Ben Onek took his lumps.
He admits he didn’t take his academic work at Deering High School as seriously as he should have. The gamble to attend a now-defunct sports academy didn’t pay off as he hoped. Now 22, and three years removed from his Mr. Maine Basketball finalist high school hoops career, Onek is flipping the script.
In school. In sports. In life.
“My journey has definitely built my character in a way where, on and off the field, I go 100 percent and never really take anything for granted,” Onek said recently. “My coach right now says, ‘be where your feet are, enjoy the present moment because it doesn’t last long.’ You might as well enjoy it while it’s here before it’s gone, and that’s with a lot of things in life.”
Run a quick Twitter search for Onek, and up until late last month, about all you’d see are his basketball highlights from the late 2010s. But when this tweet came across my timeline, I couldn’t help but reach out: A scholarship offer from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For football.
What happened to Ben Onek? In short, an amateur sports odyssey.
The 6-foot 6-inch lefty known for his soaring dunks and fiery play on the hardwood is now chasing a gridiron dream. He initially intended on playing college hoops, but low grades prevented him from entering an NCAA program directly out of high school. He went prep, but the Virginia school where he ended up overpromised and underdelivered. There were no classes. The school no longer exists.
With little opportunity, and still ineligible for an NCAA school, Onek called yet another, and potentially final, audible. Real-life Last Chance U. Junior college.
“A make it or break it place,” Onek said.
And he chose football, not basketball, at City College of San Francisco.
Onek committed to the school in May 2020, but the pandemic eliminated a fall football season. Fast forward to the fall of 2021, and Onek returned to the football field, compiling 13 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble in six games for the eventual California Community College Athletic Association state champs.
“This guy’s doing a lot to try to accomplish his goals,” City College coach Jimmy Collins said. “It’s pretty impressive what he’s doing. There’s still a long way to go, but he’s on the right trajectory.”
Life at a JUCO, as the two-year schools are known, is not glamorous.
Onek’s first San Francisco apartment was shared with half a dozen teammates. He slept on the living room floor. He works part-time as a security guard to pay for school, food, and rent.
Onek, who immigrated to Maine with his family from South Sudan in 2007, would be the first in his family with a college diploma, an associate’s degree in business and marketing. Interested in sports medicine, he wants to eventually open an athletic training business. During a 20-minute phone conversation, he spoke with conviction about his desire to serve as a positive example and resource for young athletes, all while forging ahead in his own path.
“I’m trying to leave a legacy bigger than me,” Onek said. “I want to be someone to look up to, like, man, (my family) didn’t come all this way to America for nothing. We actually did something with our lives. ”
Sometimes Onek wonders what would have happened had he kept up his grades at Deering.
“You live and you learn, but it sticks with me because maybe my situation would be a little different,” he said. “I was getting recruited by a few Division I schools, but they couldn’t offer me a scholarship. The athletic part will pave the way, but if you don’t have the grades, you obviously can’t play.”
But now he’s made a promise to himself. His grades are up, and he can play. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas football scholarship offer is just the start. Since then, Onek said, “the floodgates have opened” and he intends to take advantage and enjoy every step.
“My journey to America is even a unique story,” Onek said. “One day I woke up wanting to pursue football. I just kind of rolled the dice, gambled on myself, and it’s really worked out.”
Greg Levinsky is a Portland native and follower of local sports. He is an alumnus of Deering High School and Boston University whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and several Maine newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].