Sport is full of tales of triumph over hardship, but few can match the unusual level of adversity faced by Efe Obada.
And as he begins life in the NFL, he is determined to become more than just an incredible story. Born in Nigeria and trafficked to England via Holland aged 10, Obada and his older sister were homeless on the streets of London before bouncing around foster homes.
He was almost swallowed up by the capital’s gang culture, but chose to change direction. While working in a warehouse unpacking boxes, he took up American football as a way of channeling his anger.
Efe Obada is preparing for the new NFL season on the roster of the Carolina Panthers
He was born in Nigeria, trafficked to England via Holland and lived on the streets in London
Just four years later the 26-year-old finds himself on the Carolina Panthers 53-man roster. Obada, a matter-of-fact man of few words, is understandably guarded about his past and struggles with trust to this day.
‘I was born in Nigeria. Then I moved over to Holland to be with my mum and my sister. She wanted us to have a better life, so we somehow found ourselves going to London. It didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. We found ourselves being homeless and in foster care. I went to school. Got into some trouble, but found football,’ he says.
He is reluctant to go into the finer details of his journey into the UK.
‘These things happen. They are still happening around the world. I’m not the only person whose childhood was affected by some of these situations. It’s only because I’m in the position that I’m in that it has shed some light on it.
‘I’m just focused on the future, not looking backwards. Obviously the past has made me into the person I am, there’s some traits, but I’m always looking forward.’
Obada is more willing to discuss his second journey: that from novice to professional sportsman. Few have gone from never having seen – let alone played – the game to an NFL team in such a short space of time.
At an imposing 6ft 6in, a friend suggested Obada tried American football. He joined the London Warriors and after five games was recommended to the Dallas Cowboys by British coach Aden Durde. Durde, who remains close with Obada, was the Warriors’ defensive co-ordinator and spent an internship with the Cowboys.
While working in a warehouse unpacking boxes, Obada (No 63) took up American football
He joined the London Warriors and after five games was recommended to the Dallas Cowboys
He is now a defensive coach with the Atlanta Falcons. In 2015, the Cowboys took a punt on a player who had not played a snap in college and struggles to recall watching his first NFL game (‘I’m not really a sit down and watch sport kind of guy,’ Obada says).
He barely knew the rules, but made the practice squad nevertheless. Following his release the following year, Obada had a short spell with the Kansas City Chiefs and then took part in training camp with the Falcons. He didn’t make the roster, but spent a year working on his weaknesses. In the offseason of 2017, Obada was invited on the NFL’s International Player Pathway programme and ended up in Carolina.
‘The programme is amazing. It gives opportunities to people like myself that love football or that don’t have options. It gives them and opportunity and you’ve got to make the most of it. It’s an amazing programme and I hope my achievements shine a light on it. Hopefully it will open doors for other people.’
Established last year, the programme gives foreign players with potential the chance to spend a season with an NFL team on an expanded practice squad. ‘It’s a security that I feel that we needed in the NFL that a lot of people don’t have,’ Obada says.
‘Because everybody’s playing day to day, week to week. Tomorrow isn’t promised. I’ve often been told that the NFL stands for not for long. And being able to have that year, even on a practice squad. Just to learn, just to grow, just to find yourself as a player and as a person. And find your fit, work on your weaknesses, it’s huge.
‘A lot of people do it in college. A lot of people do it in the off season, but for us to have that is just amazing.’ In a sport which can be as brutal off the field as on it, Obada was expecting to be cut by Carolina. But he turned up last Sunday and wasn’t told to turn in his iPad – which contains the team playbook – so continued to go about his business.
Following his release, Obada was invited on the NFL’s International Player Pathway programme
He ended up in Carolina and will now play against his former Dallas Cowboys team on Sunday
‘If someone approaches you that means you are likely to get released. So if no-one talks to you, it’s likely you’ve made the team,’ he says of last Sunday, when NFL teams trim their offseason rosters down to 53 players.
‘I walked in the facility and I saw the guys that usually collect people’s iPads. When I finally got past them and into the locker room, I had people were coming up to me and shaking my hand and saying congratulations, but I myself couldn’t believe it until the head coach came up to me while I was lifting and told me that I made the team and congratulations. I think I was the last person on the 53 to believe that I was on the 53.’
Obada is one of six defensive ends on a talented Panthers team. His locker is next to Julius Peppers, a future Hall of Famer who has 154.5 sacks to his name, the fourth highest total of all-time.
‘I honestly didn’t know anything about him until I started playing for Carolina and then I did my own research. He’s achieved a lot,’ said Obada, who heads back to Dallas on Sunday as his new team face the Cowboys in the season-opener.
‘Honestly I’m just like a fly on the wall when they talk, when they rush when they are on the field. I make sure I’m with them and hopefully something sticks. I’m just trying to be a spy right now.’
While Obada remains raw in certain aspects, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera likes what he sees. ‘He practices 100 miles per hour. I’ve got guys that get upset with him because on Friday he’s going hard,’ Rivera said.
‘It’s funny, when you want to point to something, when you say, “Hey guys, if you came from where he came, if you dealt with what he dealt with, that’s how you want to approach everything in life”, that’s what I think is impressive.’ Obada shrugs when told of Rivera’s comments.
‘That’s just the way I play. I apply that same hunger. I just know how much it means to me. I know that I’ve seen people come and go and whenever my time does come I wouldn’t want to leave knowing that I could have done more.
‘I don’t want to live with regret. I know that this is an amazing opportunity and I’m going to give it my all, everything I do. Whether I succeed or fail, I want to know that effort is not one thing that I lack.’
Watch highlights of the season opener between Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles, and a preview of all of Sunday’s opening weekend fixtures on The NFL Show at 11:00pm on 8th September on BBC1.
Plus catch Dallas Cowboys take on Obada’s Carolina Panthers at 10:00pm on 9th September on Sky Sports.