CHAMPAIGN — To judge Oluwole Betiku Jr. on his looks and football acumen alone is to miss the point.
Yes, he's a 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive lineman whose muscles have muscles. He's a former five-star recruit who went to USC, where this on field production never got to the level he desired before enrolling at Illinois as a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility left.
Betiku also plays both the piano and guitar, is an avid painter and is a thorough self-evaluator who moved to the United States from Nigeria in November of 2013 when he was 16 years old, leaving his parents and family behind.
The profile pictures on his social media pages aren't of him on a football field, but rather pictures of his paintings. His interests in music and art were born as coping mechanisms when he needed to escape from being an athlete and go to his studio apartment at USC to learn more about himself. He is a football player, one who is seeking a fresh start with the Illini on the defensive line, but it doesn't define him.
"I feel like there’s more to offer than just being an athlete," Betiku said. "I don’t want people following me on social media and thinking, ‘This is another big athlete from Nigeria,’ or something.
"I mean, I get that everywhere I go like, ‘Oh, you play football,’ because I have dreadlocks and I’m a big African dude. Especially on social media, I don’t want anybody following me thinking: Oh, he’s just an athlete."
Growing up, Betiku wrote a lot of comic books, but that phase slowed down as he got older. His artistic expression came in the form of doodling. Bored in a meeting? Doodle. Bored in class? Grab the pen and draw. People who knew him encouraged him to continue, but he was reluctant. He'd go to art galleries or museums and tell himself he could do something similar. Eventually, he did.
After the first semester of his freshman year, when he roomed with new Illinois grad transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe, he moved to a studio apartment and found the path into his deeper interests. He started painting, but couldn't get into a proper flow with rap music playing in the background. That's when he discovered blues music, then the painting came naturally. He also fell in love with the sound of the guitar, purchased one and taught himself to play through lessons on YouTube. His father, though, told him to try the piano — it's the master instrument, he said. So Betiku did that, too.
His passion for music and arts have spread to teammates, but he doesn't play to entertain. He plays for reprieve from everyday life.
“There can be a lot of pressure, just being an athlete and waking up every day doing the same thing every day," Betiku said. "Then things don’t work out the way you expect them to be. A lot of times in life you want to design and control your destiny, but as you get older you find out you’ve just got to go with the waves of life and swim as hard as you can."
That studio apartment in California was the first time Betiku ever had a room to himself. Growing up in Nigeria, he split a room with his brother and always seemed to share a room after he moved to the United States. He said he didn't communicate like other kids in America. He was quiet and hard to read. He needed to learn more about himself and his own interests, but never found the time.
In Nigeria, he had to worry about water and electricity. There was no time to teach himself musical lessons or paint.
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“When you’re in the U.S. you don’t really have to worry about going to get water or like the light going off or stuff like that," Betiku said. "You can do all the leisure activities. The way I grew up in Nigeria, you worried about food and so many other things that you can’t really think of doing anything artistic or involving yourself in any other things.
“I felt like getting to college and getting to that first safe haven was like, ‘OK, now I can settle down and focus on all the things so I don’t feel like I’m stagnating.’"
Betiku and Imatorbhebhe have known each other since high school when they were narrowing their college choices down before ultimately choosing USC. Their mothers are from the same tribe in Nigeria, and a bond has grown between the two football players.
They roomed together for that semester at USC and have become tremendously close friends. By the time they met, Imatorbhebhe recalls Betiku already being mature and a model for how to grow up. As they got closer, Imatorbhebhe learned of Betiku's depth and independence.
“People just see him like, ‘Oh, he’s this big guy from Nigeria,’ but he is one of the most intelligent, one of the most talented people that I know," Imatorbhebhe said. "The dude makes music, the dude paints, he’s a very, very eloquent communicator and one of my best friends on the team."
Illinois is a fresh start for Betiku. He's learning the system and has played well in the first week of training camp as he adapts to a new defensive system. He played in 14 games at USC with two tackles and redshirted last year after recovering from offseason hip surgery. He's got a chance to make an impact immediately.
“I want to show a lot about my style of play, my toughness, my pursuit and the kind of player I am," Betiku said. "I practice hard and do that in practice all the time, I’ve just never had a chance to show it in games. No one really knew the kind of player I was. I’m just glad to get the opportunity to show the kind of player I am and the kind of player I can be on the big stage."
It's hard to miss Betiku's physical presence, even if it's not his defining trait. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith jokes that Betiku would be the first imposing presence off the bus at opposing stadiums. But Smith knows there's more to Betiku, and he's already building connections with his teammates beyond football.
"He’s a deep guy," Smith said. "He’s been in a program before, he knows what it’s like to be a good teammate. He came here for a reason. He had options and he chose to come here. He’s blending in quickly."
None of Betiku's other interests preclude him from caring about what happens on the field. He practices hard and dedicates more than enough time to football. He wants to be a part of a personal football resurgence and a key cog in the program's resurgence.
“I hate when I talk to my friends in LA and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re about to go lose.’ I’m not a loser," Betiku said. "I didn’t come here to lose. I came here to win. Every day I wake up and go work. I practice like I want to win."