UNIVERSITY PARK — He didn’t notice it right away, but eventually Stephen Obeng-Agyapong realized something wasn’t right.
A collision with a Navy player in Week 3 last season had left the Penn State safety sore with increasing pain and discomfort in his shoulder. With each day, Obeng-Agyapong’s shoulder was getting tighter and tighter. He was losing full range of motion in his right arm.
It never got to the point where Obeng-Agyapong gave in to the pain. Instead, he’d take the time necessary before games and practices to get it fully taped, with an Ace bandage wound halfway down his right bicep. He didn’t allow it to slow him up. His instinct to throw his body like a torpedo at opposing players was rarely diminished, even though the pain never dulled and had the potential to spike during collisions.
“It was definitely tough going out there every week trying to get by and trying to keep hitting, but I just kept my eye on the prize and it didn’t hinder me that much,” Obeng-Agyapong said. “Every play I was just going hard. I didn’t even care about my shoulder. I just kept going.”
Instead, Obeng-Agyapong — who found out at the end of the season he had played nine games with a torn labrum — finished with 41 tackles and was the fourth-leading tackler among defensive backs. He also extended his iron-man streak to 38-straight games played, a streak he will extend to 43 Saturday when Penn State takes on Indiana at Memorial Field in Bloomington.
But the fifth-year senior will do so under different circumstances.
Now, he’s fully healthy — and he’s not playing safety anymore. Instead, Obeng-Agyapong will lineup at linebacker, where he’ll look to give the Nittany Lions an edge in pass coverage against Indiana’s fast-paced aerial attack. A true hybrid player who has been asked to play many roles in his collegiate career, Obeng-Agyapong has learned to be adaptable and, most importantly, to do whatever is asked of him to make a difference.
He picked that up at a young age and it didn’t take a move to Happy Valley and a switch of positions for him to do so. All he had to do was look to his father.
With its red end zones located in the Marble Hill section of the Bronx, John F. Kennedy High’s football stadium sits at the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers.
This is where Stephen Obeng-Agyapong honed his craft as a younger player. In another life, perhaps he wouldn’t have had the chance to play football at all.
Stephen Obeng-Agyapong Sr. and his wife, Glorida, met in Ghana and decided they’d relocate thousands of miles across the Atlantic to New York in the 80’s. As a result, Stephen, along with his younger brothers David and Jeremiah and older sister Esther, became the first generation of Obeng-Agyapongs to be born in the United States.
Although both of their parents remained in Ghana, Stephen Sr. and Glorida decided they wanted their children to have better opportunities than what Ghana could’ve provided.
“That was absolutely it because there are so many resources here,” Stephen Sr. said. “Back in Ghana, you can have the talent back there but resources are hard to get.”
In Ghana, Stephen Sr. was a furniture designer. When he relocated to the Bronx — he stayed with his sister who had also emigrated from Africa — and took up two jobs. He worked as a taxi driver and put his wood-working skills to work as a carpenter.
“Once you have somebody here, they help you a lot,” Stephen Sr. said of his sister. “My brother-in-law showed me around and it wasn’t so bad since you know somebody here who can guide you and help you out.”
Stephen Sr. speaks with a heavy accent but his English is almost flawless. He also speaks the tribal language Twi — one of many Akan tribal languanges spoken in Ghana.
He and Glorida speak Twi from time to time and made the language a point of emphasis as their children were growing up. In addition, the Obeng-Agyapongs have tried to make frequent return trips to Ghana. Stephen Jr. has made the flight once before when he was five.
Then, he and his family stayed with his grandparents who live in a nice house, as he remembers, a large abode that would equate to a midsized house in a nice neighborhood in State College, Obeng-Agyapong said. Lately football has kept him busy but Obeng-Agyapong is planning a return trip as soon as his college career is finished.
“I’m trying to go back next year,” he said.
He’ll likely have his dad along as a travel partner.
“It’s very, very important because we are all immigrants in America, so we have to know where your source is from,” Stephen Sr. said. “When you know where your source is from, it makes you so proud. I really instilled this in him, ‘Even though you are born here, but you also have to know where your dad is from.’ That helps make him so proud. Now he knows his heritage.”
Stephen Sr.’s voice raises when asked the meaning of his name.
In Akan, Obeng translated means a person with great wisdom. Agyapong means to succeed beyond normal measures. Obeng-Agyapong laughed when it is pointed out he’s technically a Jr. as he is named after his father.
“He’s the man that I want to be when I get older, because he’s a real hard-working man,” Obeng-Agyapong says. “He has so much respect within my family and within the community.”
When asked why he doesn’t use Jr. on his jersey, Obeng-Agyapong deadpans: “My last name barely fits.”
As he worked to rehab his surgically repaired shoulder — hours of stretching and arm rotations with light weights to strengthen the muscles around it — Obeng-Agyapong could only watch his teammates take part in spring practice.
When training camp opened in August, he hadn’t felt contact with another player since the Wisconsin game ended the 2012 season. And two weeks into camp, he was given a new challenge and a fresh responsibilities. Bill O’Brien and John Butler wanted him to play linebacker.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound safety was hesitant at first as he didn’t think he was big enough. By comparison, Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, Penn State’s other three primary linebackers are 235, 241 and 227 pounds, respectively.
But Obeng-Agyapong kept most of his reservations to himself.
“I felt like to be successful as a linebacker in the Big Ten you have to be bigger and stronger,” Obeng-Agyapong said. “Me, I am strong but I’m not as big as a typical Big Ten linebacker. I felt I would have trouble going against 300-pound linemen that are in the Big Ten. So that was another thing that I kind of dreaded.”
O’Brien said when he first arrived on campus in the winter of 2012, Obeng-Agyapong stood out as a player who could play multiple spots including linebacker. O’Brien’s vision turned out to be accurate, as Obeng-Agyapong returned to the city he got his start in and terrorized the Syracuse offense.
In the season opener at MetLife Stadium, Obeng-Agyapong notched a sack, a forced fumble he also recovered, an interception and finished with eight tackles. His parents were in the stands to watch.
“I was there watching the boy,” Stephen Sr. said. “It was so exciting. Everybody came over, the family and the friends. He’s fun to watch and he’s likeable. On TV, in the New York Daily News we see his picture all over (after the game).”
Now, Obeng-Agyapong — who already has a degree in information, sciences and technology and will earn a second in security risk analysis in the spring — is living up to his namesake.
He’s become a crucial piece of the Penn State defense, where he never thought he would be before this season. His unique blend of strength, speed and coverage skills give his offensive teammates a unique challenge as the prepare each week.
“He gives a pretty good look as a coverage linebacker,” sophomore tight end Jesse James said. “He covers just as good as any linebacker in the country so playing against him really helps a lot."
Some people may need help pronouncing his last name but its translation isn’t lost on Obeng-Agyapong. His dad could’ve easily changed Obeng-Agyapong to something easier to pronounce or adopted an Americanized version like many immigrants do.
But for him, the meaning was too important and his son is reminded where he and his family come from every time he pulls on his jersey.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.