Former Perrysburg football standout and University of Toledo alumnus T. J. Fatinikun addresses players on Tuesday who will participate in the Northwest Ohio Regional All Star game. THE BLADE/CAMERON HART
Former University of Toledo star T.J. Fatinikun laid out the principles that paved his path to the NFL to a group of young football players on Tuesday.
Fatinikun, a 2009 Perrysburg High School graduate, spoke to 68 recently graduated high school players who will participate in the Northwest Ohio Regional All-Star Football Game on Friday.
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound defensive end, who has played the past two years with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, told the players to believe in themselves.
“Be A-1 in everything you do,” Fatinikun said.
He said four things have guided him: faith, hustle, respect, and discipline.
“You have to trust in yourself, and that’s where hustle and discipline come into play,” he said.
Fatinikun returned to the field where he blossomed into a Mid-American Conference standout. As a senior at Perrysburg, Fatinikun earned All-Northern Lakes League and all-district first-team honors and was special mention all-state.
He played in 35 games as a defensive end at UT (2009-12), recording 101 tackles and 10½ sacks, while forcing seven fumbles. He garnered third-team All-MAC honors as a junior (2011) and sophomore (2010).
Fatinikun said he wasn’t always the best player on the field.
“I wasn’t the most athletic kid,” he said. “You have to be respectful, you have to hustle. You have to have that hunger.”
Fatinikun said the players should treat their lives like a budding plant.
“It’s like a flower pot, and what you put into it to make that pot to make it flourish,” Fatinikun said. “What kind of man do you want to become? What are your insides made of? You can become a different being. My goal for you is that when someone sees you, they respect you.”
Ray Pohlman, one of the event’s founders and a former coach and athletic director at Perrysburg, coached Fatinikun when he was a fledgling Yellow Jacket.
“T.J. is one of the finest men I’ve known,” said Pohlman, who was Fatinikun’s defensive coordinator. “He’s really just like you and I. For me as a coach and friend, it’s special to see him grow in his faith and life.”
Pohlman said he has been impressed with the way Fatinikun has gotten stronger and improved while overcoming adversity. Fatinikun fought through a knee injury in high school, and a torn Achilles tendon ended his college career during his senior year at UT.
“His heart and desire made the impossible possible for him,” Pohlman said.
After the Achilles injury, Fatinikun went undrafted. He signed with Tampa Bay in 2014, and was promoted from the team’s practice squad in October of that year. As a rookie, he played in the final 10 games, getting eight tackles, including one for loss, and a half-sack on defense, and one tackle on special teams.
Fatinikun said attending NFL training camps is “brutal.”
“It made me realize it came down to who believes in themselves the most,” Fatinikun said.
Pohlman said he went to a game at Ford Field in Detroit and beamed with pride as he watched Fatinikun playing special teams for the Buccaneers against the Lions.
“It was an honor and privilege to see him go down and make the first tackle in that game,” Pohlman said.
“He has made Perrysburg proud.”
Fatinikun played in three games with Tampa last year with three tackles before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game of the season.
Fatinikun said he has been through a lot but said it’s a blessing in disguise.
“I’ve had all types of setbacks. But it’s about how you manage yours,” he said. “It’s the inside that makes the difference. I don’t believe in negativity.”
Fatinikun said the sport has helped him evolve as an individual.
“The game of football shapes you so much,” he said. “Not everybody wants to get up early every morning. Not everyone wants to run more. Not everybody wants to hit somebody. It shapes you mentally.”
Fatinikun admitted to being nervous but addressed the young players without any note cards. He encouraged the players to attend college.
Fatinikun was born in Nigeria the same year the northwest Ohio all star game was founded in 1991. That year, the guest speaker for the inaugural event was Ohio State great Archie Griffin.
The 26th annual game will be played at Steinecker Stadium at Perrysburg Junior High School on Friday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7.
Fatinikun, who moved to Philadelphia when he was 9 and to Perrysburg when he was 14, told the players he prays every night.
“I assess my whole day,” he said. “You can’t lie to yourself.”
He also advised the young players to not follow trends, and to be their own men.
“One day you’ll be a leader of a family. Hustle and be hungry,” Fatinikun said.
“I want the best for all of you. Soak it all in. Be a full-blown sponge.”