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‘You got to pinch yourself’: Calgarians ready for NFL playoff debut – Calgary

The bright lights of the NFL seem far away from Calgary, but for two young football stars, lightning has struck twice.

‘You got to pinch yourself’: Calgarians ready for NFL playoff debut – Calgary

“Sometimes you got to pinch yourself. It doesn’t feel real,” L.A. Chargers rookie defensive back Deane Leonard said. “It’s hard to believe that even though I come in this facility every day… it still doesn’t feel real. It’s like a dream come true for both of us.”

The other half of the ‘us’ is sophomore Chargers linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga.

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The duo doesn’t just come from the same city.

They played together at Notre Dame High School in Calgary, capturing an Alberta championship back in 2014.

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Now, they’re doing the same thing on the biggest stage in football.

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Leonard and Ogbongbemiga have been getting the bulk of their repetitions on the Chargers’ much-improved special teams unit, a key piece of the club’s return to the playoffs after a three-season absence.

Ogbongbemiga knows just how hard it is to get to this point after a heartbreaking rookie campaign.

“Last year, we were short by a field goal in overtime,” Ogbongbemiga recalled. “So many people don’t get to go to the playoffs in their career and to be in the dance is something that you can’t take for granted. I’m happy we got in and I’m happy we’re here, and now it’s just one day at a time.”

This time around, the Chargers didn’t blink in a win-and-you’re-in Week 16 matchup.

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L.A. took care of their end, throttling the Indianapolis Colts 20-3, while losses from the Raiders, Jets and Patriots sealed a Chargers playoff berth.

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By the regular season’s end, Leonard tallied four solo tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 17 games, while Ogbongbemiga racked up six combined tackles.

“It’s kind of business as usual,” Leonard added. “Obviously, there’s more at stake and all that. But at the end of the day, it’s football.

“I don’t want to I don’t get too amped up and say, ‘Oh my God, all the eyes will be on us and everything’. You go out there and it’s going to be one on one — you just got to beat the other guy.”

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Leonard’s cool, quiet demeanor is a trait that goes back to his high school days in northeast Calgary.

But in the halls of Notre Dame, staff and students are buzzing at the prospect of watching the alumnus compete in the wild-card round.

Longtime Notre Dame Pride head coach Dave Diluzio has seen nearly a dozen of his players go pro over the years — including current Stampeders Colton Hunchak and Nick Statz — and is still struck by the sheer athleticism of both players.

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“Amen I actually coached at a practice when he was a Bantam player with the Hilltoppers and I just remember thinking how smooth of an athlete, how fast he was,” Diluzio recalled. “Deane was one of the rare players where he played senior football as a Grade 10 athlete.”

Their esteemed college careers and wildly differing paths to the NFL have since become the stuff of legends to Pride players.

Ogbongbemiga, 24, took his talents to Oklahoma State University, where he was named captain for his final two seasons and named a semifinalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy for defensive player of the year.

Going undrafted in the 2021 NFL draft proved to be nothing more than a stumbling block as he worked his way onto the Chargers as a free agent.

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“Everything’s just crazy in retrospect,” Ogbongbemiga admitted. “Sometimes I think about it and I’m just so blessed, you know?

“You see the most gifted, the most talented people, and it doesn’t work out for them. So I just try to keep my head down and keep working on my situation.”

Leonard’s college exploits have solidified his family’s legacy at McMahon Stadium.

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The 23-year-old son of former Stampeders defensive back Kenton Leonard helped the University of Calgary Dinos to the 2019 Vanier Cup before transferring to the University of Mississippi.

The Chargers selected Leonard in the seventh round, 236th overall, making him the first Dino drafted to the NFL.

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“I had gotten some rumblings about him around the building, like, ‘What do you think of this guy’,” Ogbongbemiga smiled. “I didn’t tell him anything pre-draft. But you know, once I saw his name and once he got drafted, I called him right away.”

Pride players and staff have eagerly watched every snap of their journeys, especially while high school football was shuttered at the height of the pandemic.

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On a Chargers bye week in October, the pair made a surprise visit to the school where it all began.

“(I) still feel like the same person I was when I went to school there. But when I go back now, kids want to take pictures with you and all that kind of stuff,” Leonard said. “You never think that you’re going to be that person one day so it was kind of it was cool, it was a little bit weird and I’m just proud to be from there.”

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“As teachers, we always see the potential,” Diluzio said. “Amen and Dean, what they showed me is anything’s possible and dreams can be accomplished, and it’s just awesome to see.

“Even if they weren’t football players at our school, if they were just kids in a classroom, they would still be revered by their teachers and by their classmates because they’re just such good people.”

Leonard, Ogbongbemiga and the Chargers face the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL’s wild card round at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday.

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