Former Perrysburg standout and University of Toledo alumnus, T. J. Fatinikun speaks with Northwest Ohio Regional All Star football players at Perrysburg Junior High School July 12. Fatinikun now plays for the NFL’s Buccaneers. THE BLADE/CAMERON HART
Time after time, T.J. Fatinikun had every reason to give in to an unrelenting barrage of devastating injuries.
Yet through sheer fortitude, Fatinikun overcame the relentless adversity to reach the pinnacle of playing in the NFL. The former University of Toledo defensive end credited his upbringing during his formative years in Perrysburg for developing an unshakable resolve.
“I'm just optimistic,” said the 24-year-old Fatinikun, who is attempting to overcome a knee injury he suffered while playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. “I’m so blessed that I can never feel sorry for myself no matter what happens.”
Fatinikun was born in Nigeria and moved to a tough neighborhood in Philadelphia when he was 9. His family then relocated to Perrysburg when he was 14 and he said his life was changed forever.
“Knowing that there is a bright side to everything … that’s something I noticed right away when I moved to Perrysburg,” he said. “There was a good life out in the world. That gave me a great outlook on everything.”
But even in high school, the 2009 Perrysburg graduate fought through various injuries, including a knee problem before his junior season and a foot injury as a senior. His college career, which included All-Mid-American Conference honors, was then abruptly ended when he was a senior because of an injury.
Yet the 6-foot-2 and 250-pound force went from being undrafted to an NFL walk-on and finally made a pro roster in Tampa in 2014.
Perrysburg coach Matt Kregel, who called Fatinikun a great teammate with an engaging personality, said he knew he was bound to be successful.
“He’s always been a great kid and in the town of Perrysburg I think that is what people really remember about him — his great personality,” Kregel said. “You hardly ever see him in a bad mood.”
The explosive, pass rushing defensive end played in 12 games in the NFL the last two seasons with the Buccaneers. Mostly a special-teams player, Fatinikun had seven career tackles and one half sack. But he tore his ACL and meniscus in week 6 of last season against the Carolina Panthers.
“He’s played through some devastating injuries,” Kregel said.
Fatinikun, who now resides in Florida, was back in northwest Ohio last week to conduct his own youth camp and speak to recently graduated high school players at Perrysburg.
“The blessing of Perrysburg was that it gave me structure,” he said. “I was raised right [in Philadelphia] but it didn’t mean anything because of my environment. [The coaches] mean so much to me, more than anything I can explain.”
Kregel said Fatinikun’s work ethic evolved.
“I don’t know how much we got him to do that, it’s more that he matured,” Kregel said.
Kregel’s wife, Jennifer, who is a family and consumer science teacher at the high school, became particularly close to Fatinikun. “He talks to my wife more than me,” Kregel said.
That bond first formed when Fatinikun would join his teammates in Jennifer’s class.
“Home Ec is the class where all the football players would congregate because the food is there,” Matt said. “She took a liking to T.J. I think that gave him some stability.”
Fatinikun said when he was growing up in Nigeria it was not as modernized as it is today.
“In Nigeria I had already seen the chaos,” he said. “Back then it was wild as far as the government.”
But he said going from the underdeveloped West African country to the rough streets of Philadelphia was not an easy transition.
“To come into Philly it was literally like a jungle out there,” he said. “It was harder in a total different way. It was how thick your skin was. Being fresh out of Nigeria, the biggest thing was how to adapt to every situation you are in. If you know how to adapt you know how to get the best out of every situation.”
Fatinikun said he played sports in Philadelphia but he said it would often be intense and even confrontational.
“In Philly, it was nuts,” he said. “I damn near quit football because guys would talk all types of noise and I’d get so angry. I was always ready to fight.”
Fatinikun said he lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his seven-member family.
“I saw all kinds of craziness,” he said. “At one point you doubt that there are better things out there.”
Fortunately his father, Dr. Olatunde Fatinikun, landed a job in northwest Ohio when T.J. was entering the eighth grade. Dr. Fatinikun is a psychiatrist with Comprehensive Behavior Health Systems in Toledo.
“My dad worked and worked and worked. He passed his boards and moved his family,” Fatinikun said. “God was so good to my family and we landed here out of all places.”
Kregel said he did not recall Fatinikun having a bad attitude when he first arrived.
“He never acted out or anything,” Kregel said. “But T.J.'s thing was that he was a good athlete and only relied on that. When T.J. was younger he was more on the easier going side. He did not work to his potential. He was a guy that needed to be pushed.”
When Fatinikun was just a sophomore, he had five sacks in a game against rival Maumee.
“That is when we knew he would be a great football player,” Kregel said. “Early on he had unbelievable ability.”
As a senior, Fatinikun recorded 65 tackles, and nine sacks to earn special mention all-state.
“I already had that grittiness and toughness from my background,” he said. “But if I didn't have that structure and if I hadn't been able to put all that together — who knows what would have happened.”
Kregel, who was an offensive tackle at Bowling Green State University, pulled Fatinikun aside before he left for his first training camp at UT.
“I told him how angry college football is,” Kregel said. “Everybody is ready to tear into you. I told him he had to work on that.”
Kregel said Fatinikun learned to be “nastier and more aggressive” on the field.
“That is when he turned into a football player,” Kregel said. “He then had the desire combined with ability to become an NFL player.”
Fatinikun said he has looked on from afar with pride as Kregel, who has a 83-27 overall record and 55-15 mark in the Northern Lakes League, turned Perrysburg into a powerhouse. The Yellow Jackets, who reached the Division II state semifinals last season, currently have a regular-season winning streak of 27 games.
“It makes me so happy,” Fatinikun said. “We’re all cut from the same cloth. I understand what coach Kregel instilled in us and I know he hasn't changed too much. He's the same guy. It's awesome to see the players benefit from that and guys wanting to play for coach.”
After not being selected in the 2013 NFL draft, Fatinikun was cut after a free agent tryout with Kansas City. He then played in the Arena Football League with teams in Portland and Orlando before signing with Tampa Bay in August of 2014.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “The game. The suiting up. The gear that every kid wishes they had. The pads that fit you so snug. You feel like you can run through a wall. Everything is so professional. It’s a job. You have to attack it. Everyday you have to come with it.”
Kregel said his prodigy’s path to the NFL was improbable.
“Close to impossible,” Kregel said. “I was one of the people who after a year or so when he had not caught on, I told him that he was a smart guy with a degree and that maybe he should start looking at something else.”
But Fatinikun told Kregel he was determined to catch on with an NFL team.
“He turned out to be a lot smarter than me,” Kregel said. “It shows you how hard he works.”
Kregel said he went up to Ford Field in Detroit in December of 2014 to watch Fatinikun play for the Buccaneers against the Lions.
“I was extremely proud,” Kregel said. “It was as close to having a son playing in the NFL as I could get.”
Fatinikun said he is working with highly regarded knee specialist Dr. James Andrews and hopes to make another comeback.
“If someone at this point can pull it off, he can. I’m sold on him,” Kregel said. “But no matter what he does, I know he will be successful because he has the personality and the drive.”
Fatinikun said his faith continues to carry him.
“I’ve got so much in my tank,” he said. “I’ve been able to revamp my body and my mind. I’m feeling really good. I've played a lot of ballgames for an undrafted guy. I played in a lot of key moments for a guy who is off the street as they would say. I have some ammo in my film.
“I know God doesn’t make any mistakes and he doesn’t remove favor. You might go through bumps, but it’s how you respond.”
T. J. Fatinikun with Tampa Bay last season. GETTY IMAGES