Attention to Perfection

Oct. 14, 2008

STANFORD, Calif. - For the record, Wopamo Osaisai does smile.

Stanford track and field coach Edrick Floreal revealed as much when asked if Osaisai smiled after winning the Pac-10 title in the 100 meters: 'Yes, he did.'

It's not as if the Stanford senior football standout is unfriendly. On the contrary, he's regarded as one of the Cardinal's team leaders. It's just that Osaisai's scowl can be a little intimidating.

'Always a little sour,' described one reporter. 'I think that's because he was so damn smart.'

Osaisai can be characterized as a perfectionist -- never wholly satisfied, but in a relentless pursuit to be so.

Coaches feel that's what makes Osaisai a top-flight collegiate cornerback and NFL prospect. He's one of Stanford's leading tacklers, a shutdown cover man and a nearly-impossible-to-stop special-teams gunner. He's developed such skills by overcoming a lack of natural football instincts through hard work.

'He's very very competitive,' defensive backs coach Clayton White said. 'He's always competing. He wants to be the strongest player, the fastest player, even the best notetaker.

'But `Pamo's not competing against other people, he's competing with himself. That's where you're going to flourish and excel.'

So far, it's worked, especially considering how much ground Osaisai had to make up by coming into football relatively late.

His game of choice was soccer during the years he spent in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, where he lived from ages 4-12 with his father, Franklin, in Port Harcourt.

Wopamo Osaisai, whose first name means 'God will bring fame onto our family,' certainly never dreamed of the NFL during those years - he'd never even heard of it.

'I wanted to go to Mars,' he said. 'I wanted to be an aerospace engineer.'

While in middle school, Osaisai returned to the United States to live with his mother, Edith, who settled in the East Bay after Franklin had received his masters and Ph.D from Cal-Berkeley.

He came to football almost by accident, as a soccer player who liked to kick a ball, any ball. To that end, Osaisai landed a spot on the Pinole Valley High School freshman team as a kickoff specialist. The first football game he witnessed, he played in.

He doesn't remember too many specifics about that first season, but does recall that 'I used to kick the ball off and make all the tackles.'

It didn't take long for coaches to realize Osaisai should be more than a kickoff specialist. They moved him to defense to take advantage of his speed and nose for the ball. However, college recruiters were slow to catch on. Osaisai missed much of his sophomore season with an injury and was just learning the position as a junior, a crucial year for recruiting purposes.

Stanford discovered Osaisai on campus in a summer passing league before his senior year, though track coaches had been on his tail before that. He was raw in ability, but his speed could not be ignored.

Just how fast is Osaisai? His 10.39 in the 100 is the fastest in Stanford history.

And just how much of a perfectionist is Osaisai? He still isn't happy.

'I didn't reach my expectations,' he says.

For Osaisai, nothing has come easily. Now in his fifth season at Stanford, he's played for three head coaches and five defensive coordinators, each with a different idea of Osaisai's ability and potential.

Last season, Osaisai's playing time diminished after he made seven consecutive starts. But head coach Jim Harbaugh, with support from new defensive coordinators Ron Lynn and Andy Buh, knew what he had and made it a priority to get Osaisai back into the starting lineup.

Harbaugh said Osaisai's speed and willingness to hit, combined with his desire 'to play the game to be great, and not just play the game,' have made him vital to Stanford's cause.

'I didn't think he was on the field enough toward the end of the year,' Harbaugh said. 'You've got a guy that talented and cares so much about it. We can work with that.'

But as hard as Osaisai plays and as intense as he is as a competitor, he also refuses to be defined by the game. Perhaps it comes from his introspective nature.

'Football's not the end-all to my life,' said Osaisai, a science, technology and systems major. 'I'd like to be known as a well-rounded individual. I'm reserved because I'm observant. If knowledge is out there, why not make use of it.'

Osaisai is something of a paradox. At times, he has been willing to give up the game, once handing himself an ultimatum: improve or quit. Yet no one can question his dedication to the sport. Even during his final track season, Osaisai never missed a spring football practice or meeting.

There are other contrasts. He's a private individual who lives off-campus because 'I need peace,' and a self-described showman who sees himself on the field as 'an entertainer.'

He realizes his immediate future could involve the NFL, but maintains his childhood dream to fly to Mars.

'Someday, it may be possible to charter a space flight,' he said.

Not surprisingly, he has left many people a bit perplexed in his wake.

'Have I figured him out?' White said. 'Yes, but I can't explain it.'

Which begs the question: smile or scowl?

Osaisai offers a little of both.

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