Omogbo leads Rams year after death of parents in fire
FORT COLLINS — Colorado State senior Emmanuel Omogbo’s right basketball shoe is a dedication to his parents, their names written in black marker with “RIP” alongside. The left one, a tribute to his niece and nephew.
On both, the date — “1-19-2016.”
It’s approaching a year since a house fire back in Maryland claimed the lives of his parents, Samson and Caroline, along with his sister’s 2-year-old twins, Anna and Israel.
This season is for them — “my four little angels, protecting me at all times,” he explained. It’s also for his coach and teammates, too, who comforted him through his heartache. And for the fans, which raised more than $100,000 for expenses through a GoFundMe account.
The “Thank You” season — that’s what he’s calling it. That’s also why he didn’t transfer back East to be closer to his four sisters and two brothers. He needed to be here, in Fort Collins.
“There’s no way I could turn my back on this community, this team, even though they would’ve understood,” said Omogbo, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Hyattsville, Maryland. “My dad always told me to be grateful at all times. So, this is my way of saying thanks — to the fans, for everybody who helped me out during my crisis.”
A phone call around 5 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2016, jarred him awake. He was told there was an accident involving his parents, the severity of which wasn’t revealed.
Only later, when a friend called to express his condolences, did he hear the full story: A fire broke out in a Maryland rental home that killed his parents and the twins.
The rest of that day — the next few days, really — remain a complete haze. He went to the gym just to think. Then, to class before the coaching staff coaxed him to come with them.
He even suited up the next night at Air Force. But he can’t recall a single moment from the game. He’s never watched the game since.
“People have said, ‘How were you able to play?’ ” said Omogbo, who scored one point in 10 heavy-hearted minutes that night. “All I can say is that it was really dark out there, and I couldn’t see much. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Soon after the game, he left for home to plan the services with his family, accompanied by a Colorado State assistant coach. Later, he went back with coach Larry Eustachy’s wife, Lana, for the memorial services (his mom and dad were buried in Lagos, Nigeria).
To this day, Omogbo has no idea how the fire started. Omogbo doesn’t want to know, either, because, “me knowing, it can’t help the situation.”
The investigation is still listed as “undetermined,” but it did reveal the upstairs smoke alarm was not working, according to Mark Brady, the chief spokesman for Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department.
Omogbo’s family is a tight-knit bunch and they’ve helped each other through the grief. He lived with his sisters last summer in Maryland, including Elizabeth, who lost her twins.
“It’s now left up to us, to carry on their legacy,” Omogbo said.
Going home last summer also meant traveling through a neighborhood so familiar with his family. The well-wishes were always appreciated — and tough, too.
“I didn’t like to show my face much, because it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s the son of Samson.’ Or, ‘His parents passed away,’ ” said Omogbo, whose background image on his phone is a picture of the twins. “Yeah, I want to be known as that, but I don’t really want to be known as that. I want to be known as an inspiration guy, that when everything happened, he fought through it and he’s living good and his family is OK now.”
A vow. That’s what Eustachy made when Omogbo and his father were looking for a school after Omogbo attended South Plains College in Texas. The 6-foot-8 Omogbo was gifted, no doubt. He averaged 17 points and 10.1 rebounds at South Plains.
Eustachy assured his father he would develop Omogbo into a leader. He did, too, which was never more evident than when Omogbo provided a spark in a recent win over Arkansas-Fort Smith.
“I thought of his dad a lot in that moment. How his dad is watching him, so proud of him,” said Eustachy, whose standout forward is averaging 12.3 points and 10.7 rebounds. “I promised his father I’d take care of him. It’s a promise that isn’t hard to keep. It’s a promise you want to keep, because his parents were so special.”
Growing up, Omogbo and his father watched plenty of basketball games together. More specifically, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant was his dad’s favorite player, which made the video Bryant sent all the more sentimental.
“Kobe’s like, ‘Emmanuel, the whole city is behind you,’ ” said Omogbo, who’s planning a journey to Lagos this summer to visit the site where his parents are buried. “That meant the world to me.”
Just then, it hit Omogbo that nearly a year has passed since the tragedy.
“A year,” he whispered. “Time is flying by. But the love I have for them, it will never fade away.”