COLUMBIA — He stands on the sidelines, watching his first-string offense run against a scout team defense with his arms crossed over his chest. A white hooded sweatshirt the size of a parachute covers his upper body, draped over shoulders that resemble bowling balls. The hood is pulled low over his face, barely allowing his eyes to see out. He paces the sidelines of Rock Bridge’s practice field, each step calculated, his Nikes punishing the field turf.
A.J. Ofodile’s offense methodically moves the ball down field with as much organization as a Navy SEAL unit. No movement is wasted. Assistants buzz around the field, pointing out minor but important adjustments between each snap. The ball rarely touches the ground, but when it does, it’s scooped up as quickly as open parking spaces at the mall on Black Friday.
This is how it works for Ofodile. He watches with Zen-like concentration and calm as his quarterback lofts a deep ball down the sideline. A dropped pass in the end zone merely elicits a raised brow.
“Come on now, let’s focus,” he says, clapping his hands.
Ofodile is in his seventh year as the head football coach at Rock Bridge High School. During the school days, he works to update his strength and conditioning courses in the physical education department at the school where he cracks up coworkers at department meetings. As coach, he also hounds counselors and teachers on his players’ performance off the field.
After the final bell, Ofodile transforms and can be as intense as a wolf chasing his prey. Besides the Bruins' next victory, the coach is passionate about producing quality human beings with strong work ethics. During his playing days (four years for Missouri and six years in the NFL), Ofodile says he learned about hard work, and dedication is what he tries to instill in his players. To explain its importance, he will tell you about a place 650 miles north of this field in Columbia at a hill in his hometown of Detroit.
For the last 50 years, Derby Hill has hosted the Detroit City Soap Box Derby. For a few years in the 90s, Derby Hill also hosted informal but intense summer workouts for a group of college football players. Ofodile and Missouri strength and conditioning coach Pat Ivey spent some of their breaks from the Tigers football team on this hill, about a mile from Ivey’s house. The two would jog there every day as a warmup and meet up with other players from the Detroit area that attended schools such as Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Michigan State for grueling sprint sessions up the hill.
“It was a crazy routine. It taught me the responsibility necessary to be successful,” Ofodile said. “It showed me that to gain ground on everybody else you could never rest. I probably never should’ve spent a minute in the NFL talent wise. But those workouts put me above the rest. Good players are good because they work. My whole playing career I’ve been around people with a strong belief in working.”
With no coaches around, the intensity of the workouts was up to the player. Ivey and Ofodile, who suited up together for Cass Technical High School in Detroit and were roommates at MU, helped propel each other up the hill.
“We pushed each other. It made it easy to go to work when you had someone like that with you, in your ear the whole time,” Ivey said. “He (Ofodile) definitely knows talent as well. He has a good blend of knowing how to work and having talent.”
That blend has helped numerous Bruins earn Division I football scholarships. Georgia backup quarterback Logan Gray and Georgia starting tight end Aron White played for Ofodile. This year, the Bruins feature two Division I recruits in Trey Millard, who has choosen Oklahoma, and Chase Rome, who had planned to attend Oklahoma State before changing his mind and choosing Nebraska. Without Ofodile, their football futures would be less defined.
“He’s tremendous. He’s really picky about details which can get kind of annoying, but it’s the reason where I am today,” said Rome, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive end. “He holds me to a higher standard in academics and football. Some kids want to play football to wear the jersey and get the ladies, but it’s not about that. Coach Ofodile keeps the focus on what we need to do to win games.”
At Rock Bridge, Ofodile wraps up practice. Coming off an emotional victory over rival Hickman, he stresses the importance of focus, not riding too high on achievements and approaching every game like it’s the Providence Bowl regardless of opponent. Onlookers would think Ofodile was a hypnotist. He has his players’ complete attention, eyes locked on the coach as if they were seeing a Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
Aside from his extensive football experience, Ofodile strives to make an impression on his players that goes beyond the X’s and O’s. While drills and sprints are stressed, his players appreciate the benefits that spill into other areas of their lives besides athletics.
“As far as football, the terminology and the way we run practice helps give me an idea what to expect next year,” Millard said. “Coach Ofodile has taught me to give 100 percent in everything I do, to not quit on something just because I don’t enjoy it.”
This includes academics. To do this, Ofodile checks with his players’ guidance counselors often, making sure they’re making grades and setting examples for the rest of Rock Bridge. If problems arise, Ofodile is the first to respond. Not because people expect him to, but because he wants to. As a former football player, Ofodile understands that an entire school community looks up to football players, respects them and emulates their decisions.
Jennifer Mast, the athletic director at Rock Bridge, says she appreciates Ofodile's well-rounded approach.
“He (Ofodile) is one of the best coaches we’ve ever had as far as staying on top of his kids and really knowing his kids," Mast said. "He’s great with our teachers and counselors. The stereotype is that football coaches are only here for wins, but he never hesitates to help someone out whether they’re on the team or not.”
Ofodile does more than just pursue his coworkers for answers. One minute he may be grilling a teacher for a test score. The next, he will have that same teacher doubled over, shaking with laughter. Vicki Reimler, a coworker in the physical education department at Rock Bridge, witnesses Ofodile’s humor on a first-hand basis. Beyond his serious demeanor lies a funny, witty side of Ofodile that keeps coworkers on their toes.
“A couple weeks ago at a department meeting, he was telling us some stories. I don’t even remember what they were about because I was too busy laughing. By the time we left everyone’s sides and cheeks hurt because we were laughing so hard,” Reimler said. “Every now and then, he’ll throw a zinger and just crack you up.”
Relationships are the backbone of Ofodile's program. While he wants his players to score touchdowns and grab interceptions, Ofodile also wants his players to have a scope on life beyond the Friday lights. It’s a simple formula. If players feel like their coaches care about them, they will do anything for the man with the whistle. Those relationships mean stressing blitz packages as equally as world history. Those relationships represent the difference between wide receivers pulling up instead of laying out for an overthrown ball, running backs tiptoeing through a hole instead of driving through it like a truck.
“We want our kids to know there are things more important in life than wins and losses. We want to make sure things are still fun for them,” Ofodile said. “Players’ enthusiasm comes from these relationships.”