Man of Steel Dennis Ogbe has a Heart of Gold
By: C. Ray Hall
Dennis Ogbe’s wife, Dyan, calls him “Superman.”
This is not just because Ogbe is probably Kentucky’s best hope in the Paralympic World Championships in New Zealand in January.
It’s not just because he worked five jobs – from baby-sitting to telling zoo visitors all about gorillas – on his way through Bellarmine University. The Louisville athlete has two degrees from Bellarmine, including an MBA, and he picked up a degree in urban planning at Ahmadu Bello University in his native Nigeria.
Ogbe isn’t called “Superman” just because he became a world-class athlete despite the polio that has paralyzed his left leg since he was 3 years old. And it’s certainly not because he can fling a discus more than 173 feet (52.77 meters) – which makes him the top-ranked Paralympian in the world. He is also the top-ranked American shot puttter.
The nickname suggests that Ogbe is superhuman. The people who know him best say he’s more of a super human being.
“You won’t find a better human being on the face of the earth,” said Vince Maniaci, who was a Bellarmine vice president when Ogbe arrived in 2002.
“He worked harder – especially his quantitative classes in accounting and some of the other math classes – harder than any kid I ever saw,” Maniaci said. “And he overcame more hardships than we can even imagine in our lives.”
When Ogbe received his first Bellarmine diploma four years ago, President Joseph J. McGowan told the commencement audience, “Dennis Ogbe has almost single-handedly created within the Bellarmine University community a comprehensive and profound sense of an internationalized world, and its immense hope and possibilities.”
Ogbe is a human resources specialist for Brown-Forman, the Louisville-based distiller. He is also a living, breathing, discus-throwing, God-fearing throwback to the dearest – and corniest – of American dreams.
Ogbe answers the phone on the first ring. He thanks everyone in sight, for favors great and small – still pointing out that Louisville Church of Christ paid his way here eight years ago. He starts every day with prayer. Little things can make him cry. He honors his mother and his late father. He can’t abide debt.
“If I’m owing somebody, I can’t sleep,” he said, because I feel like I’m not free.”
Ogbe uses his left leg – a thin, rigid limb that’s wider at the knee than the calf – for balance, primarily. When he runs, his muscular right leg hits the ground twice as often as his left one.
“Most people see me running that way and say, ‘Oh, this guy’s gonna hurt himself,'” Ogbe said. “In my mind’s eye … I don’t see myself hopping. I see myself running like any other person with two legs. At times I fall down, but I still do it.”
Ogbe, who became a U.S. citizen in February, uses a sturdy red, white and blue frame when he throws the discus and shot. The frame holds his paralyzed leg in place and provides a seat on which he pivots before launching his throws. Upon release, he emits a yell that sounds like “GUUUUT!” or “CUUUUT!”
Ogbe was born in Nigeria 34 years ago – the fourth of 12 children – and grew up in the college town of Zaria.
“When I was born back in Africa – bright hopes, young lad – I had the future ahead of me,” he said.
That bright hope soon dimmed. When he was 3, he contracted polio. “I was paralyzed from the waist down,” he said.
His father, Adolphus, a landscaper, determined not to let his son languish, or feel self-pity. He sent him to school early.
As he grew older, Ogbe wanted the simplest of things: to join other kids playing soccer.
“I was stuck in a wheelchair, and when the kids see me coming toward them … they all move to higher ground,” he said. “The more I go closer to them, the farther they go away from me.”
When Ogbe was about 12, he left the wheelchair and tried to get into the game by approaching on crutches and braces. “They would seize one of my crutches and say, ‘OK, take two steps. Then you can join us and play,'” he said.
“I took the challenge,” Ogbe said. “Most times, I do that. I fall down with bruises here and there, but that was a therapy no doctor would give me, because I had a 50-50 chance, and I made it through.”
He proved he could play.
“Dennis had this great heart, and he had this way of attracting people,” said Masai Ujiri, his best friend since childhood.
“Dennis was good at everything. He did high jump (on one serviceable leg). He did shot put, he played basketball.”
The harder Ogbe tried, the tougher he got, his friend said.
Ujiri, assistant general manager of the Toronto Raptors pro basketball team, knows the myth-making that surrounds some sports figures who transcend their game to become inspirational figures.
“Sometimes there’s this fake aura,” Ujiri said. “Dennis is all for real.”
Jim Vargo, the Bellarmine track and field coach, saw Ogbe and his friend Vitalis Lanshima – a sprinter whose arms were amputated at the elbow after a childhood accident – in the 2000 Summer Paralympics, where they competed for Nigeria. Both wanted to study at an American college.
It took a couple of years of cutting through red tape, but Vargo was able to bring them to Bellarmine in 2002 on partial athletic scholarships.
“He is one of the most beloved students we’ve had in the 10 years I’ve been at Bellarmine,” Vargo said.
And what does Bellarmine get out of bringing in Paralympians to compete against able-bodied athletes?
“It adds value to the student experience,” Vargo said. “It really galvanizes the team around the athlete. … They (the able-bodied athletes) can see them day in and day out, working harder than they are. They really get inspired.”
He said Ogbe and Lanshima served to remind everyone else that “None of us have excuses.”
If Ogbe had the inclination to complain, he didn’t have the time.
One of his five part-time jobs was maintaining the clay tennis courts on campus. As he worked, he would think of his father, back in Nigeria.
“When I was working on the clay courts, I go at dawn,” he said. “It’s still dark. At times, I could hardly even see my hand. I just sing. I sing a lot of hymns. And mostly when I sing, I always think of him.”
Ogbe’s father, who died in 2004, sacrificed to send his children to school, Dennis said. Eleven of the 12 went beyond high school. They include a pharmacist, a microbiologist, an architect and an accountant.
And, maybe, a superman.