On Thursday, December 20, 2018, twelve children, most from Case Western Reserve University’s National Youth Sports Program (NYSP), waited anxiously at the front of the Target in Steelyard as several Cleveland Browns players and community leaders, led by Defensive Tackle (DT) Larry Ogunjobi, took them for some early Christmas shopping.
It was a rainy night, yet many came out to shop as the holidays rapidly approached. The kids tapped their feet, clinging onto their parents or other important adults in their lives such as principals, pastors, and teachers. They congregated with NYSP employees and Browns Staff, awaiting Larry’s arrival. Little did they know, he was already in the building.
The anticipation kept building as the children moved to a decorative Christmas themed room. They sat around a table watching A Christmas Story while they waited for Ogunjobi to arrive. None of them had seen the movie, which had been released in 1983. Ogunjobi and Browns Defensive End (DE) Emmanuel Ogbah walked into the room, and the children’s faces lit up. They would instantly find something in common. “We haven’t seen it either,” the players laughed. Considered a Cleveland classic, this sparked somewhat of a lighthearted uproar around the room’s older crowd.
Before shopping, each child received a full meal including a personal pan pizza, wings, breadsticks and a drink among other snacks and give-a-ways provided by the Cleveland Browns. “Have y’all ate? I can tell by the way y’all are looking,” Ogunjobi laughed. “I don’t want them shopping on an empty stomach.” He walked around the room, stopping to talk to each child. They looked up in excitement; a Browns player cared about them.
The shopping experience came right in time for the holidays, but was inspired by year-round culture of giving back. “I like the family aspect of Christmas the most, my parents are coming down tomorrow,” said Ogunjobi.
Ogunjobi grew up in North Carolina with two parents who always stressed the importance of giving. His dad first worked driving cars and then worked his way up to become head of nursing, and his mom worked as a PRN, and is now a psychology nurse. No matter their profession over the years, Ogunjobi saw them always find ways to give to others.
“I’ve always watched my parents. What stood out was how much they gave. It wasn’t out of abundance, it was because they didn’t have anything,” said Ogunjobi. “I used to watch my parents, they used to give, give, give. I used to tell them, ‘Mom, Dad, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage because you give so much.’”
“They used to work 16 hour shifts back to back. My mom quit to take care of me,” said Ogunjobi. “They struggled to make ends meet. Never blinked an eye, always ready to go to work.”
When it came time to shop, several NYSP participants shared Larry’s enthusiasm for video games, heading directly to the electronics section. Others went to check out Barbies, Legos, bikes, and even PokémonCards. At times, they got stumped from all of the options.
“[My favorite Christmas present was] probably my Xbox from my parents. I liked Gears of War. The Nintendo 64 was up there too, I played Zelda.”
Whenever the children would have a hard time deciding on a gift, the players and adults helped re-focus them by discussing their interests and suggesting ideas.
Ogunjobi and his team would need backup, though. Several minutes into shopping, three other
Cleveland Browns players showed up to help the kids pick out gifts. The toy and electronics aisles became packed, and the shoppers began to notice. The kids excitedly picked out gifts with the advice of the DE Myles Garrett, DT Trevon Coley, and DE Chad Thomas. Commotion from all of the excitement caused Target patrons to stop and stare.
“At the end, when they started coming up and hugging me. That’s the biggest thing. It’s weird to at first to meet someone and understand their situation,” said Ogunjobi. “When you’re able to check out, and you’re able to get what you really wanted, it takes the burden off the parents. That’s really the best part.”
Coach Dennis Harris, Director of CWRU’s chapter of NYSP, put together the event with Larry Ogunjobi after a similar successful event last year. NYSP participants go to camp several weeks during the summer on Case Western Reserve University’s campus, where Ogunjobi first connected with the program as a rookie.
NYSP stresses physical activity, which Ogunjobi relates to through how he came to play football. In addition to being grateful to his parents, he noted that his high school coaches were huge factors in the way that he turned his life around.
“I was a fat kid when I was growing up. I didn’t care that much about it. A sophomore in high school, 350 pounds...They gave me a coach, and he helped me play football,” said Larry. “I couldn’t finish sprints and couldn’t finish the workouts. Coach came up to me and was like, ‘Larry, I just want to make sure you’re here.’”
After working his hardest, Ogunjobi saw how giving it his all paid off.
“I went through that first JV season, and we had that little award banquet, and we thought my friend was going to win Most Improved Player. Instead they called my name. That was the moment that I saw everything in motion...that’s when I decided.”
Ogunjobi’s decision has allowed him to make a difference on a Cleveland Browns team on the rise, as well as in the lives of children in the city.
“It’s not always about giving when you have a lot, but giving when you have a little,” said Ogunjobi. “It’s not every now and then, it's not sometimes. It’s all the time. Anytime I have something to give, I just do.”