McGriff, who was the team's linebackers coach at the time. "I couldn't believe that this kid hadn't played ball in high school.” Through rigorous practices and long bus rides, McGriff got to know the kid who was pleasant off the field but cold-blooded as a crocodile on it. McGriff asked what Balogun was doing playing semi-pro in the first place. Balogun responded that his dream was to play football in college. "I was more impressed with Mike not as a football player but him as a person,” McGriff said. "Mike didn't belong in semi-pro. He belonged in school getting that education.” The next season, McGriff became the head coach of the Prince George Jets and brought Balogun with him. In the meantime, Balogun began taking classes to raise his grades. And he continued to improve on the football field. "Everything we said to do, Mike did it,” McGriff said. "The light bulb came on. He knew what he needed to do, and he did it.” Jason Blackmon, one of the Jets' assistant coaches, had a connection at Lackawanna Community College, located in Scranton, Pa. That was one reason why Jets running back Bloi-Dei Dorzon, whom Balogun had known since high school, received a tryout at Lackawanna in the spring of 2006. Semi-pro players are still eligible to participate in college as long as they don't receive compensation. So Balogun went, too. Both impressed and were offered scholarships. "You've got to give him the credit because he knew what he needed to do, and he did it,” McGriff said. "He just needs a few classes to be eligible, but he got his grades up to the point it was way more than what he needed to.” Heading into the 2006 season, though, Balogun was still raw, his days in semi-pro his only football background. OU Sports Blog
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Linebacker Mike Balogun took the long road to get to Norman, playing semi-pro football in Maryland. Associated Press