“I’m over the moon!”
It’s a phrase any Brit understands, but one that needed explaining to the American audience. For Efe Obada, it was just the natural reaction at the conclusion of a dizzying few weeks that began with him spending cut-down day in Carolina’s facility desperately trying to avoid the assistant responsible for calling unlucky players to coach’s office and ended with him holding the NFL at his fingertips.
“I had no idea this would happen,” beamed Obada after his headline-grabbing Panthers debut. He wasn’t the only one. In a league that often provides a rich tapestry of awe-inspiring storylines of personal struggle to reach the bright lights, the tale of the kid born in Nigeria, trafficked to London aged 10, who spent multiple nights homeless on the streets, found sanctuary as a security guard playing amateur football for the London Warriors, and eventually ended up in the NFL, might be the peak.
And it doesn’t look like being finished yet. For Obada, having catapulted himself into everybody’s attention by simply making the Panthers’ roster, looks every bit the budding NFL star. His debut was one for the ages, Obada helping himself to a sack and an interception of Andy Dalton and playing a key role in Carolina securing a tight victory. He grinned widely as he was handed a game ball by Coach Ron Rivera, and likely smiled to himself again after being voted NFC Player of the Week.
“Words can’t describe how I feel right now,” he added. “The amount of love and admiration I’ve received is amazing. I’m still filled with adrenaline.”
The rush started when the 26-year-old entered the facility on gameday to discover he’d be playing, but the foundations were laid throughout the week before in practice. “The coaches during the week had told me and the guys I was competing with that it [playing time] would be based on our performance,” he tells Gridiron. “So knowing that, I really went after it that week. I tried to put myself in a better position to get an opportunity to show this team what I’m capable of and to show that I’m here to win. The coaches gave me the opportunity and the rest is history.”
There was an echo of how he found out that he’d made the final roster in learning he would see action against the Bengals. On cutdown day, Odaba sneaked through the weight room, trying not to make eye contact with the assistant coach, whose job it is to send players to hand in their playbooks before finding out he’d made the team.
“I walked into the locker room on gameday and immediately, from a distance, I could see a jersey on my seat,” Odaba explained of how he found out he’d be playing. “My face lit up. I went straight to my seat, took a picture then just kind of refocused, said to myself, ‘This is it. This is about to be a moment’ and that’s it.”
Once the action started, Bengals left tackle Cordy Glenn got an early indicator it was indeed going to be a moment. In the second quarter, Odaba rounded the seven-year veteran with apparent ease to get his hands on the Red Rifle – but Dalton was able to get an errant throw away. There was much more to come from the Londoner. In the third quarter, a Dalton pass to Josh Malone was batted into the air off the receivers’ hands and Odaba slid in to beat a diving Bryan Cox Jr. to the interception. He followed that up in the fourth period with a sack for which he credited both the way the Panthers had put him in a position to succeed and his own film study.
“The tight end [Tyler Kroft] first lined up in front of me, then he motioned across the formation. The coaches have done an amazing job of preparing us and we’ve seen that look before, so I knew what was coming. I felt like, ‘He’s [Kroft] going to come back’. I read my keys, the tackle blocked down, I knew they weren’t going to run so I went straight at Dalton.”
He blew past a stunned Kroft, who had reversed field and come back to seal the edge, and took Dalton down to the delight of fans and teammates alike. If the sack was about preparation, the interception, across the field from where he lined up, was all about athleticism and desire.
“It was just hustle,” said the Panther. “It’s not going to be perfect – I’ll tell you that for free – but I will outwork guys. Towards the fourth quarter, I was saying to myself, ‘He’s tired, he’s tired’. I don’t know if he was tired but that’s my mentality, I work hard. I didn’t grow up in football, didn’t have college experience, my thing is I’m going to work hard and that’s taken me here.”
“He was balling the whole game. It was amazing,” said Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson of Obada’s debut. “You could see in his eyes he was ready. Right before that sack I told him, ‘Big-time players make big-time plays,’ and the next thing you know, he got a sack.”
Teammate Mike Adams was quick to celebrate with the youngster and told reporters afterwards that Odaba was screaming, “They don’t know me!”
“It was just vindication,” smiled the big defensive end. “Feeling like all the hard work, all the struggle has paid off. And they don’t. They don’t know me, they don’t know what it’s taken, the sacrifices, some of the adversities and that’s my fuel. I know what I’ve been through and the people that have supported me and the people that have given me the opportunity. That’s what I was highlighting.”
They certainly knew him after the game, with messages of support from both sides of the Atlantic blowing up his phone and social media and the goosebump-inducing image of his wide grin in the locker room circulating in the media.
“The game was a blur. It went quick,” said the 6ft 6in 295-pounder. “But everything after the game, the media exposure, the fans, the love from the Warriors, the game ball… I’ve been receiving a lot of love from the Warriors, some personal messages and there’s a lot of guys that reached out and I’m grateful to them. That picture is something I want to print out and keep with me and put in my man cave.
“The team were very happy for me. They see behind the scenes the hard work I put in. That moment was special. Just to know that everyone was rallying behind me and happy for me. But it’s just one game and I need to get focused again, go out there again and I need to perform. The standard has been set. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I want to start creating that momentum and just keep going. I’m going to go back in the lab, prepare for the next opponent and go after it.”
Since becoming the first player from the NFL’s International Pathway programme to make a final NFL roster, Odaba’s backstory has been well documented and he was thrust into an unfamiliar spotlight. “Honestly, initially it was very difficult,” he said of the attention at home and in the US. “I felt a little uncomfortable, a bit exposed, but I feel like I’ve gone beyond that now. Initially, when people first heard my story, I didn’t have the opportunity to produce so I was just a story. But now I’m in a position where I can produce, I’m a footballer, it’s about my play, it’s about the future, it’s more, and that’s what I’m focusing on right now.”
In the adjoining locker to Odaba’s in the Carolina locker room, sits someone who’s been there, done it and seen everything – 17-year veteran Julius Peppers, a former Rookie Defensive Player of the Year, with 18 playoff games and nine Pro Bowls under his belt. That’s a valuable resource for any aspiring defensive lineman, or professional football player for that matter, and Odaba makes full use of the 38-year-old’s presence. “When it’s difficult, I ask him, ‘What’s your approach? What do you look at?’, but mostly I just like to be in the background and watch him, watch how he prepares, what he does and try to emulate that in my own way.
“I’ll say this. The big names in our team are very humble, they work hard and they earn everything they get. Some people have it and some people get lost in that limelight but, when you have players and coaches like ours – it’s like a family – you thrive in that atmosphere. Honestly, it’s the best fit for me [Carolina], I love the coaches, I love the system, I love the brotherhood, I love the family atmosphere, their morals… it’s just the best fit for me.
“I’ve got amazing role models. I’ve got people who know the sport inside out so all I can do at this moment is be a sponge. I don’t think I’ll ever in my career get to a point where I feel like I know it all so I’m constantly learning, constantly finding ways to get better and constantly improving.”
Chief among the 26-year-old’s influences are two key members of the Warriors’ organisation – head coach Tony Allen and Aden Durde, the former defensive coach who’s currently defensive quality control coach at Atlanta – and they weren’t far from Obada’s thoughts after the game. “I saw Tony yesterday [Obada was able to get home during Carolina’s bye week] and Aden was one of the first people, other than my wife, that I phoned after the game and let them know.
“That [the game against Durde’s Atlanta in Week 2] was one of the games I really wanted to play in. I wanted to show him how far I’d come. Make some plays and put a smile on his face, but I’m happy with the way everything played out. I’ll see him again [the teams face a potential divisional decider in Week 17].”
Allen coached Obada at the Warriors while he was working shifts as a security guard and was quick to see his potential. “He was humble but driven. He’d be working in a warehouse at all hours of the night and then turn up at training in the morning before he went back home to sleep. I can’t say enough good things about him. Kids like that, with tough backgrounds, they know what hard work is.”
Putting aside his life journey, Obada’s NFL journey hasn’t been a smooth one – being in the churn at the bottom of rosters of Dallas, Kansas City and Atlanta before finally succeeding with Carolina. He’s the first international player to join the NFL without first playing for a US college. Aware that he now has a platform and is able to inspire others, Obada has a positive message for those trying to emulate his achievements. And also for his fellow NFL International Pathway players: the UK’s Alex Gray at Atlanta; Eric Nzeocha from Germany in Tampa; and Brit Alex Jenkins, a fellow defensive end in New Orleans. All, just like Odaba, are itching to make a name for themselves at their NFL teams.
“Trust the process and outwork everyone,” he offers. “Trust the process because it’s not going to click automatically – it’s like learning a new language, sometimes you’ll forget, sometimes you’ll regress but trust the process and work hard then make the most of your opportunity.”
There will come a lightbulb moment when the game slows down and everything suddenly makes sense, according the Londoner, and that will usually be down to graft, sweat and reps and, well, trusting the process.
“It’s been clicking for a while for me,” he says of the moment he knew he had what it takes to succeed in the league. “It’s been clicking since last year when, through the NFL International Programme, I had the chance to be on a practice squad for the whole year and develop.”
But was there any time when he felt it wouldn’t happen for him? “No,” he admits. “I’ll be honest, no. There were hard times. There was even a moment where I felt like I needed to go to Canada to learn, like Cameron Wake. But my goal was always to develop and get to a point where I understood the game and I could survive regardless of what system I was in and what team I was on. That was always my thing – to get better, to grow to develop. But I always knew if I got a shot, I’d make the most of it and run with it till the wheels fall off.”
If he can keep up the pace set on his debut, the wheels won’t be a problem – but there might be some more ‘over the moons’ to explain away.
This article originally appeared in Issue XLI of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE