Iranian Football

Top gridiron recruit Willie Mobley has one eye on the Big Ten and the other on geopolitics

It's easy to forget that Willie Mobley is 18 years old. Sporting a full beard and a frizzy quasi-fro, the 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound defensive lineman looks more like a man approaching his 30s than a boy in the last throes of adolescence. At the two-story townhouse he shares with his mother in Chanhassen, Mobley is the man of the house: He answers the door and offers a firm handshake.

His room is papered with newspaper headlines testifying to his gridiron prowess. "Things were getting crazy this summer," Mobley says, kicking a pile of dirty clothes out of the way. "I was getting, like, 80 text messages a day from recruiters."

It's been a good couple of months. In November, the Eden Prairie High School senior led his team to its second straight undefeated season, trouncing Cretin-Derham Hall 51-20 in the state class AAAAA championship. Two weeks ago, he accepted a full-ride scholarship to play football at top-ranked Ohio State. Scouts around the country expect big things from No. 96.

"His biggest strengths are quickness and leverage," says Jamie DeMoney, a scouting analyst for Forbes Report and editor of prepnation.com. "If you wanted to look at the NFL and draw comparisons in terms of style, he plays a bit like a Warren Sapp. He's not a two-gap guy who'll just eat up space and occupy blockers. He's more of a one-gap guy who'll get a lot of penetration and wreak havoc behind the line of scrimmage."

Armed with a 4.85 40-yard dash and a 405 squat, Mobley has positioned himself as the second most highly touted prep player in the state this year, behind Cretin-Derham Hall wide receiver phenom Michael Floyd ("Any other year Mobley would be far and away the top recruit in the state," says DeMoney).

Though he played defensive tackle in high school, Mobley will likely make the move to D-end at the collegiate level due to his speed and relatively small size. His exceptional agility was perhaps best displayed in this year's championship game in the Metrodome when he rushed nine yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter.

"When he ran that in, he looked more like a halfback than a lineman," says Eden Prairie head coach Mike Grant, who now boasts two consecutive undefeated seasons manning the Eagles. "I think that's when a lot of people realized this kid's not your typical athlete."

Nor does he have a typical background. Born to a black father and Iranian mother, Mobley is one of just 2,500 people of Iranian heritage living in Minnesota. "People can see that I'm a mix of something, but they can't tell of what," Mobley says. "When they ask, I always tell them both sides: black and Persian. When I say Persian, sometimes they get confused, so I just say Iranian. Some people are like, 'Iran? Aren't we going to war with them?'"

On a blustery December day, Mobley and his mother, Roxanne, are visiting her twin brother, Sam Golbabaie, in his lavish, 6,200-square foot home in Eden Prairie. A prim man with a cheery, elfin face, Golbabaie offers chips to his guests and launches into the story of how the family immigrated to Minnesota.

The twins moved to the U.S. on their 16th birthday in 1984 to escape the ravages of the Iran-Iraq War, and were joined by their parents seven years later. They have five uncles, one aunt, and a grandmother still living in Tehran.

"They're following me very closely, but they don't know much about football," chuckles Mobley, who can understand Persian but has trouble speaking it. "They think I'm going pro, that I'm some huge superstar. They ask me how much Ohio State is paying me."

Willie, his mom, and his uncle move to the kitchen and gather around the island for supper. Golbabaie's winsome wife, Azita, has prepared carrafs, a viscous Iranian dish composed of stewed celery and tender chunks of beef stewed over white rice. It tastes savory and fresh.

Golbabaie turns on a plasma TV hanging from the nearby fireplace. "My satellite picks up 23 Persian channels," he says. "I watch those mostly for the music videos. I get my news mostly from CNN and MSNBC."

Tonight he stops at Appadana, a Persian news channel broadcast out of California. President Bush is onscreen, looking flustered as he fields questions from the national press corps regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions. Just two days earlier, American intelligence officials had released a damning National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran had scrapped its atomic aspirations back in '03. The kitchen falls silent and all eyes gaze at the screen.

"Mr. President, are you still convinced that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb?" asks a reporter. "And do the new findings take the military option that you've talked about off the table?"

"To me, the NIE provides an opportunity for us to continue to rally the international community to pressure the Iranian regime to suspend its program," Bush drawls. "The best diplomacy, effective diplomacy, is one in which all options are on the table."

The kitchen remains silent.

"It's all funny, but in a sad way," Golbabaie finally says, turning away from the TV. "There's so much misinformation that people just buy into. On both sides. Everything gets exaggerated."

He limits the political discussion to that. No need for a polemic. And, besides, Roxanne has other things she'd rather talk about. Namely, her son. When she mentions her hope that Willie will embrace both sides of his heritage, Mobley agrees but with a caveat: "I can learn about black culture on my own just through my friends and being American," he says. "But there's not a lot of Persians here, so that's harder. That's why I want to learn more about that side of my culture."

To that end, he plans on taking a Persian language and an Iranian culture class when he starts at Ohio State. "And I definitely want to visit my relatives in Iran," Mobley adds. "My grandmother always says, 'It's beautiful here!' I just have to find the time." He pauses, realizing what the next four or five years will likely have in store. "I should probably go before college starts."

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