The invisible Canadian

STEVE SIMMONS,SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:47 AM ET

The best Canadian athlete almost nobody knows is about to become a multi-millionaire.

Oshiomogho Isaac Atogwe -- a mouthful of a football player, better known as O.J. -- hopes to be recognized one day, maybe on the streets, maybe as a mispronounced household name, but not because of his growing salary.

He hopes to be recognized because he happens to be that good of a defensive back, possibly the best Canadian ever to play the game. He is certainly about to become the highest paid as the reigning most valuable player on the St. Louis Rams and a player so designated with the "franchise" tag for purposes of contract negotiations and salary cap management.

"Outside of my hometown, people don't know me," said the soft-spoken Atogwe, who grew up in Windsor and was talking on the telephone from St. Louis. He went to W.F. Herman High, played in the Ontario Varsity Football League for the Essex Ravens, went on to Stanford University on a scholarship and has started every game for the Rams the past three seasons.

"People (in Canada) watch the NFL, but if they're not watching closely, they don't know what I'm doing. They don't know me. I understand that.

"In a way, I feel blessed by everything that's happened to me. And it's an honour (to be franchised by St. Louis). They feel I'm worth it. That really means something to me. To be considered the top five in the league at your position, that's what they think of you. I have strong belief in what I can accomplish."

O.J. Atogwe is the starting free safety for the Rams, one of only 89 Canadians to ever play in the NFL, the first to have a franchise tag beside his name and the first to start full-time in an NFL secondary. More than half of the Canadians who have played an NFL down have either been linemen or kickers. Davis Sanchez started two games at defensive back for San Diego, Mark Montreuil started one. That is it until Atogwe came along.

The son of an auto worker and health care professional has started 48 consecutive games and will sign a new contract, multi-year if he has his way, that will pay him a minimum of $6 million US a season -- which is the equivalent of the entire Argonauts payroll and half the Ticats payroll for the coming season.

"It's a pretty incredible accomplishment," said Chris Schultz, who certainly understands. Schultz started eight games for the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a Canadian Football League stalwart on the Argos' offensive line and currently works as the foremost football analyst in the country.

"Because he plays for the Rams and because he's a safety, I don't know if a lot of people in Canada pay attention to what he has done. What you have to understand is, you can have an NFL experience or you can have an NFL career. I had an NFL experience. Atogwe is having a career."

From as far back as he can remember, Atogwe dreamt of playing in the NFL. And not the kind of far-fetched dream most of us might have had.

NOT A LONG SHOT

"Since I was a young kid, at every level I played, I would think about it," he said. "For whatever reason, it never seemed that much of a long shot to me. I just kept my eye on the dream. I never wanted to let go of it."

He didn't start in his first two years at Stanford and didn't lose sight of the dream. He didn't start in his first season in St. Louis but found a way to stay on course.

"I don't just want to be a player in the NFL," he said. "I want to be a perennial Pro Bowl player. Whenever I've set goals, I've reached them. You have to have confidence in yourself. It becomes about the journey and not the destination. When you get a chance in this game, you have to make a difference. I've been blessed to be able to do that.

"I play this game because I love it. Getting paid to do this, getting in a position where you can be taken care of the rest of your life, that's something I'm grateful for."

There have been other Canadian success stories in the NFL, but few who played skill positions. Running back Rueben Mayes made the Pro Bowl twice with New Orleans, but his career ended abruptly without any success after his second season. Jerome Pathon was a sound second or third receiver in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Atlanta. In eight years, he scored 15 touchdowns. But it's offensive guard Ian Beckles who leads all Canadians with NFL starts -- 122 -- most of them with Tampa.

TWO TOUCHDOWNS

Atogwe has scored touchdowns in each of the past two seasons -- one on a fumble return, one on an interception -- and he has picked off 13 passes in that time. At the age of 27, he is just finding his place, near all-star status, which is why the new coaching staff in St. Louis is so enamoured with him.

Maybe soon, Canadians will feel the same way about Atogwe, as they have come to appreciate baseball's Justin Morneau and have been engaged by the brilliant career of basketball's Steve Nash.

"I would never equate myself with Steve Nash," said Atogwe, when asked about being recognized. "He has accomplished more in the NBA than almost anyone. He is an all-star and an MVP. One day, I'd love to have the kind of recognition he has."

Today, as NFL free agency officially begins, Atogwe's father works his last day for the Ford Motor Company.

"I'm grateful to be franchised," Atogwe said. "From a financial standpoint, it means you can be taken care of for the rest of your life."

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FAME'S DARK SHADOWS

NFL CANUCKS

MOST STARTS

Ian Beckles OL 122

Tom Nutten OL 69

Tony Mandarich OL 62

Jerome Pathon WR 62

OJ Santiago TE 60

MOST STARTS (ACTIVE)

Nick Kaczur OL NE 49

O.J. Atogwe DB StL 48

Rob Meier DL Jax 34

Brett Romberg OL StL 18

Israel Idonije DL Chi 8

MOST GAMES

Eddie Murray K 250

Steve Christie K 229

Mitch Berger P 177

Roy Gerela K 145

Mike Vanderjagt K 135


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