Efe Obada knows the joy of sacks, the most disruptive play in American football. He has tackled Jalen Hurts, quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles who play the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday’s Super Bowl. He has brought down Tom Brady, the recently retired seven-time winner of the National Football League’s greatest prize. They are victims to make any player proud.
For Obada, the Nigeria-born Washington Commanders defensive end raised in foster care in London after being abandoned on the streets aged 10 by a woman his mother paid to move him and his sister from the Netherlands, they also chart a remarkable rise. But Obada, now a veteran of five NFL seasons, is frank about the costs of this most brutal, but tactically intricate of sports.
“The next day, it’s like you’ve been in a car crash,” he says. “It’s a contact sport. Pain management, injury management. That’s part of being a pro.”
Obada is talking about the realities of armoured 300lb (136kg) men launching into each other at full tilt at an interesting time for the NFL. Before the season finale on Sunday in Glendale, Arizona, players and coaches are reckoning with a year when Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest after receiving a crunching chest hit during a routine tackle and almost died on the field. There’s also the case of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was ruled out of action for several weeks after two concussions, sparking fears he would have to retire at the age of 24.
And last Sunday, for the first time, the end of season Pro Bowl game for the best players not in the Super Bowl, was switched from full-contact to flag football – a mode of the game without helmets pads or contact that has similarities with touch rugby. The decision has been a while coming after players showed a lack of enthusiasm for a full-blooded contest after the season was over.
It proved a showcase for a pacifist version of American football that is more appealing to parents and players put off by the threat of serious brain injury. Tackles are made by ripping ribbon-like flags from a player’s belt rather than thudding the opposition into the turf. It doesn’t go down well with some. The veteran NFL journalist Mike Florio said on Monday: “I love football ... Flag football is not football”.
Yet it could be the way the game becomes part of the Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028 and it is also the version the NFL is promoting in the UK as it works towards establishing one or more teams in London and possibly a European division.
Obada, who says he’s “living my best life” playing the full contact game, is a fan. “You can start getting kids to play at a much younger age and we can convince parents because they don’t have to worry about the contact.”
Plus, “if you don’t have helmets and you know there’s no contact that kind of leaves way for more trash talking.”
The NFL believes flag football is “a future of football”, if not a replacement for the full contact game that remains the most popular sport in the US and draws more than 100 million TV viewers for the Super Bowl. Participation in 11-a-side tackle football at high school level is declining in parallel with growing concern about the serious long-term consequences of repeated concussions. “It’s certainly a future to make [the game] more accessible,” says Henry Hodgson, general manager NFL UK who described it as “a real tool for us to globalise the sport”.
“It seeds fandom for the sport and if we continue to grow fandom ... and people watching it and people enjoying the sport, then you’d think that we’d be in a better position to potentially have a franchise in the UK.”
Last year, the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, said two teams in London and a European division were a possibility after easily selling out regular season games in London for several years and staging a fervently supported first league game in Munich in 2022.
Obada, who since his first regular season NFL game in 2017 for the Carolina Panthers has also played for the Buffalo Bills, is backing the initiative to expand the non-contact version of the sport. He learned American football while playing for the London Warriors, an amateur side that practises in Croydon and also offers flag football.
He says the serious concerns about Tagovailoa and other head injuries have “shed a light on concussion”. “You do worry about it. But it’s just part of the game. You have to rely on your technique. You pray and hope that you’re not one of those people.”
A large majority of the brains of NFL players donated after death to researchers at Boston University showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head trauma, according to a 2017 study. Top players wobbling on jelly legs after head injuries has been a disturbing sight again this season, whether Tagovailoa or the New England Patriots’ wide receiver DeVante Parker.
Obada puts some faith in the improvements in helmets and other equipment and tougher rules to protect some players and says: “The sport is aware of how dangerous it is and it is making changes in order to compensate for that.”
Whatever the dangers, the feeling of bringing down a top quarterback remains for him a huge drive. As a defensive end, a sack is his raison d’etre. “That’s how you are compensated, that’s how you know your value, that’s how you separate yourself,” he says.
It requires skill, speed and strength to fight past big offensive linemen and even the best has not reached 20 sacks this season. “It’s so hard to come by,” he says. “You have to get to the quarterback in two, three seconds. So when you get there it’s amazing. You’re full of energy, you feel the adrenaline knowing that you’ve got the guy.” – Guardian