Efe Obada’s stunning rise from the streets of east London to the NFL
Carolina Panthers defensive end didn’t play American Football until 2014 at 21-years-old
Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada didn’t play American Football until he was 21. Photograph: John Byrum/Getty
Whenever he completed a big play during his explosive NFL debut for the Carolina Panthers last September, Efe Obada screamed: “They don’t know me! They don’t know me!” Obada’s story is framed by darkness and sorrow, and has mysterious roots in subjects as tangled as trafficking and London gang culture, but it has light and hope at its heart.
His grinning teammate Mike Adams pointed out that the opposition, the Cincinnati Bengals, didn’t know him because he was from London. Obada laughs now before making a serious point in a small office dominated by a giant photograph of him lost in joy. “I meant they didn’t know how hard I’d had to work, or went through, to reach that moment,” he says. “Emotion poured out of me.”
The wall opposite is filled by this image of an ecstatic Obada surrounded by his beaming team. The photograph was taken just after his stunning debut as a defensive end, which included a crucial interception and a sack, had been followed by him being presented with the match ball. Obada, a Londoner born in Nigeria, only began playing American football in 2014 at the age of 21. His remarkable rise explains why the NFL’s UK headquarters has named this office in his honour.
It is extremely rare for a British athlete to break into the NFL, the most powerful institution in American sport, and the odds are stacked even higher when we consider Obada’s bleak arrival in London as a 10-year-old boy. The wounds are still too raw for him to talk about the reality of being apparently trafficked with his sister from Amsterdam.
“I still have to face some of my demons internally, as a man,” Obada says quietly. “I have to sort out some of these issues so I can articulate it – or even understand how I feel about it because sometimes you just grow numb to it,” he says.
“You get desensitised. But I’m very protective of my sister. I don’t like to talk about her. There’s nothing out there in public about my wife or my sister.”
I suggest to Obada that we would understand his emotions even more if he could explain what really happened when he was taken to London – after he and his sister had left Nigeria and joined their mother in Holland two years earlier.
The word “trafficked” has been used repeatedly in sketchy accounts of how he and his sister were bundled away. He told the Panthers’ website: “I was brought to England by a stranger that was supposed to look after me and my sister. They did not. They abandoned us in the streets of east London and left my sister and I to fend for ourselves.”
Obada is engaging and friendly, but resolute in not wanting to offer more than a few details. He explains that they were abandoned in Hackney and were homeless for two nights. Exhausted and freezing, they were saved by a security guard who gave them shelter in a tower block.
“The security guard was very helpful,” Obada tells me. “He gave us food for a few days and helped me get back in contact with my mum. She arranged for someone to pick us up and look after us and we stayed with her.”
What emotions swirled through a little boy who had ended up in a strange city against his will? “Just fear. But, at the same time, I had to be strong for my sister.”
His mother’s friend did not look after them for long and, as Obada told the Panthers’ site, “this arrangement broke down and my sister and I eventually ended up in foster care. We bounced around from home to home”.
They lived in more than 10 different foster homes but “my sister was always with me”, Obada says. “[Social services] were accommodating that way. They kept us close. They put us in homes with African or Caribbean backgrounds so cultural differences weren’t bad. I went to secondary school, to college. Tried to progress to university but I couldn’t because of immigration issues. I went to Kingston [University]for a few months. I was working nights and studying during the day. But university fees went up to £9,000 which was ridiculous. I would have done architecture.”
Obada was already immersed in south London gang culture. He felt alienated and angry – and a gang offered a sense of belonging. “Absolutely. It’s very easy to fall into gang life if you’re not getting support or belonging at home. It’s human nature. We all want to belong somewhere, to feel loved, needed and valued. You look up to the wrong people because you feel they will help you survive.”
Three of his friends were killed during gang wars. Obada shrugs. “I was 16, 17.”
Supported by his girlfriend, who is now his wife, Obada “made a conscious decision to take myself out of that environment”. He says: “We moved to Hertfordshire. There is not much going on in Stevenage but I felt safe. I slowly let my guard down. Every day in south London I’d walked around with my screw face.”
Obada screws up his face into a hard expression. “That’s my street face. You have that wall up. But in Stevenage I could relax and grow as a person.”
The dream he shared with his wife was to get a mortgage so Obada worked in a Caribbean food warehouse in Welwyn Garden City. Obada whips out his phone and finds a photo of him as a 21-year-old goofing around at Grace Foods – in 2014. He then discovered American football and life changed for ever. “A friend from college was so skinny. Then I saw him again and he was huge, like a house. I asked: ‘Have you been in jail lifting weights?’ He said: ‘No, I’m playing American football for London Warriors. You should come down.”
At 6ft 6in, Obada now weighs an imposing 265 pounds. “I was tall and lanky then. At the time I thought I had some size [he laughs]. The Warriors had shoulder pads, helmets, and I pushed this guy and he dropped to the floor because I was stronger. I thought I did something wrong. But everyone was screaming. Oh my God. They rallied round me and it was so infectious. These guys had grown up in similar places to me but their positivity and energy drew me in.”
Obada looks happy amid the memory. “Aden Durde [the Warriors coach] took me under his wing. He gave me these Jacksonville boots – because I didn’t have any proper boots. No man had given me anything before. I cherished them. I played all season and we won the championship. Wow! I’d never won anything. I remember thinking: ‘I really like this.’ The sense of belonging was really cool.”
Durde is now a coach for the Atlanta Falcons and Obada says: “He’s the first-ever British coach in the NFL so he’s making strides. He had done an internship with the Dallas Cowboys and they played in London [IN 2014]. He told their coaches about me. They asked me to come down after their practice. I ran hard, hit the bags and thought nothing of it. Then a year later, at four in the morning, I got a call from Dallas. ‘Come to the Cowboys in April .’ I thought it was a joke. At the time I didn’t even have a passport.”
Obada and his wife moved to America while he tried to earn himself a contract in Dallas – even if he was oblivious to the significance of the Cowboys in American sport. “I didn’t even know who the owner [JERRY JONES]was, or the quarterback. I’m walking past these guys and other rookies were in awe. I was like: ‘Who’s that?’”
He barely understood the rules and so it’s little wonder that Obada was released by the Cowboys. “I was trying to stay alive those nine months in Dallas, training. At the same time I was speaking to Canadian teams to see if I could go there. It never happened. I was living off my savings but my wife is smart. She worked in an office job in Dallas.”
He tried next at the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. Neither offered him a contract. One last opportunity came in 2017 when, as part of the NFL’s International Pathway Programme, he was sent to the Panthers. Obada became the first player from the programme to be awarded a NFL contract.
“I’m used to walking in after the training camp,” he says, “and a guy takes your iPad and says the head coach wants to speak to you. You know you didn’t make the team. In September I walked into the Panthers’ stadium and the iPad guy was waiting. I walked slowly, trying to make eye contact, but he avoided me. I go into the locker room and one of the veteran guys said: ‘Congratulations!’ But I didn’t believe it. So I walked into the weight room, started lifting, and the head coach [Ron Rivera]came up, shook my hand and said: ‘Congratulations. You made the team.’
“I phoned my wife and tried to be cool. I tried to do the whole sad thing and then tell her, but she could hear the smile in my voice. I told her: ‘I made it.’ She lost her shit [he laughs]. We had been working hard on this for years. We sacrificed a lot.”
Since coming home to London for the off-season, with Obada having signed in January a year-long contract extension worth $570,000, the achievement has sunk in. Last year Obada featured in 10 games with the belief he will be far better next season. He is even more excited that the Panthers will play in London this year: “It’s amazing – a real home game for me.”
We gaze again at the photo of him surrounded by his teammates. He danced when called out to receive the match ball and told the Panthers he regarded them as his family. “It’s our little family within the NFL. We go through everything, from joy to hardships, together.”
Only 0.08 per cent of American high school footballers, and just 2% of college players, get to play in the NFL. “What’s the percentage for UK people?” Obada quips. “Me and my wife stayed in south London, where we grew up, since we got back. We sat down and took it all in. We’re just trying to build on it, stay humble. Make sure every day’s special.”
There will be time, one day, for Obada to address his fractured past. But now, as he says simply: “I want to progress. I want to move forward.” - Guardian service.