How OSU linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga became a stronger leader on, off field after COVID-19 battle
STILLWATER — Amen Ogbongbemiga slowly lowered the phone from his ear.
Shock was evident on his face. There was no hiding it.
“Get away from me,” Ogbongbemiga said to his Oklahoma State teammates.
Chuba Hubbard, LD Brown and Devin Harper all scattered from the room. They began to spray disinfectant on everything they could.
Ogbongbemiga — the heart and soul of the Cowboys’ defense at linebacker — had just received news that he had tested positive for COVID-19 on June 2.
“People kinda were getting lackadaisical of protocols and wearing their masks and everything,” Ogbongbemiga said. “I personally probably was too. I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I probably should have.”
A whirlwind soon followed.
Ogbongbemiga was quarantined in an on-campus apartment alone. His phone rang constantly, especially after he announced his diagnosis on Twitter. He lost his sense of taste and smell.
But he turned everything into a positive, like he always has.
Ogbongbemiga is healthy four months later, anchoring the Cowboys’ stout defense that has stifled three opponents.
His bout with the coronavirus over the summer at a time where his voice was becoming prominent in the fight against social injustice only bolstered his leadership role.
“He’s stronger,” Harper said. ““He’s strong, man. He’s smart. He knew he could beat it and we all knew he could overcome it.”
Ogbongbemiga regrets hitting send on his Twitter page on June 2.
“After attending a protest in Tulsa and being well protective of myself, I have tested positive for COVID-19,” he wrote. “Please, if you are going to protest, take care of yourself and stay safe.”
He later clarified that he did not know if his positive test was a result of attending the protest. But by then he had to turn his phone off.
It wouldn’t stop buzzing.
Family. Teammates. Reporters from as far as France.
“I think my screen time that day was like 21 hours,” Ogbongbemiga said, “because it just kept ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing.
“I felt bad because my family members were calling me. I don’t want to ignore them.”
Ogbongbemiga did lean on his immediate family during his quarantine and recovery.
His mom, Ngozi, is a nurse practitioner. His sister, Alexis, is a pharmacist.
They teamed up to guide Amen from afar.
“It was tough, because such a thing hits close to home like that,” said Alex Ogbongbemiga, Amen’s brother. “It’s reality.
“But I feel like they helped him a lot.”
Still, the first couple of days were rough as symptoms kicked in.
“It kicked my ass for a few days,” Amen said.
And he was the first athlete on campus to test positive. He ultimately became vital to how OSU’s medical staff treated other players.
He was a test dummy.
“They did all the tests,” Amen said. “Every single test. I’m glad that I got through it. Shout out to them. They really helped me out. They were trying to do everything they could, because they didn’t know what to do either.
“You expected they were prepared for it, but at the same time they weren’t expecting it that fast. It is what it is. I’m glad we kinda got over that hump. I’m just glad to be where I’m at right now.”
Alex Ogbongbemiga doesn’t believe COVID-19 changed his brother.
Amen is still the kind-hearted leader he was when they were younger.
“Coming from where we come from — Calgary, Albert, Canada — we’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by a lot of people that are empathetic individuals,” Alex said. “Our family is that way ourselves.
“That empathy is going to raise you higher in times like this, where you’re one that cares for people, cares for your teammates and cares for everyone. I think it was a natural process to put him in that role.”
Amen had attended the protest in Tulsa for a reason.
He wanted to help, whether that was a stranger or his teammate. Even 13 days after his positive test, he was one of the first to speak up in support of Hubbard’s near boycott of the program and coach Mike Gundy.
“If everybody cared a little bit more across the board, things would get a little bit better,” Alex said. “That’s all it is there, man. It’s guys using their role for a great purpose.
“They’re not trying to antagonize anyone. Let’s just open our eyes.”
The Cowboys have since demonstrated their unity on and off the field. Amen is a big reason with his leadership.
It’s not necessarily vocal. It’s more by his actions.
“He’s just continued to grow and mature as a person and as a leader,” OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “It’s really nice to see him get through some tough times and emerge with his own voice and his own style.”
Amen said it took him longer to get back in shape after his coronavirus battle. Breaks in practices due to the pandemic didn’t help.
He even got off to a slow start with just four tackles against Tulsa. But then he had 13 tackles and a sack against West Virginia. In limited action against Kansas, he had five tackles.
Now, he looks primed for a big season — both as a leader and player.
“I’m starting to get back to full form of where I want to be,” Amen said.