By Mary Cunningham
Temple’s 2015 opener against Penn State at the Linc is only nine days away — Saturday, Sept. 5 at 3:30 — and the campus is buzzing in anticipation of the Owls’ season.
But it fair to say that no member of the football team is more psyched than defensive end Praise Martin-Oguike, who lost two years of his career after being charged in May 2012 with raping a female student.
Not until 18 months had passed, after he had been kicked off the team and out of school, did prosecutors find evidence supporting Martin-Oguike’s claims of innocence. With jury selection for his trial in progress, the charges were dropped.
“It was like winning the lottery, honestly,” Martin-Oguike stold the Associated Press.
Martin-Oguike said he knows the truth often takes time to emerge from behind the shocking headline.
“People are quick to judge, quick to jump to conclusions,” he said.
Martin-Oguike was born in Nigeria and moved to New Jersey with his parents when he was 10. He grew from defensive back to linebacker-sized by his junior year at Woodbridge High School, catching the eye of college recruiters. As a freshman at Temple, he contributed on special teams.
Then his life was put on hold and he faced the possibility of going to prison for rape.
“The main thing was just confusion,” Martin-Oguike said. “One day everything is going well and then the next this whole chaos. I was struggling to understand what was going on and what I was going to do.”
Martin-Oguike tried to find comfort in music (he plays drums and taught himself piano and guitar) and art (he draws and paints). He worked out. Mostly, the son of a pastor and a poet prayed. It was hard to hold it together.
“I was obviously angry,” Martin-Oguike said. “I tried my best not to get angry. It was a struggle. It was always about being positive. I was depressed for a while seeing how everything was going down.”
Martin-Oguike said his attorney James Funt pushed for prosecutors to review the accuser’s cellphone. When they finally did, text messages to friends indicated she was not truthful about being raped and the case was dismissed.
“It was amazing after everything that happened just to know I had a second chance at life,” Martin-Oguike said.
Other schools recruited Martin-Oguike after he was cleared. He said some people told him Temple had treated him poorly and that he should leave.
He did not see it that way. Temple special teams coach Ed Foley believed in Martin-Oguike from the start and stayed in touch with him throughout the ordeal. Martin-Oguike still had to go through a student-conduct process to re-enroll at Temple. Foley guided him through it.
“After everything that happened I knew I could trust coach (Matt) Rhule and trust this coaching staff,” Martin-Oguike said. “And I’m already familiar with the school instead of going to a whole new place and start all over. I just knew I could trust them with my career.”
Earlier this year, the NCAA granted Martin-Oguike’s an extra season of eligibility so he can also return in 2016.
Rhule was happy to have him back but really didn’t know what he had. In the spring of 2014, Martin-Oguike was moved from linebacker to defensive end as Rhule looked for ways to improve a weak defense.
“All of sudden it was like, `Oh my goodness,”‘ said Rhule, the former Temple assistant entering his third season as Owls head coach. “He was just unblockable.”
With Martin-Oguike leading the way, Temple’s turnaround 2014 season was fueled by a defense that ranked 11th in the nation in yards allowed per play (4.75) and turnovers forced (30). Even more is expected this season. Martin-Oguike is one of 10 returning defensive players with starting experience, including star linebacker Tyler Matakevich and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis.
Martin-Oguike appreciates all he has more than ever before. Matakevich said Martin-Oguike’s positive attitude helps get teammates through the grind.
“A lot of kids are down and he had a big smile on his face. I’m like, `Why you got a smile on your face?’ He’s like, `Bro, this is awesome,”‘ Matakevich said. “You never know when things can be taken away from you.”
Despite what he has been through, Martin-Oguike said he has not become distrusting or cynical — just more careful.
“I choose my friends more wisely,” he said. “Try to be more cautious with everything around me.”