How a Nigerian prince incredibly went from 'the next LeBron James' to touted NFL prospect

Yahoo Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — At the age of 16, Prince Tega Wanogho made a leap of faith, leaving his tiny village in the Delta State region of Nigeria to chase a dream of making the NBA.

Wanogho had size — nearly 6-foot-5 then, around 230 pounds and size-17 shoes. He had ability, picking up the game at a rapid pace. And Wanogho had confidence, flying thousands of miles from his home to the United States to attend a basketball camp with the hope of one day making the NBA.

“Believe it or not, I thought I was going to be the next LeBron James,” he said on Wednesday at the 2020 NFL scouting combine.

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And though that opportunity opened doors for Wanogho to attend high school outside of Montgomery, Alabama, the dream changed rather quickly — and surprisingly. Wanogho tossed basketball to the side and picked up football, a sport he’d never played and had seen sparingly on TV.

Everything about Wanogho’s story feels too fanciful to be true, including the rumored 40-yard dash Wanogho ran on his first day in the U.S., clocking a time of 4.61 seconds.

“That’s true,” Wanogho told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t really know what I was doing because I didn’t have the proper technique whatsoever. But I remember they told me to line up and just run. They were timing it.

“So it wasn’t a rumor. That’s actually true.”

Wanogho’s rise over the past five-plus years — from football newcomer in 2014 to potential top-75 NFL draft pick in 2020 — also is not a rumor. He has made himself into a legitimate prospect, likely as a left or right tackle, the two positions he primarily played at Auburn.

No combine workouts

You won’t be able to see Wanogho run a 40 this week as he had his right knee scoped on Jan. 28. That will keep him out of action at the combine and at Auburn’s pro day on March 6. Wanogho plans to hold a private workout in mid-April so teams can gather information on his athletic testing before the draft, April 23-25.

The knee injury forced him to pull out of the Senior Bowl last month after he dealt with it throughout the season, missing one game and battling in pain in others. But the 6-5, 308-pound Wanogho — who measured with an 80 5/8-inch wingspan — was named second-team all-SEC this past season nonetheless.

NFL scouts love Wanogho’s raw athleticism and tantalizing upside. He has displayed great recovery ability against top pass rushers in the SEC and has surprised evaluators with how he uses his punch. Given how relatively new Wanogho is to football, his instincts for the position are still developing. Any team drafting him will have to assume there will be an incubation period in the NFL that might make him a bit of a slower-developing prospect.

Even with all of that, Wanogho’s baseline skill likely won’t allow him to fall out of Day 3 of the draft. He’s part of a second or third tier of talents at tackle in this draft class, and there’s a drop-off after a certain point.

Wanogho has interviewed with teams at the combine, and he’s keeping a positive outlook on how this draft process will unfold.

“Right now, I can’t do much because of my knee,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel like ... I’m a sleeper. And I do because at the end of the day, I take pride in whatever I do. As a man, I take pride in that, too.

“I feel like my name is not being heard enough. But it doesn’t matter to me because at the next level, whatever team actually drafts me, they’re getting a good player. They’re getting a real pass blocker and they're getting something new.”

Auburn OT Prince Tega Wanogho tells his incredible journey at the NFL scouting combine. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Auburn OT Prince Tega Wanogho tells his incredible journey at the NFL scouting combine. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

How Wanogho’s journey to football started

After impressing onlookers at that basketball camp in 2014, Wanogho settled in to his new life in Alabama, having been welcomed to live with a host family and begin schooling at Edgewood Academy, a small private school. One day, Wanogho and a basketball teammate took a break from hoops and picked up a football they saw lying around and started playing catch.

The school’s head coach, Bobby Carr, saw Wanogho and started asking questions about his exposure to football. Of course, he had none. Carr was more than happy to indoctrinate Wanogho into the American game and find a way to unleash the massive young man’s potential.

Wanogho’s first position, once he gave the sport a shot, was defensive end. The directions were left intentionally simple: go chase the QB. Something took at that moment.

“Pretty much, I say I was a natural,” Wanogho said. “Athletics, I was pretty much able to do [them] because I was athletic. But just to catch up and learn the plays and the technique, that’s something that I actually had to do, too.”

Wanogho’s mother wasn’t thrilled at hearing this news, but he convinced her — as Carr has convinced Wanogho — that his development in football could lead to an athletic scholarship and the education she wanted her son to have in America.

His ascent was rapid and shocking. Wanogho became something of an urban legend in prep circles, especially after he registered a scoop-and-score in his first high school game. College coaches started descending like vultures.

Wanogho was recruited by dozens of college football schools — for a sport he really didn’t know. They saw the incredible upside. Wanogho saw the opportunity. That’s when football supplanted basketball as his escalator went up to new heights.

Wanogho committed to Auburn, even though a major leg injury in a basketball game nearly ended his athletic career. He suffered a broken tibia and fibula — an injury that Wanogho believes would have led to his leg being amputated had he been back in Nigeria — after landing awkwardly during a game.

He endured a lengthy rehab as a freshman before Wanogho was switched from defensive line to offensive line. His first season was as a reserve, but Wanogho earned a starting job in 2017 and started all but two games the past two seasons at left tackle.

His performance on the field has captivated NFL scouts, launching a pro opportunity that no one could have imagined that long ago.

Yes, he’s an actual prince

Wanogho gets the question often: Is he a real prince?

The answer is yes. The seventh of nine children in his family born in the village of Ogor, Nigeria, Wanogho explains how he was granted the ceremonial title of “prince” that often shocks Americans.

“My granddad was the king of the village,” he said. “But I soon came to understand they meant [the equivalent of] ‘mayor’ over here. But he was the king of the village, so that made me a prince.

“It’s nothing special like you think. Because I know when I see ‘Prince,’ everybody thought about the whole ‘Coming to America’ [movie] story and all the jewelries and stuff back home.”

One of his biggest supporters for Wanogho making the leap of faith with the trek to America was his mother, Princess Onome Wanogho. She wanted to protect him and guide him, but Wanogho said he had the blessing of her and his entire family to make the trip.

“It was pretty tough,” he said. “But at the same time, it wasn’t too much pressure because my whole family, they understood this is not just for you. This is something that is going to change your life forever. To this day, it’s the best decision of my life, just to come to the United States. They understood it wasn’t going to be easy coming here. My family believed in me and the sacrifice was pretty much easy for me.”

Auburn's Prince Tega Wanogho is a potential top-75 draft pick despite being relatively new to the sport. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Auburn's Prince Tega Wanogho is a potential top-75 draft pick despite being relatively new to the sport. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

During his redshirt freshman year, just as he was getting playing time for the first time, Wanogho received shocking news: His mother had died. The details of what happened to her are still little-known.

Wanogho almost quit the game at that moment.

“It was just a point in my life where I really didn’t want to talk about football,” he said. “Probably didn’t want to see anybody.”

Wanogho’s family wasn’t about to let him give up on this once-in-a-million opportunity, even amid tragedy. His surrogate family in Alabama and his football family at Auburn also came to his side in support. They all implored Wanogho not to give up the sport.

“My whole family. My family in the United States. Speaking to my coaches. Speaking to the team chaplain ... those were [the people] that actually guided me back,” he said.

And because he stuck with the sport he never knew back home, Wanogho now is on the precipice of completing this incredible journey to the NFL, a league made up of players who in some cases have played the sport decades longer than he has. His perspective has allowed him to realize that his lack of experience hasn’t held him back, so why will it at the next level?

“It really doesn’t matter if I started playing when I was 21, 20 or 16 [years old] — it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s all about mindset and the determination that you have, and that’s what I do. I take pride in what I do. So, I try to learn as much as I can each day.”

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