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Redskins’ Oshiomogho Atogwe No Superhuman Safety … Not Yet

By ZAC BOYER | | @ZacBoyer

This story appeared on page B1 of Friday’s Free Lance-Star

ASHBURN — It’s hard to miss the impression of raw power, the feeling of greatness, the aura of accomplishment when one takes a glimpse inside Oshiomogho Atogwe‘s locker at Redskins Park.

There, centered on the back wall of the wooden stall, hangs a sketch of an oversized, muscular, green superhero, his slightly tattered burgundy-and-gold pants encasing his lower body. He clutches the neck of a green-and-white eagle in his right hand and the collar of a lifeless blue cowboy in his left, and stands tall upon the body of a giant whose “NY” dog tags are wrapped around his right foot.

But it’s the tuft of black hair standing straight off the top of his head that truly begs the question: Is this The Incredible Hulk, or is it Atogwe himself?

The answer is not so easy to come by.

“I feel like as a football player, a lot of times, you want to emulate that, because when you’re on that field, you’re a totally different person than you are when you’re walking around on the street,” Atogwe said. “It’s just kind of synonymous, and I like him because he’s just the strongest there is. No one is stronger than The Hulk.”

The affinity for the character came at a young age when Atogwe, the son of Nigerian immigrants, moved to Windsor, Ontario, when his parents decided a relocation was necessary to ensure a better future for their children. He would watch the cartoons and the TV show, read the comic books and collect the action figures, of which nearly a dozen still keep a watchful eye over the 5-foot-11, 205-pound safety’s possessions at the training complex.

“I guess I was just fascinated by his character and how you look at Bruce Banner, who was a brilliant, geeky, weak scientist, and within that man was The Hulk,” said Atogwe, himself a graduate of Stanford who majored in biological sciences. “Within him was the monster who was uncontrollable rage.”

That’s what the Redskins were hoping for when they signed Atogwe to a five-year, $26 million contract in early March, before the five-month owners’ lockout began. A veteran in his seventh year, Atogwe was the anchor of a St. Louis secondary each of his first six seasons who finished with at least 70 tackles and led the NFC with eight interceptions in 2007.

He signed a five-year, $32 million contract with the Rams in June 2010 and expected to spend significant time playing for the team that will host the Redskins this Sunday. Instead, the team decided in February it did not want to pay an $8 million roster bonus Atogwe was due and released him, freeing him to sign with the Redskins two weeks later.

St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo said Wednesday it was not a simple decision to let Atogwe go, but rather one dictated by the business of the NFL. If anyone can’t wait to see Atogwe when the Redskins arrive for Sunday’s game, it’s Spagnuolo.

“He is one of my all-time favorite guys,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s everything that you would want in a player playing for your football team, both as a competitor and as a person. We miss certainly his character here and his football abilities.”

Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was familiar with Atogwe from their time together in St. Louis, which ended in 2008 when Haslett left the team after three years — much of the last as the interim head coach.

When Atogwe became a free agent, Haslett expressed a desire to bring him to Washington. After all, the free safety knew Haslett’s defensive schemes, and the Redskins were looking for a way to upgrade their abysmal pass defense.

Through three games, Atogwe has 15 tackles, including seven in what Haslett described as his best game Monday, an 18-16 loss at Dallas.

“He’s a student of the game,” Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said. “He’s very smart. He likes to play and he’s very accountable. He’s a team leader both on and off the football field. You like people that prepare themselves every week, and he’s one of those guys.”

Both deeply spiritual and highly intellectual, Atogwe carries himself with an air of class. His first name means “God knows the day,” and though he’s commonly referred to as O.J., he prefers that the nickname be used only by friends and close acquaintances until a level of trust and understanding can be reached.

Around Redskins Park, there’s a growing understanding of what Atogwe can do. Teammates and coaches are starting to take notice, and the only green Atogwe knows is fading with experience.

The smarter Atogwe gets, the stronger Atogwe gets.

“I feel like I’m getting comfortable in the system, getting comfortable with the players around me, and as we continue to grow as a defense, I know my play will excel and continue to be what I envision it to be,” Atogwe said.