Monday, September 21, 2009

Alumni Report: Ex-Gilman standout Opara makes mark as NFL scout

By Katherine Dunn

September 18, 2009

When Gilman graduate Chisom Opara emerged as a standout wide receiver at Princeton, he started thinking about a career in professional football. Now, he has an NFL career - although it's not exactly the one he envisioned.

Opara, an All-Metro and All-State receiver at Gilman in 1998, tried to make the Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2003. His dream of playing for his hometown team ended when he was waived in the final round of cuts. Shortly after that, however, he was picked up by the Ravens' front office.

Now, Opara, 26, is a college area scout for the Cleveland Browns.

"It is an incredible way to stay in the game," he said. "When the weekends come around now, you have some of the same feelings when the game starts and watching the game. It's probably the next best thing" to playing.

Opara never thought about playing in the NFL when he was young. He didn't even think about it at Gilman.

Opara started playing in seventh grade, and as a Gilman senior he scored 18 touchdowns, rushed for 664 yards and caught 54 passes for 942 yards. That brought scholarship offers from Virginia, Duke and Stanford, but Opara opted for Princeton.

As his Tigers career progressed and he began moving up the school's career receiving charts, he started thinking a little further ahead.

"Once you get to your sophomore or junior year, you see these other guys who you've lined up with ... getting chances to play in the NFL," said Opara, who finished his Princeton career second all time in receiving yards and third in receptions. "Dennis Norman, who was actually my host when I went to visit there, he made the NFL. Obviously as a young kid, to you that's the coolest thing ever, but when you start to see other people do it who come from the Ivy League, it starts to become a lot more real."

He was disappointed not to make the Ravens' practice squad in 2003, but the end of one career possibility opened the door to another. He spent 10 months as a Ravens player personnel assistant and then was hired by the Browns.

Opara lives in Atlanta and travels all over the Southeast scouting college teams for the best players.

"Basically, I evaluate players from both sides as far as what they can do on the field and who they are off the field, their background, work ethic, how they do in school, their character. The other half is watching the film and going to the games and evaluating what you think the player can do at the NFL level," he said.

During the season, he spends much of the week on the road, traveling through one area of the Southeast at a time, looking at players from big schools and small schools.

"It's tough at times, and it can be a grind being on the road and away from home for so many days at a time, but a lot of times I'm walking away from practice at the end of the day thinking about how much I really love what I'm doing. It's one of those jobs that feels natural for me to do - watch players and get this information and write reports. I love what I do, and I really couldn't imagine doing anything else at this point."

Once in a while, Opara gets home to Baltimore during the fall. Last weekend, he made a stopover to watch the Greyhounds play DeMatha.

When he's here, of course, he's subject to some serious ribbing about working for the enemy - one of the Ravens' rivals in the AFC North.

Opara, who acknowledges that he has gone over to "the other side," laughs when he thinks about it.

"One of my teammates from high school, Henry Russell, who coaches at Gilman now, he took me to my first Ravens game, Ravens versus the Steelers. We sat up probably three or four rows from the top fence, and for every single home game that I was around, he was around. He kept inviting me to go. Huge Ravens fans. He constantly is reminding me about that. 'How could you do this? I wasted all these tickets on you,' and stuff like that. People do give me a hard time, but I think it's all in good fun."

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