NEW ORLEANS — When Josephine Onor-Okoronkwo immigrated to the United States from Nigeria 33 years ago, she might never have imagined she would have a son like Gabriel Onor Jr.
She might never have dreamed her child would become a high-school football star with a 4.3 grade-point average and an acceptance letter to Harvard.
But that’s what her son, Gabriel, has accomplished as a student at Ben Franklin High School, and Tuesday afternoon at the Superdome, Gabriel became one of four local student-athletes — he was joined by Brody Taylor of De La Salle, Austin Poché of East Jefferson and Jordan Showalter of Holy Cross — to receive a $10,000 college scholarship from the Allstate Sugar Bowl Chapter of the National Football Foundation at the organization’s annual luncheon recognizing 34 area high school players for their achievements on and off the field.
“I’m just so excited,” Onor-Okoronkwo said. “I thank God. I just feel blessed.”
Onor-Okoronkwo beamed with pride as her son joined his 33 other honorees in a photo lineup following the luncheon. With cameras snapping
and lights flooding the boys’ faces, she wasn’t the only parent who got emotional as they looked on.
And Gabriel Onor was equally proud of his family for the way they nurtured him as he grew into the Harvard-bound student-athlete he is today.
“I feel like my parents and my siblings molded me into the man I wanted to be,” Gabriel said.
Also lauded by students, parents, NFF and Sugar Bowl officials were all the football coaches in the room, most importantly Louisiana coaching legend J.T. Curtis, who received the NFF chapter’s Contribution to Amateur Football Award. As he enters his 45th year of coaching at John Curtis Christian School, Curtis has amassed more than 500 victories, 25 state championships, 17 straight state title game appearances and, this last season, the consensus national high school crown.
Curtis praised not only his coaching staff and players but also the 34 student-athletes being feted and their parents and families. He said the guidance, discipline and inspiration offered by football and everyone associated with it spur the kind of achievements gained bythe young honorees.
“It’s what develops the character of these young men and young men like them,” Curtis said. “This award isn’t really about J.T. Curtis. It’s about a whole community we call football.
“I hope we never lose sight of our goals, because that will make these guys the leaders of our country and the leaders of our community.”
The afternoon’s other award recipient was Distinguished American honoree Elliott Hill, the president of Nike North America, who spearheaded the joint effort between Nike, the city of New Orleans and several area nonprofits to rebuild Joe W. Brown Memorial Park in east New Orleans. The facility was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flooding.
Hill, who was introduced by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, heaped praise on the 34 young men, who he said embody the type of giving spirit that spurred the revitalization of Brown Park.
“All of you guys standing up here have already achieved great things,” Hill said. “The challenge now is to find something you like to do, then do it with passion and commitment. If you do that, you will have a great life. Once you figure what you want to do, become committed to others and committed to changing people’s lives.”
Gabriel Onor took that lesson to heart long ago, and one he plans to embrace as he heads to Harvard and beyond.
“It’s a great honor,” Onor said of the scholarship. “I look forward to the experiences I’m going to have, and I’m excited about the opportunities I might have in life.”