LAUREL – T.J. Onwuanibe started his day before 8 a.m. by telling a SportsCenter host on live television that he wanted the Baltimore Ravens to pick a cornerback or a wide receiver with the 16th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The 14-year-old from Laurel had repeated that opinion in one interview after another […]
LAUREL – T.J. Onwuanibe started his day before 8 a.m. by telling a SportsCenter host on live television that he wanted the Baltimore Ravens to pick a cornerback or a wide receiver with the 16th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
The 14-year-old from Laurel had repeated that opinion in one interview after another in the hours that followed.
A few hours later, Onwuanibe stood behind a podium, flanked by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, ready to reveal the Ravens’ selection. With the crowd still roaring, he leaned into the microphone and calmly and clearly began his announcement. He paused just long enough to smile and jubilantly pump his right fist before finishing with “Marlon Humphrey, defensive back from Alabama.”
“It was either that or dance across the stage,” Onwuanibe chuckled later, explaining his impromptu celebration that quickly went viral online. “I thought that was the better decision.”
Onwuanibe’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of the NFL Draft on April 27 in Philadelphia was made possible by Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic. The Bethesda-based organization teamed with the league and the Ravens to turn the young brain cancer survivor’s dream into reality.
Onwuanibe was diagnosed with a brain tumor after experiencing vision issues in early 2015. He spent weeks in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. At times, he was so weak he could barely open his eyes. The prospect of returning to the football field helped keep him positive through it all.
Last fall, Onwuanibe got back to playing on the defensive line for the eighth grade team at McDonogh School in Baltimore. In March, he received word his cancer was in remission.
His wish provided the perfect follow up to that long-awaited news.
“It’s sort of like a way of celebrating the end of the treatment part of his journey,” his mother, Chioma, said. “This is a way to punctuate it and say, ‘this ended well.’ And whatever comes after this is going to be positive.”
Onwuanibe didn’t take picking his wish lightly. Right away, he focused on football and the Ravens. He had started out watching games with his father and soon dove in, memorizing as many stats and facts as he could.
The sport brought hope during the darkest times. He kept a football with him during every hospital stay, and the TV tuned to ESPN. When one room didn’t have the channel, he passed the time by rattling off trivia from long before he was born to his parents.
“He’d keep saying, ‘But when it’s done I’ll be able to play football, right?’” his mother said. “That’s all he really cared about.”
For his wish, Onwuanibe thought about attending a Ravens playoff game or meeting his favorite player, Ray Lewis. Or maybe something different altogether. Like a family trip to the French Riviera.
When Onwuanibe settled on helping with a draft pick, his mother approved of the idea, but cautioned that it was no sure thing.
“We thought about making it once-in-a-lifetime,” Onwuanibe said.
The Ravens surprised him with the details during an assembly at his school on April 21. Coach John Harbaugh recorded a video message letting him know he’d be going to Philadelphia to represent the team. He had no idea it was coming.
Onwuanibe, his parents and younger brother Chidi were given the VIP treatment with a limo ride to the train station on the day before the draft along with a full slate of activities leading up to his big moment. Chioma called her son quiet and soft-spoken, but said he handled all the attention with poise.
Onwuanibe was quick on his feet in the live SportsCenter interview. His media tour also included visits with the NFL Network, Sports Illustrated and more.
“It is tough thinking of answers and all that,” Onwuanibe said, “but the funness of interviews outweighs how tough it is.”
Onwuanibe’s packed day as the NFL’s special guest finished in the brightest spotlight of all. He walked to the stage with Goodell, clad in a sharp gray suit accented by a purple dress shirt and black bow tie. The commissioner assured him that the boos that greeted him before each pick would turn to cheers for the teenager.
Sure enough, the packed crowd delivered a rousing welcome. Onwuanibe followed with a flawless performance under pressure.
“He got up there, he was confident and he did his thing,” his mother said.
Onwuanibe wrapped up his whirlwind NFL Draft adventure with a Saturday trip to Ravens headquarters to meet Humphrey. He posed for pictures, got an autograph and gave the former Alabama standout his scouting report on what to expect in Baltimore. He’s even more of a fan of the pick now.
On the other side, Onwuanibe has a slew of articles and videos to remember his wish. The clip of his fist-pump was shared thousands of times on Twitter via the official ESPN account alone. He’s grateful for the proof after so many barely believable moments.
“It was like I was super nervous, but I was also super excited,” Onwuanibe said. “Like the whole time I was thinking, ‘Is this actually happening?’”