Crunchyroll All-Stars speaks with Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Tackle Larry Ogunjobi!
Anime fans come from all walks of life and in all shapes and sizes. Some are students, some are scientists, some are doctors, some are artists, and some are even well-known athletes! Crunchyroll All-Stars is a series of interviews highlighting elite professionals who harbor a passion both for their art and for anime.
Today’s profile is on Larry Ogunjobi, a defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals. Growing up during the Toonami era, Ogunjobi would go on to take his passion for anime all the way from Anime Expo in Los Angeles to even conventions in Japan. We spoke with Ogunjobi about how Naruto’s lessons have helped him his entire life, why so many athletes relate to anime characters, and more!
When did you become an anime fan? Was there a specific moment that affected you or changed the way you felt about something?
It started when I was younger when I was in 5th grade or so in elementary school. I used to always play video games and the first game I ever got was Zelda. After gaming a little bit I’d go to school and talk about the games. Then I remember on Cartoon Network there was Toonami at 9 pm, and then on Saturdays, you’d get all the good anime — Dragon Ball Z, Trigun, Wolf’s Rain, Case Closed, Inuyasha, Yu Yu Hakusho — those were my introductions to anime. I always enjoyed it.
Then came Naruto...I feel like I grew up with Naruto! Watching him as a kid and growing up to get married in the last episode of the last season of Shippuden.
I also remember getting a Dragon Ball Z video game for Playstation. I saved up to buy a PS2 and got really into that game.
Anime always told a story. You got your main character and sometimes he’s maybe a knucklehead kid or has some problems. There’s always that origin story that grabs you and you figure out more of what the show’s going to be about. For me, it was always about the character development -- you have a character and things don’t go their way...do they quit or do they push through it? I always took those kinds of life lessons and nuggets that anime have in them, and my appreciation just grew and grew into a real love for anime. Now it’s just a part of what I do.
Are there any ways you engage with your favorite anime series or characters aside from watching them?
I ended up visiting Japan. It was really cool going to see a convention out there. The excitement the people there had for anime was amazing. It was like their Super Bowl!
When I was young, people would knock anime sometimes so it was awesome to see people enjoying themselves, being happy, getting all dressed up. I remember seeing this reenactment of the Naruto fight with Pain. These were just people walking by each other and they really did it! It was just very cool to experience.
Have you ever bonded with someone else over anime?
One of my mentors in the NFL is Geno Atkins (Defensive Tackle on the Bengals), and I was with him in LA and there was an Anime Expo out there at that time. So I was talking to Geno about anime and he started rattling off a list and I could tell he was for real so I told him about the Anime Expo and we decided to head over to the convention.
Overall, I’m slowly starting to see more people, more pro athletes show their fandom. We’re able to put ourselves in the same shoes as some of these characters. There have been times in a game where I have put myself in the mindset of a main character from one of my favorite anime. When you find someone who watches anime too, who does that same kind of thing, who’s balling, it creates that bond.
What’s your favorite anime series of all time?
Naruto. I know it’s a mainstream anime and an introductory anime for a lot of people but I REALLY watched it, with subtitles, and I’d wait week after week to watch it. From elementary school into middle school and then going all the way through it to college till it finished. And I felt like “Damn, this is really over?...” I had really invested in it and it really followed the development of my life. I was an overweight kid (obese), a troubled kid. I really started football because my mom took away my Xbox, and then after that, I went through my first real season of football. I remember we had an awards banquet after that year, and when the award for most improved JV player came up, they called my name. I thought my best friend at the time was going to get it but I got it...and it really got me feeling like I earned it and my hard work paid off.
I was biking and running at the YMCA every day and went from 350 lbs. To 247 lbs., bulked back up to 267 lbs., and ended up getting five scholarship offers. Ended up going to Charlotte for college. Now I’m in college and with Naruto, the anime is going on throughout all of this for me (probably like the Pain arc or somewhere around that). It felt like we were going through our trials and tribulations together; it was actually really cool. Now I’m working hard, I’m grinding in college, and the only thing I could compare my process to was these storylines in anime — I knew I was special and that I was the main character of my story — and I ended up being the first player ever drafted to the NFL out of my college.
Then as I'm finishing college, Naruto finished...it was just so cool and such a special experience. I have a lot of favorites but that has to be #1.
Who’s your favorite anime character of all time?
Have to stick with Naruto for all the reasons mentioned above. He’s so relatable to me. He was different from everybody. I remember my grandpa telling me I was special and that I was different. At the time, I was an obese kid...I didn’t know what he was talking about. But I just knew that me being different and working hard would pay off. God always finds a way to make things work out for you. Are there going to be trials? Yes. Are there going to be tragedies? Yes. But the triumphs are going to outweigh everything.
Who would you rank as the top anime hero ever?
One of the best characters I’ve seen develop into a hero is Ken Kaneki from Tokyo Ghoul. I’m big on mental health, and you see all the phases he went through. He has to deal with that headache of being on two different sides of the world. He was a human just a little while ago, and now he has to survive on eating flesh...it was a crazy segue. Being a ghoul, soft-spoken...he really develops into this boss!
There’s so many anime though: Naruto, Goku...his demeanor is fire. He always wants to get better. He’s very relatable. Whenever there’s a super-strong opponent, Goku’s always ready to try them out and give it a go. Even if the person he fights is stronger than him before the fight, Goku evolves during the fight to become better than his opponent. Facing and going through obstacles you become better on the other side. Like the Goku who fought Nappa and Raditz isn’t the same Goku who fought Jiren. He always elevated his game to meet who he was fighting.
Who would you rank as the top anime villain ever?
Dio from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. MAN!..I’ve never seen a villain so dedicated to messing with a family! He REALLY had it out for the Joestars. It was a generational show: you had the first Joseph and Jotaro, and Dio still found a way to be that ultra villain who stays in the mix. There’s not a lot of villains who have been able to stay so relevant. Dio was kicking ass for a minute before he got beat up. I enjoyed him as a villain for sure.
Have you ever taken any elements or learnings from anime and implemented them into your daily life?
Yes, with Naruto his motto was never going back on his word and never giving up. In life, you’re always going to go through ups and downs but Naruto always found a way. He also had a great support system, which is really important. You need to have the right people around you. And with rivalries, I’d apply the ways Naruto and Sasuke or Goku and Vegeta approached rivalries. Having someone next to you that you look to as a brother, but who pushes you to new heights and great places.
It feels like more and more athletes are showcasing their love for anime — what’s anime fandom like in NFL culture? And what do you think it is about anime that attracts athletes?
Anime is definitely becoming more and more prevalent. A lot of guys will gravitate towards each other with gaming and things like Call of Duty and Fortnite. I’m a D-Lineman and I feel like there’s so many D-Linemen around the league who are fans of anime. You see anime characters go through intense training and we do everything we can to be great at what we do, to improve our technique, and it’s very relatable for guys.
It also helps us decompress. We have a hard job. We’re in the offseason right now. You get up, you grind, and you work. Sometimes it's just fun to watch someone else's story.
Like I said, I’ve always felt like I’m the main character of my story, and when you believe that you start to move in a different way and start to workout that way. The concept is so relatable to real life. And in general, guys just like it too.
Social media has also made anime way more known. Before people didn’t talk about it much and now guys in the league are posting about it and you learn all these guys like it. Then you start talking about anime with them, now we’re sending each other anime to watch, like “Yo this one is about to come on, you got to check it out”. A whole bunch of guys on my team like it, and you start giving people anime to watch and they come back to you like, “This is fire!”
Also, I’m big into anime but I didn’t realize how big anime was till I saw my baby sister and how into it she is. She draws the characters. Man, she’s caught up on One Piece!
What would your message be to someone who recently discovered anime and was thinking about getting into it?
My message would be to figure out what you personally like. Anime has a little of everything: sci-fi, action, sports anime. Find one that’s similar to something you already enjoy watching and then go from there.
I remember watching the first half of the first episode of Attack on Titan and I wasn’t feeling it right away, and I remember being in college and working out and visiting the Student Union and I remember falling asleep after working out, and right next to me was where people were hanging out and watching anime. Then I woke up to hearing people cheering. I had seen some of the first episode but they were watching the 2nd episode and Eren had just gotten eaten by the Titan, and I was talking junk like, “How can the main character get killed like that?!”...Then the next scene he turned into a Titan and I was like, “Oh man this is HARD!”
You have to give each anime a chance. Most anime develop really well throughout. I remember with God of High School I started it and was like “ehh, it’s alright”, but I ended up watching the rest of the season and was like “Wow, this is really nicely done!”
Also, be open to watching subbed and dubbed anime. Give yourself an opportunity to like it.