The grandfather was a Nigerian prince. A real one. A descendant of a king who had ruled a kingdom. Then the grandfather became famous in his own right, an artist who toured the world. He would pass away on the 11th birthday of his grandson, Azeez Ojulari.
Before he died, before a New York Times obituary lauded his contributions to African art and culture, Prince Twins Sevens-Seven, as he was known to the world, stayed with his daughter’s family in the Atlanta area for several months. The daughter, Bolalne Ojulari, remembers something her father said to his grandson:
“Azeez, you are quiet. You are going somewhere. You are going to be somebody.”
When he passed, the grandfather left a long legacy and many descendants. He had 39 children, the second of whom was Bolalne, the daughter who toured with him and then settled in Philadelphia. It was there she met Monsuru Olujari, a fellow Nigerian who had also come this country seeking a new life.
They eventually moved to the Atlanta area. They had three children and raised them to be good citizens and good students and to pursue their own dreams.
Azeez chose football.
‘One of the best’
Azeez Olujari, now 17 years old, limps into the coaching office at Marietta High School. He’s on crutches, having torn his ACL late last football season. That didn’t worry Georgia, which stuck to its scholarship offer to the 4-star outside linebacker.
He grew up watching Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins at Georgia, and before that he watched A.J. Green, who was a receiver, because Azeez likes to watch the best players. When you are descended from an African king, maybe you do focus on the stars.
How good do you think you can be, Azeez is asked?
“Really, really good,” he said, smiling and opening his eyes widely. “Von Miller type good.”
The former two-time All-American, six-time Pro Bowler and possible NFL Hall of Famer?
“That’s the model, probably,” Azeez said.
It doesn’t come off boastful when he says it. He has been told he would “be somebody” by a world-famous artist grandfather when he was 10 years old, but to those who know Azeez, he is the most grounded, respectful person who could be going to Athens in years.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Marietta coach Richard Morgan said. “And he’s just one of the best I’ve ever come across. Just an all-around great kid.”
And for that, you again go back to his family. And his heritage.
4 Star Recruit, Azeez Ojulari is headed to UGA @FootballUGA! With over 50 scholarship offers, Azeez announced his decision to join the Bulldogs in August. He’s a US Army All-American, 1st Team All -State, 1st Team MDJ and Nike Opening Invitee. #SigningDay pic.twitter.com/Lu3CuJ14yV
— MariettaCitySchools (@MariettaCitySch) February 7, 2018
A different life
The city of Ibadan is tucked in the southeast corner of Nigeria. It was populated through the years by the Yoruba, one of the main ethnic tribes of the country. Into one of those royal families in 1944 was born Olaniyi Osuntoki, who would later say he changed his name to Twins Seven-Seven because he was the sole survivor of his parents’ seven sets of twins.
Under that name, he first came to fame in the 1960s. His art “evoked the world of Yoruba folklore and religion,” according to the New York Times obituary. During his life, he formed a band, acting as the drummer and lead singer, and his music would also outlive him.
Bolalne was close to her famous father. She traveled around the world with Prince Seven-Seven and his band, through Germany, China, France and the U.S. They first came here in the 1970s, and after numerous visits Bolalne finally decided she wanted to stick around. So in 1996 she settled in Philadelphia. Her father lived there for a time as well.
Monsuru had come to the U.S. a few years earlier. Originally he had wanted to move to Oklahoma, of all places. He had studied the state during a high school geography class back in Nigeria. But he initially settled in Philadelphia, where he had a friend. Then he met Bolalne, they married, and a few years later they moved to Atlanta.
“I saw the way Atlanta is laid back, is good for family, raising family,” Monsuru said. “Since ’96 I had it in my mind that when I started having family I would move out of Philadelphia to Atlanta.”
They didn’t have college football in mind.
They did have college in mind.
Education is a pillar of immigrant Nigerian households, and the Ojularis are no different. It didn’t matter that Azeez – or his younger brother B.J., also now a top football prospect – were growing big and tall and athletic. That didn’t change the emphasis. It was still on academics.
Meryem, their daughter and Azeez’s older sister, was also raised that way. Both parents work, Monsuru driving trucks and Bolalne as a lab technician.
“They say it’s 1.3 percent of people that make it to the league,” Monsuru said. “The chance is very slim. If you don’t make it to the league, then you have to live on. The education is something you can live on. Now you keep on making money.”
Face of the program
Morgan can’t stop saying enough good things about Azeez. And football has hardly come up.
“He doesn’t have any poor qualities,” Morgan said. “He’s the kind of guy that if he wanted to date one of my daughters, that’s just the perfect kid.”
B.J. is the same way, added Morgan, as is their older sister.
“So, obviously, a lot of that comes from home,” Morgan said.
Morgan arrived two years ago at Marietta and pinpointed Azeez as someone he wanted to be the face of the program. The example for younger players, the guy you put forward to the media, all of that.
“He’s the guy who led this turnaround here. He’s the guy that I looked to and said, ‘All right, you’re going to be my guy that I want everyone to emulate and be like,’ ” Morgan said. “When you look at Azeez you’re saying, everything you want Marietta football to be about, that’s him. So that’s what he is.”
When Morgan talks, it sounds a lot like what people at Georgia said last year about Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Isaiah Wynn, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy. When your best players are your hardest workers, it has such a positive impact.
“It’s a cliche, but it’s really the truth. Everybody says that at every level,” Morgan said. “There’s no secret with the Patriots. Tom Brady works harder than everybody else does, so every single season they’re back to where they are. Michael Jordan was the same way. It’s just the way it is. And if you get a team full of those guys, it’s unbelievable. If people like him and his friends go to Georgia and they carry those same traits, then Georgia is going to be tough for a long time.”
Azeez is a decent football player, too.
He started playing when he was 9. He played safety at first, then started moving down, as he was the tallest, biggest kid out there. That was a bit of a surprise, as his parents aren’t very tall.
When he was in eighth grade, he was called up to the varsity.
“That’s when I knew, wow, football was going to be my sport,” he said.
He started drawing interest before his junior year. There was a satellite camp at his high school, and Appalachian State became the first school to offer him. He got offers after attending camps at N.C. State and Wake Forest.
Georgia offered him in April 2017. He didn’t commit right away, wanting to make sure it would be the right decision. He made other visits. But it was close to home, an academic fit, and he particularly liked the talk from UGA about what the school could do for him after his time there. The Georgia Way and Paul Oliver Network.
“We want him to be somebody, we want him to have a good, quality education,” Bolalne said. “So he can have a good education, have a good job, or be a businessman. Just have a good, comfortable life, you know.”
‘His own calling’
Azeez has never been to Nigeria. His grandfather was a man of the world, but Azeez has spent his whole life in the same house in Marietta.
But he knows plenty about his heritage.
“It’s around me every day,” he said.
Sometimes, his mother says, he draws things, and it reminds her of Prince Twins Seven-Seven. She proudly talks about the time he designed a t-shirt.
“I always tell him, you take that from grandpa,” Bolalne said. “If you like to draw something, you get that from grandpa.”
But what would his grandfather think about him making his name in sports? Bolalne is pretty sure she already knows the answer.
They don’t play American football in Nigeria – but their national soccer team is very good – but Prince Twins Seven-Seven saw his grandson play some football. He also watched some of the sport on television.
“When your calling is something it’s just going to come anyhow,” Bolalne said. “It’s God. When God wants to make you famous, when God wants to make you somebody. Everybody’s not going to be a scientist. Everyone has their own calling. I think Azeez has his own calling.”