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Low profile

Most don't recognize the man driving them in a cab. Only a few find out Obed Ariri set records as a Bucs kicker.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published July 27, 2004


TAMPA - All is quiet at United Cab stand 52.

A lone white taxi idles in the dreary, late afternoon drizzle at the back of a Burger King parking lot. Rush hour traffic rolls past in the shadow of Raymond James Stadium. But the driver is paying attention only to the scratchy drone of the radio dispatcher, hoping to land one more fare before calling it a day.

Sometimes during lulls such as these, he reads the worn black Bible that he keeps on the floor by his seat in the old Crowne Victoria, a revamped police cruiser with 239,000 miles on the odometer.

Lately, he has been reading the Book of Job. He likes the story of the man who withstood many hardships but refused to lose his faith.

Suddenly, the dispatcher's robotic voice breaks the silence, inquiring if there are any drivers in the vicinity. A woman needs to be picked up at a nearby Kash n' Karry with a load of groceries.

"United 345, United 345," the cabby, wearing a stylish blue tropical shirt, jeans and running shoes, calls into his intercom without missing a beat.

In minutes, he pulls into the store's parking lot and spots a frail white-haired woman with a worried look on her face standing beside a packed shopping cart. He jumps out in the rain with a smile and offers a loud, congenial "Hellooooo," then carefully loads the plastic bags into his trunk.

His voice is heavily tinged with the accent of his native Nigeria. And he knows that most of the customers he picks up, day in and day out, probably think he's one of the countless immigrants who come to America from distant lands in search of a new life and wind up driving a cab.

He never volunteers to anybody who he is. Or who he once was.

Chances are, he figures, they wouldn't remember or they might think he was making it up.

So the son of a Nigerian doctor, the college graduate with a degree in industrial management and economics, just keeps up a congenial patter with his customers and keeps the rest to himself:

That he once made a national mark as a star soccer player and record-setting All-America field-goal kicker for Clemson; that he once made a living not with his right foot hitting the gas of a taxi, but by slamming it into footballs for the Bucs.

Obed Ariri finishes loading the groceries into the cab and slides back into his seat, the Bucs' stadium looming in the distance. The man who led the team in scoring in 1984 as one of the first black placekickers in NFL history - then disappeared from sight as quickly as he arrived - heads off to the woman's house, making the usual small talk. The real story - the answer to where he has been and what drives him now - remains untold.

Unless, of course, you get in his cab and ask.

* * *

He is only a small swatch of the 28-year-old Buccaneer tapestry. His distinctive name rings no bell with new fans of the team, and even longtime followers might have only a hazy recollection of him amid the avalanche of Tampa Bay's losing seasons.

But the tale of Obed Ariri is still a little piece of football history worth knowing not just because of the occasionally amazing twists it took and landmark names it entwined from Africa to Tampa Bay.

In a larger sense, the ride he has taken illustrates just how fleeting success in the game can be. And it shows that when the road hits an unexpected dead end, success can be redefined in important ways beyond the game, even in daily anonymity behind the wheel of a cab.

His middle name, Chukwuma, means "God Only Knows" - fitting for a man who has faced so many unpredictable turns in life. But to understand where Ariri, 48, is today, it's best to start at the beginning.

He grew up in Owerri in eastern Nigeria, the middle of three brothers. But Ariri was the one who loved sports most. As a child, he excelled at soccer. His father, a pathologist, wanted young Obed to study after school instead and more than once slashed his soccer balls to keep him from playing.

"My brothers listened to my father, but I did not," he says, smiling. "When he would come back home, take off his clothes and start eating, I would sneak some money from him and go buy another ball."

Ariri's passion paid off. He became a soccer star at Holy Ghost High School. Later, he enrolled in technical school to study telecommunications, but he continued to excel as a national club soccer player.

Then, out of the blue, he received a package one day from America, a place called Clemson. It was bright orange, filled with glossy photos. And there was a letter from the soccer coach, Dr. I.M. Ibrahim.

"It said, "Dear Obed Ariri, I've heard so much about you. I'm coming to Nigeria to see you play. If you play as they've told me, you'll get a scholarship to come to Clemson.' Man, I was so happy, I didn't know what to do. Because at that time, coming to America was like going to the moon."

Even Ariri's skeptical father, Felix, jumped in the air, thrilled at the prospects that lay ahead for his son. Ariri starred in the championship game Ibrahim scouted, and the coach offered him a scholarship on the spot. Ariri remembers how his father, teary-eyed, addressed his son in front of the team: "He said, "Now, you are going to America and not paying a dime - the flight is free, the school is free, and I was about to prevent you from doing this.' "

* * *

He enrolled at Clemson in 1977 to play soccer. But then-Clemson football coach Charley Pell was badly in need of a kicker. Ibrahim volunteered Ariri on the condition he could continue to play soccer.

Pell agreed and arranged a tryout among several candidates. Ariri had never even kicked a football in his life. He remembers that Pell had invited former kicking great Garo Yepremian to evaluate the candidates and how Yepremian had invited his younger brother to compete for the job. But Ariri nailed every attempt, even beyond 50 yards. The job was his.

Ariri's scholarship was shifted to football, and Pell now insisted that Ariri forget soccer, much to Ibrahim's dismay. But Ariri made the most of his new role. He set six NCAA kicking records and tied three others playing for Pell and - after the coach left for Florida to begin his controversial reign there - Danny Ford. His 57-yarder to beat Wake Forest in 1977 stands as the longest in school history, and his 63 field goals set the NCAA mark for most in a career.

By his senior year, he was so popular on campus that bumper stickers were manufactured that read, "Obed Ariri for the Heisman Trophy."

"We knew kickers couldn't win, but there was just a good feeling about him," says Clemson alumnus Luther Reynolds, now a Maryland police officer.

"We called him the Automatic African," says former Buc linebacker Jeff Davis, a linchpin of the mid '80s defense and an ex-Clemson star. "You just knew he was always going to come through."

As a historic footnote, Ariri also set the record for longest field goal in the Gator Bowl in 1978. But nobody remembers the 47-yard kick in Clemson's 17-15 win over Ohio State. That's because the game was made infamous by the legendary Woody Hayes, who slugged Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman as he raced by the coach with a game-sealing interception and was fired the next morning.

But Ariri did one other thing at Clemson that would, eventually, alter the course of his life. He encouraged a young Nigerian soccer player, who had idolized him back in Africa, to attend Clemson. He inspired the youngster to learn how to kick a football. He looked after him like an older brother. And after graduating, he even pleaded with Ford to give the kid a chance to kick for the Tigers.

The young player's name was Donald Igwebuike. Neither could know how their paths would fatefully intersect one day in Tampa.* * *

Ariri lobbied to play soccer and was allowed to compete in the national championships at Tampa Stadium in 1979. His effort drew an offer from the Chicago Sting of the North American Soccer League.

Football, though, was his ticket. He was a seventh-round draft pick of the lowly Baltimore Colts in 1981. But after beating a field of nine kickers in training camp, Ariri was cut days before the season by coach Mike McCormack, who signed a free agent.

Ariri was heartbroken but soon signed with the Washington Federals of the new United States Football League. Meanwhile, in Tampa, coach John McKay was fuming about placekicker Bill Capece (ka-PIECE), uttering one of his famous lines at the end of the '83 season, "Capece is kaput!"

Ariri was brought in to compete against Capece in the '84 preseason and was waived before the final cuts. But he remembers how defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes raced after him in the parking lot at One Buc Place.

"He told me I was a great kicker and that I'd be back," Ariri says.

In fact, when Capece flopped in the final preseason game, Ariri was back in time for the season opener. He became one of the few bright spots in a torturous season that would be McKay's last.

He made 19 of 26 field goals and 38 of 40 extra points, setting team records for field goals and points (95). He beat Green Bay in overtime with a 48-yard field goal and became the first Buc to kick three 40-yard-plus field goals in a game.

But when owner Hugh Culverhouse replaced McKay with Leeman Bennett in 1985, it all changed for Ariri. Bennett, wanting to rebuild, spent a 10th-round pick on a kicker, Donald Igwebuike.

It was awkward to say the least, pitting the mentor, Ariri, against the player he had nurtured at Clemson. They each played well and competed neck and neck. But at the end of camp, Bennett decided he liked Igwebuike's stronger leg on kickoffs.

Just like that, Ariri was out. He was stunned. While Bennett's Bucs sank to new lows, "Iggy" became a dominant kicker in the NFL for six seasons. His career was clouded by federal charges of heroin smuggling in 1990, and though he was found not guilty, Igwebuike was out of the NFL soon after.

Meanwhile, Ariri was all but gone himself.

* * *

Chances arose, but he couldn't catch a break.

He was invited to Miami to try out, but injured incumbent Fuad Reveiz returned to health. When Detroit kicker Eddie Murray got hurt, Fontes, now coaching the Lions, brought in Ariri to try out. But before there was a deal, Murray would heal.

He came close in Green Bay and New England, but veterans held on to their jobs there, too. Finally, Washington coach Joe Gibbs brought him in as a kicker on the replacement Redskins during the strike of '87. Ariri's kicking helped the replacements go unbeaten in a season Washington beat Denver in the Super Bowl.

But it was the last he would play in the NFL. New Bucs coach Ray Perkins wrote him a letter in 1988 inviting him to try out. Ariri was bitter about the Bucs and deflated. He never responded.

He thought about trying to latch on as a soccer coach. But he needed to make money fast to support his family: Lovender, a Nigerian woman he married while in the USFL, and their four young sons.

So he took the only work he could get and started driving a cab, first for Yellow, then for United. He drove endlessly, making good money if he hustled.

Once or twice, customers have recognized him. But he wonders what judgments people might make if they knew who he was, so he has stayed low-profile while logging up to 80 hours a week. Not surprisingly for a nonstop driver, he has had some speeding and moving violations. But last year, he received a special commendation from Hillsborough County.

The mother of a young man who was injured training as a gymnast, becoming a paraplegic, wrote a letter singling out Ariri: Her son relies on cabs, and Ariri, she said, always went out of his way to greet him with a smile and treat him like a friend.

"Obed is an awesome guy," says Nancy Castellano, general manager of United Cab. "Driving a cab is a very tough job, but you can always count on him."

That doesn't surprise Fontes, now living in Tarpon Springs, when informed of Ariri's occupation.

"Obed was just a class guy," he says. "He was a pleasure to be around, and he was so excited to be a part of the Buccaneers. John McKay and I both liked him very much, and he was great for the team."

* * *

Every morning, Ariri and Lovender awake early in their three-bedroom Land O'Lakes home and sing hymns from their Baptist upbringing.

Their sons - Marvin, 20, Austin, 18, Grant, 16, and Obinna, 11 - roll out of bed to join in.

"My kids are very good, very disciplined. I think I'm blessed for that, says Ariri, who carries about 25 more pounds on his 5-foot-8, 170-pound frame from his Buc days. His head is shaved now, but his eyes and smile still have the old twinkle.

Ariri's sons had never seen a photo of their father playing football until 1998, when he took them to Clemson for his induction into the Clemson Hall of Fame.

"They were so excited to see that," he says.

He roots for the Bucs again, is still friends with Igwebuike and dreams that another door might open for him. Maybe he could start a business or coach soccer. Life is not easy, but he keeps driving.

"I will work for every dime, and as long as I support my family, that's all that matters," he says.

Ariri pulls up to the home of the white-haired woman and carries all the bags into her open garage. He worries that she seems unsteady and wishes he could carry the bags inside, but regulations forbid it.

He waves goodbye as he backs onto the street. Moments later, he's on the crowded highway, making the nightly drive home where his family awaits.

BLACK PLACEKICKERS IN THE NFL

GENE MINGO: Denver (1960-64), Oakland (1965), Miami (1966-67), Washington (1967), Pittsburgh (1969-70).

COOKIE GILCHRIST: Buffalo (1962-64), Denver (1965), Miami (1966), Denver (1967).

HERB TRAVENIO: San Diego (1964-65).

OBED ARIRI: Tampa Bay (1984), Washington (1987).

DONALD IGWEBUIKE: Tampa Bay (1985-89), Minnesota (1990).

CEDRIC OGLESBY: Arizona (2001).

- Source, NFL