Known in the U.S. as soccer, it was the No. 1 sport in Nigeria and played by Dimukeje and his four siblings. Thankfully, he outgrew the sport, and the rest is history — NFL history.
“[My parents] were immigrants from Nigeria and they didn’t really understand this game of football,” said Dimukeje, a senior defensive end/outside linebacker at Duke. “All they saw was the reckless contact, the vicious hits and they thought it was risky to let me do it. But I got too big for soccer, persuaded them to let me do it in the eighth grade and it ended up working out for me.”
It will get a lot better.
This is the time of the year when college players make their dreams come true because the annual NFL draft is about five weeks away. A lot of players have worked hard for 10 to 15 years to get to this point. Some are blue-chip prospects who are basically guaranteed a spot on an NFL roster because they are projected to be taken in the first round. Many are long shots, particularly those from small colleges, who will be fortunate enough to be taken in the later rounds or signed as free agents.
Then there are players like Dimukeje, who just turned 21; a self-made, tireless worker who will be picked somewhere in the middle rounds but most likely will become an NFL starter.
“All I ever wanted was to become the best man, the best athlete and best football player I could become,” said Dimukeje, a graduate of Baltimore Boys’ Latin and a Harford County resident. “Getting to the NFL has been a lifelong ambition.”
It’s a nervous time for Dimukeje. He has done Zoom interviews with 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams. He has spoken with position and head coaches as well as general managers and broken down game film in recent weeks as if he was preparing for a game in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Players like Dimukeje, who is rated one of the top 15 edge rushers in the draft, are valuable in the NFL. At Duke, he finished with at least 40 tackles each season and had 21 1/2 career sacks, just a half-sack short of the school record.
At 6 feet 2 and 263 pounds, he could play defensive end or outside linebacker in the NFL and is a perfect fit for teams that like “tweeners,” such as the Pittsburgh Steelers. If he were about one or two inches taller, Dimukeje would go in the first round, but he just plays with the talents God blessed him with.
His body is well-chiseled.
“He is a nice person with a wonderful character,” said Boys’ Latin coach Ritchie Schell, whose school has never had a player selected in the NFL draft. “He has always been a specimen, but a smart and darn good football player. Quick, strong, smart. He understands the game, is coachable and an excellent teammate who worked so diligently in the weight room.”’
Part of the work ethic might come from Dimukeje believing he was always behind. He didn’t start playing football until he was in the eighth grade. By his freshman season in high school, the physical potential was evident. Dimukeje had a big head on an undersized body, but his hands were huge. Someone had to grow into that head and those hands.
He left New Town for Boys’ Latin after the ninth grade in preparation for college. Yes, he’s that smart.
“It was a culture shock,” Dimukeje said of transferring. “New Town was a public school, way bigger than Boys’ Latin, so you had to make the transition quick. Boys’ Latin was smaller, you got more one-on-one attention, the learning curve was different, and you would take more intensive classes. People around you took academics a lot more seriously, and in some ways it was similar to Duke.”
Dimukeje was recruited by more than 40 colleges, including Michigan State, Notre Dame, Maryland, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State. According to Schell, he is one of the few athletes to make official visits at the five allowed colleges before choosing Duke.
“When [the Duke coaches] came to my school after my official visit, one of their coaches made a good point,” Dimukeje said. “He said this wasn’t a four-year decision, but a 40-year decision. Not everyone gets an opportunity to go to Duke. I have no regrets, no regrets at all.”
Whichever NFL team drafts Dimukeje will be getting a special player. He graduated a semester early with a 3.1 GPA and a degree in evolutionary anthropology, as well as a marketing and management certificate.
He has spent the past two months training at the Bommarito Performance Center in Davie, Fla., working on his speed and explosiveness through nine-hour workout days. On April 4-7, he will be in Tennessee working with former NFL defensive line coach and pass rush specialist Jim Washburn.
In the weight room, Dimukeje has few peers. He was bench pressing 225 pounds 32 times as a 17-year old at Boys’ Latin. He still lives in the weight room.
“I see the results in my body, I feel faster, stronger, leaner for sure,” said Dimukeje, who is represented by longtime NFL agent and Baltimore resident Tony Agnone. “I was disappointed in not having the [NFL scouting] combine because I wanted to display all the hard work I had put in during the process. But I will still get a chance to show that, my athleticism, with my pro day [on March 29 3/8.
“I started loving this game by watching the Ravens play and studying their players. Then in the ninth grade I started watching film and studying certain players. They were big and strong, and every time I went into the weight room I wanted to get 1 percent better, every time. I’ve always had that mentality of working harder than my opponent or anyone around me. I wanted to maximize my potential.”
He has, and in a couple of weeks, it will finally pay off.