John Legend is the port of call, most days. Or wherever the muse happens to take him, pushing the soul the way an ocean breeze does a sail.
Dare Ogunbowale’s happy place runs 88 keys wide. And like the man himself, it runs hard and fast and might turn on a dime.
“There’ll be times that I’ll just go to the piano,” Wisconsin’s senior tailback said with a grin, “and realize that I’ve been trying to learn a song for a couple hours. You know, it’s just so much fun to me. And I still can’t believe my sister and brother quit. I just don’t get it. I have so much fun doing it, I don’t know why they quit. It’s all right. I usually play for them when I go home.”
A keyboard rests in one corner of the apartment, a stack of economics treatises in another. The truth about Ogunbowale – pronounced oh-goon-buh-WAH-lay – lies in the middle there, somewhere, note for note.
“I think at the University of Wisconsin, especially, we’ve got well-rounded young men who are talented at what they do on the field,” teammate Vince Biegel noted. “But are (also) extremely talented and well-educated young men off the field.”
The narrative would border on the cliché, if it weren’t so totally real. A multi-sport standout at Milwaukee’s Marquette High, Ogunbowale walked on to the Badgers as a defensive back in 2012, spurning opportunities for more playing time at smaller institutions. After building up a portfolio of special-teams and nickel package work, then-coach Gary Andersen, hurting for not-hurting ballcarriers in the early part of the 2014 season, asked if Ogunbowale would like to try his luck at tailback.
His old roommate, Badgers speedster Melvin Gordon, tutored him through film sessions and walked him through the process. The lessons stuck. And when starter Corey Clement’s 2015 season went to hell in a handbasket because of injuries and brain cramps, Dare stuck, too. As a redshirt junior, the 5-foot-11 Milwaukee native topped the Badgers in rushing yards (819), rushing touchdowns (seven) and yards from scrimmage (1,118).
An economics major, Ogunbowale gets it, however you choose to define the latter. He’s the co-president of the athletic department’s “Beyond the Game” program, designed to elucidate student-athletes on a future outside of sports. He spent the past few months interning with Merrill Lynch along with Biegel, the Badgers’ high-motor outside linebacker.
“It’s been very beneficial. It’s something I want to do,” Ogunbowale explained. “So I’ve been making sure I’m learning a lot throughout the whole thing. It’s been fun. Me and Vince get to do some golfing, meet some important people around Wisconsin. And it’s been good for us.
“Vince is a communications major. As far as my major, it’s definitely something that’s on the track for me, to be able to do stuff like that. I’m not sure Vince (has looked) to go into that. But it’s a good learning experience and something that’s good to have on the resume.”
The football side of the resume is on the uptick, too. NFLDraftScout.com lists Ogunbowale as the 13th-best running back prospect in the Class of 2017, with the sort of hands and run-and-catch combo that translates well to the West Coast offensive schemes still prevalent in most NFL playbooks.
And yet, as strong as Ogunbowale came off as a runner last fall, he looked even stronger on July 26, raising the roof — and the discourse — at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon with a keynote address in Chicago that touched on race, brotherhood, and civic responsibility.
“Well, I mean, I didn’t always have football to identify with,” Ogunbowale said. “It just happened to be so recently that I started to make a big impact on the field. So I’ve been president of (Beyond the Game) for a couple years now and I’d like to be viewed as a guy (who) makes sure I stay on top of my grades.”
Hockey assists to Mom and Dad there. Father Gregory, a high school principal, grew up Nigeria. Mother Yolanda played softball at DePaul and teaches at a local elementary school.
“So the grades part of it, at least the academics, that comes from there,” Ogunbowale explained. “They’re not going to let me slip up in that. But I guess they exposed us to a lot of things where (they) were going to give us the chance to stick with whatever we liked and drop whatever we didn’t. And I stuck with more things.”
Which more or less brings us back to the piano thing. A neighbor offered the family lessons, and Ogunbowale took it up at the age of seven, along with his older brother, then 13, and his younger sister, then 4. That younger sister, Arike, the one who bailed, now plays basketball at Notre Dame.
“So we all started playing at the same time,” the Badgers’ tailback said, “but for some reason I’m the only one that stuck with it.”
Which he did through the start of high school, before football and basketball and track ate up more of what was left of the datebook. He’ll still play at City of Praise church in Milwaukee. Or on the road, if the Badgers roll up to a hotel with a baby grand next to the lobby.
In fact, Ogunbowale and former quarterback Joel Stave, another budding pianist, used to take turns entertaining the throng.
“(If) we got to the hotel, they’d see a piano, they’d (yell), ‘Joel, get over here and play.’ And Corey would always come and try to sing and mess it all up. But before that, it (was) always a good time.
“We would alternate. Joel, he would play a little Billy Joel or something, and stuff like that, and I would basically play more contemporary songs.”
All the world’s a stage. And Ogunbowale killed it this past spring at Wisconsin’s annual Buckinghams program — a showcase of student-athletes’ off-field achievements — by performing a dueling piano set with men’s golfer Matt Ross:
“Now football has become No. 1, just because of how important it’s been and much time it takes and the future I could have with it,” Ogunbowale said.
“But like you said, there are a lot of things that I’m interested in. And a lot of things that I like to do that I’m not going to forget about.”
One more ride, one more chance to prove that he can carry a tune. And, if necessary, an offense on his back.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler