From There To HereBy Todd Burlage
For Notre Dame junior linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath, the lessons of playing proper football didn’t come from a particular Pee Wee or Pop Warner youth coach, not hardly, they instead came from movies and YouTube.
After all, his hometown of Stockholm, Sweden, may be known for great soccer and hockey, but it’s not exactly a pipeline for top U.S. college football talent.
Undeterred by his location and driven by a passion for football shared with, and absorbed from, his stepfather, Krister Genmark, Genmark Heath took it upon himself to learn football’s finer points.
“Most of my football lessons came from YouTube, I love YouTube,” said Genmark Heath, who watched and then mirrored the basics of backpedaling as a defensive back, or properly carrying a football as a running back, or the preferred throwing grip as a quarterback, or perfecting routes as a wide receiver. “It’s all I ever watched, just always wanting to get better.”
While back in Sweden, Genmark Heath and his stepfather became so enamored with American football — and to someday relocating to beautiful San Diego — they would go to bed at about 6 p.m. on Saturday evenings so they could wake up at 2 a.m. early Sunday mornings and watch San Diego Chargers games together.
“Actually, it was to watch the Chargers lose together back then,” Genmark Heath joked.
American football was played in Sweden, mainly at the youth level, but Genmark Heath explained that once he turned about 10 years old, the game had become so boring and uncompetitive he almost quit.
“I felt like I knew more than the coaches did,” he said. “Very unsatisfying.”
Everything changed when Krister Genmark secured a green card in an immigration lottery that allowed relocation for his family to the United States. Blend that opportunity with a father-son love of football, along with a family desire to move to the States, and an American Dream became a reality before Jordan’s freshman high school year.
“We decided to pack up our things and just move to San Diego,” Genmark Heath recalled, matter-of-factly.
The relocation plan sounded good in theory but … “When you move across the world, you don’t really know what to expect,” Genmark Heath added. “It was kind of a shock at first, but we still felt like we belonged right away.”
Genmark Heath was a versatile athlete and an early bloomer. As a high school freshman he was already 6 feet tall and 185 pounds.
After a transitional first year in high school, Heath transferred to Cathedral Catholic in San Diego as a sophomore where he was immediately recruited by Power 5 conference schools as a defensive back, quarterback, running back and wide receiver — wherever he would be needed.
He eventually settled on Notre Dame because of the quick relationship he built with then-Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko, along with everything else attached to the scholarship offer.
“From the academics, to the athletics, to the national exposure, whatever you need, it’s here,” Genmark Heath said. “So Notre Dame was kind of an obvious choice.”
And now this reliable two-time Irish monogram winner has parlayed a unique football journey from 4,200 miles away — along with his extensive Internet tutorials — into a reliable role on the Irish defense and special teams.
“Yep,” Genmark Heath said, “YouTube was my coach.”
A Long Way From ‘Home’
Adetokunbo Ogundeji wasn’t born in Nigeria, the African country where his parents grew up and eventually met and married.
But Ogundeji (pronounced OH-gun-day-gee) did get a real-life and impacting look into his heritage as a sixth-grader while spending several months there on a family visit.
In about 2007, the current Notre Dame senior defensive lineman traveled back “home” for his grandmother’s birthday and kind of a family reunion. Ogundeji’s mother is one of eight children and his father is one of six, so what a reunion this was.
“I have tons of cousins,” Ogundeji said with a laugh. “Still to this day, anytime it’s Christmas or anything, we get a bunch of phone calls from all of our family. We try to stay close even though we are so far away. It’s important to us.”
Memories of the unbreakable family bond that Ogundeji witnessed first-hand on his trip 12 years ago still stick with him.
Referencing his family’s humble roots, Ogundeji told a story of how one uncle shared a small apartment with about 10 relatives, happily and comfortably.
“It showed me what it means to be a family and what it means to have togetherness,” said Ogundeji, celebrating the sacrifices his extended family members gladly make living in tight quarters. “I learned a lot there. And when I got back here, it showed me all the hard work it takes to move here and chase your dreams.”
Looking to make a better life and escape the tough living conditions in Nigeria, Ogundeji’s parents took a chance and moved to the United States shortly before Adetokunbo — the middle of three sons — was born.
They settled in Michigan outside of Detroit where Ogundeji’s father worked as a physical therapist.
“He was the first from our family to move to America,” Ogundeji said.
Staying true to his culture, the younger Ogundeji dutifully dabbled in youth soccer as a grade-schooler, but quickly lost interest.
“I was reckless,” he joked. “I got a lot of red cards.”
Football, obviously a better fit, didn’t come along until about the eighth grade when Ogundeji started playing it with friends.
“We’re from Nigeria,” he said. “They really weren’t into football there so when I actually started picking it up, it was a pleasant surprise to my family.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Ogundeji steadily improved as a player during his four years at Walled Lake Central High School in West Bloomfield, Michigan. He eventually accepted a scholarship offer to play at Western Michigan under then-head coach P.J. Fleck before a later offer from Notre Dame caused him to flip his commitment.
“It was impossible to say no to a school like Notre Dame,” Ogundeji said.
From there, this project player has turned himself into a peak performer along the Irish defensive line, and perhaps even someday a legitimate NFL prospect.
Ogundeji will have a fifth year of eligibility remaining in 2020 if he chooses to take it, in no small part because of the heritage of his family and the sacrifices made to resettle here.
“People ask me all the time who my role model is, it is definitely my mom and dad,” Ogundeji said. “They had to take a chance and come here to a big unknown country and try to start a family, I can’t thank them enough.”
Even up to his junior year of high school, Irish senior Chase Claypool never had any intention of arriving where he is today.
As the best wide receiver on the Notre Dame roster, Claypool remained anonymous as a late arrival to the game of football at Abbotsford High School in British Columbia, Canada — a school about three hours north of Seattle that isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of recruiting talent for big-time college football programs.
Because of his standout size, length and athleticism, Claypool enjoyed many interests and options. Claypool could’ve played Division I college basketball, he was a gifted BMX bike rider — until he outgrew his bike — and as a baseball prodigy, Claypool brags that an exception was made to let him play Little League as a four-year-old.
“But I really didn’t have a passion for that sport,” Claypool said of his first athletic endeavor, which was spent mainly building sandcastles on the infield.
After dominating his elementary school classmates during recess as an 8-year-old, Claypool became hooked on football and asked his mother to join an organized league.
“I’ve been playing ever since,” Claypool said.
Still mainly a hobby, football became a serious endeavor for Claypool as a high school junior when it was suggested he might have a bright future in the sport.
“After that, I started getting looks from colleges,” he said. “Before then, I wasn’t even thinking about going to the next level because I didn’t think it was a possibility.”
But now what?
When college football fans think about recruiting, the talent-rich states of Florida, Texas and California typically come to mind — not British Columbia.
Claypool was approached by an acquaintance — eventually his trainer — who started lobbying college coaches on his understudy’s behalf. The far-reaching power of social media also snowballed Claypool’s recruiting attention.
Scholarship offers from Nevada, San Diego State, Utah, Rice and Oregon followed, which is when Notre Dame entered the mix and eventually won the services of a three-star high recruit turned legitimate first-round 2020 NFL Draft pick.
“Once I got my first offer,” Claypool said, “I was kind of on the radar.”
Claypool — now an elusive 6-4, 229-pound matchup nightmare for defensive backs — called it a “no brainer” committing to Notre Dame, and has since turned himself into one of the best receivers in the country.
But home remains where the heart is.
“Anything I can do here (at Notre Dame) that might help the kids from Canada that are trying to make it, I’d love to help,” he said. “I think there are a lot of players that could’ve went Division I and didn’t get the opportunity.”