How Nigerian-American Brian Ugwu lied to parents to play football; now they love it
His parents, both from Nigeria, didn’t want him playing football. They told their son the game was too dangerous, and it could give him brain damage. He should spend his free time studying or playing soccer, they implored.
But Brian loved football so much he made a crucial choice his freshman season at Hillside High in Union County: He would tell his parents he was playing soccer — when really he was playing football.
“I asked myself, ‘Should I go against my parents and play football, or just listen to them and study?’” Ugwu said. “And at the end of the day, I went against my parents. I snuck out of the house, went to the first tryouts for the freshman team and played that year.”
Ugwu’s parents would find out what he was up to around the third game — when his dad dropped him off and noticed all the other boys carrying football equipment. But it’s a decision they said they have come to embrace and even appreciate.
After all, Ugwu, now a bruising and dynamic 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior linebacker and running back, is one of the most exciting players in New Jersey. This season, he’s rushed for 1,105 yards and eight touchdowns on just 62 carries — good for an eye-popping average of 17.8 yards per carry — while racking up 116 tackles and eight sacks on defense.
The boy who once had to sneak out to play football is now the heartbeat of a Hillside team that is putting together the most spectacular season in school history. The Comets, No. 14 in the NJ.com Top 20, are 11-0 after capturing the NJSIAA/Rothman Orthopaedics Central Jersey, Group 2 sectional title last week, and they now have the chance to cap their historic season Saturday at 4 p.m. when they face fellow unbeaten and No. 6-ranked Haddonfield (11-0) in a Bowl Game at MetLife Stadium.
“I used to tell my dad, ‘Football can take me places. If you let me play football, you won’t regret it,’” Ugwu said. “I don’t know if he believed me back then. But he believes me now.”
Football has helped Ugwu garner more than 15 Division 1 scholarship offers from schools such as Rutgers, Nebraska and Pittsburgh, and he never lost track of his parents’ emphasis on his studies.
Ugwu attends Union County Vocational-Technical High in Scotch Plains, one of the top-rated public schools in the state, where he takes honors courses, makes all As and Bs and is enrolled in pre-career classes for exercise physiology and physical training and therapy. (UCVT does not have sports teams, so Ugwu plays for Hillside, where he lives.)
Meanwhile, Ugwu has helped lead Hillside to one of the most miraculous turnarounds in New Jersey. The team won its first sectional title in 32 years last season under third-year head coach Barris Grant, and it’s now looking to cap the first unbeaten season in recent memory.
“The guys understand — for us to be great, you have to put a great amount of work in,” Grant said. “And one of the main guys leading the way has been Brian.”
He had never seen anything like it. The way the players crashed into one another. The way they sped across the field in flashes. The uniform colors, the helmets, the energy of it all.
Ugwu was watching a football game for the first time ever — Super Bowl XLI, Colts vs. Bears — and he was hooked. He looked to his dad, Emmanuel, and told him he wanted to play.
Emmanuel Ugwu knew nothing about the sport. Born in Enugu, Nigeria, he grew up playing soccer before coming to the United States in 1984. He had been teaching his son soccer moves at a Hillside playground, hoping Brian would develop a passion for the sport.
“Then all of a sudden when he was 7-years-old he said, ‘No daddy, I like football better,’” Emmanuel Ugwu remembered. “We tried to discourage him because of all the concussions and the after-effects of football. His mother didn’t like him to play football at all, either.
“But he kept saying, ‘Daddy, I like football.’”
Emmanuel initially relented. Brian Ugwu said he played for the Hillside Lions in fourth grade, doing so well he was nicknamed, “The Nigerian Nightmare.” After that season, he said he was so big and heavy for his age that he would have been forced to play on a team with older kids. In turn, his parents put their foot down: He could play basketball and soccer — but no football.
Hillside’s Brian Ugwu rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown against Manasquan in the sectional final. (Scott Faytok ′ For NJ Advance Media)
“I was just devastated,” Ugwu said.
He watched his friends in games, played the Madden video game and went to the field and drilled alone.
Then high school arrived and he had to make a decision — defy his parents’ wishes and play football, or bypass the game he loved?
“Nigerian parents, all they care about is study, study, study and grades, grades, grades,” Ugwu said. “My mom was like, ‘No football in high school.’ My dad was thinking about it, but he was on my mom’s side. He was like, ‘Just study. You can play soccer and focus on your work.’”
That wasn’t good enough for Brian Ugwu.
Emmanuel Ugwu said after finding out his son hadn’t been truthful, he took it in stride.
“It’s just like every other thing,” he said. “You’re angry with your son, but you still love him.”
Brian Ugwu kept playing his freshman season, but it led to another crossroads. Hillside football at the time was awful, and Ugwu said the team was so disorganized it sucked the fun out of the game. Plus, his parents didn’t want him to play. Maybe he should stick to school and soccer?
“I really thought that was going to be my last year playing football,” Ugwu said.
Enter Grant. A former star at Irvington High who played at Mississippi State, he had coached in college before winning a sectional title at Shabazz as an assistant under his brother, Darnell Grant.
Barris Grant held a meeting at the end of Ugwu’s freshman year with interested players, winning over the team with his enthusiasm and experience.
“It was just the confidence in his voice,” said Boris Nicolas-Paul, another Hillside star who will attend Army next fall. “I felt the vibe that we could make something happen if we just believed in Coach Grant.”
The coach still had to work on Ugwu. The first time Grant laid eyes on him, he was awestruck by his size and chiseled physique.
“It was like I had seen this unicorn,” Grant said. “So, I ran outside and told him, ‘If you stick with me, in three years you will have multiple scholarship offers. And we will start winning.’”
Under Grant, Ugwu exploded almost instantly. He started at linebacker as a sophomore and tallied eight sacks and 75 tackles, leading Hillside to a respectable 4-6 record.
For teammates, Ugwu’s breakout season was stunning. They knew him mostly as the bookish kid who liked soccer.
“He really came out of nowhere,” Nicolas-Paul said.
Then in 2017, Ugwu became a star. Almost every game, he was the best player on the field — scoring on long touchdown runs, punishing the quarterback with sacks and impacting the game from all angles.
And he had help: Nicolas-Paul, Mateus Ramos and Nahree Biggins all have been major contributors to Hillside’s ascent.
Hillside capped the 2017 season by knocking off unbeaten Point Pleasant Boro 20-13 at Rutgers to capture the school’s first title in more than three decades. To celebrate, the town threw a parade for Hillside’s players and coaches.
Front and center was Ugwu, the kid who at one time had to sneak out to play football.
His parents now believed in the power of the game.
“I was very proud of him,” Emmanuel Ugwu said. “It made me think a lot about him. It struck me finally, ‘Holy cow, that boy is good.’”