Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada began shuffling his weight from one foot to the other, just as close friends had said he would, when talking about his past. His lips became tight and he lowered his head to avoid eye contact as he searched for words to explain his childhood.
Obada, who was born in Nigeria, was trafficked at the age of 10 from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom before being abandoned on the streets of London with his older sister. He moved in and out of countless foster homes before football changed his life.
“It was tough,” Obada said softly, still looking down. “It was tough. Yeah … yeah.”
Obada, 27, doesn’t like talking about those days, but they are part of the reason his story is significant, particularly now. The Panthers signed Obada through the league’s International Player Pathway Program, which allows select teams to carry an additional overseas player on their practice squads. In 2018, Carolina made Obada the first player from the program to make a 53-man roster.
While Sunday’s contest against Tampa Bay is a road game for the surging Panthers (9:30 a.m. ET, NFL Network), it’s also a homecoming for Obada, who will be reunited with those in the United Kingdom who watched his story unfold.
“It’s beyond Hollywood,” said Vernon Kay, one of Obada’s teammates in 2014 with the London Warriors. “It’s beyond anything anybody can imagine.
“No disrespect, this is better than ‘The Blind Side.’ To me, this is the ultimate football story.”
Obada’s story goes beyond football, something he knew nothing about when he walked onto the Warriors’ practice field six years ago. It goes beyond becoming the first international player to go from the European league to the NFL.
It’s a story of survival and overcoming odds. This is about a man working to prove himself on the football field, to extend his work visa beyond the one-year, $570,000 contract he signed with Carolina in January. If he doesn’t get re-signed or find another opportunity, he will have to move back to London.
“That’s why I go hard every time,” said Obada, his tone now deFIAnt.
Thanks to ‘Josh’
In 2014, 22-year-old Obada befriended a man he met near his home on the streets of South London. His name was Josh.
“I don’t remember his last name,” Obada said. “He had his pads. He asked if I wanted to come with him to practice. I was lucky enough I had nothing to do that day. Imagine what would have happened if I didn’t follow him?”
Obada has imagined. He’d probably still be loading trucks or working as a security guard for the Grace Foods distribution center in Hertfordshire, England, in a garden city about 28 miles north of London.
Or he might have been dragged into the gang culture he was working hard to escape.
Obada was about 20 pounds lighter then. With absolutely no knowledge of American football, he was given his first set of pads.
“The first thing that struck me was his speed,” said Simon Buckett, then the Warriors’ special-teams and defensive backs coach. “I’d never seen anybody that size run that fast in football.”
One day during practice, Burkett put Obada, who was playing defensive end and tight end, on the kickoff team. The offensive coordinator questioned the move.
“I said, ‘Just give it a minute,’” Buckett said with a laugh. “He said, ‘No, you’ve got this wrong.’ Efe runs down there, makes the tackle. The offensive coordinator pats me on the shoulder and says, ‘I’ll leave you to it.’”
What impressed Buckett then is the same thing that impresses Carolina coach Ron Rivera and his staff today: Obada’s willingness to learn.
“I remember one play he came screaming off the edge and sacked the quarterback,” Buckett said. “Efe comes off the field and says, ‘What did I do wrong?’
“We were, ‘Absolutely nothing. Why would you think you did something wrong?’ He said, ‘Because it was very easy, so I thought I had to have done something wrong.’ We said, ‘No, you’re just so much better than everybody.”
Obada was good enough that Warriors defensive coordinator Aden Durde, who had been a Dallas Cowboys intern, recommended his former team give Obada a tryout before its London game against Jacksonville in November 2014.
The next spring, when Obada had five games of experience with the Warriors, Dallas signed him as a free agent. He began his NFL career as a tight end before moving to defensive end.
“Football gave me a purpose,” Obada said. “It gave me a mission. That helped surrounding myself with people that play football give me goals versus finding that sense of belonging elsewhere.”
Right friend, right time
Just like with his friend Josh, it was fate that Obada and Buckett found each other.
Buckett’s full-time job, because all Warriors coaches are volunteers, was working in crime investigation for a private company. Dealing with human trafficking was part of his job.
Obada never revealed all the details of his trafficking to Buckett, but he said it was good to have a knowledgeable friend to talk to about it. A source close to the situation said Obada never was a victim of sex trafficking.
From Buckett’s experience, escaping the “many pitfalls” of trafficking isn’t easy. Having a happy ending like Obada’s, he added, is rare.
“You end up owing people money or owing people favors,” Buckett said. “You’re in a position to be taken advantage of. So to get out of that situation is huge.”
Obada said the NFL has helped protect him from those who might want to capitalize on his success.
“Once they see you earned it, they want a stake in what you have,” Obada said. “They teach us here how to handle that.”
From obscurity to Player of the Week
Obada played in his first NFL game in Week 3 last season. He had been inactive the first two games, but, because of Obada’s work ethic in practice, Rivera gave his project a chance.
Obada had a sack and an interception in his debut. He had a strip sack nullified by a penalty. A player who had never donned an NFL jersey on game day all of a sudden had a game ball and was later named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
“I started crying,” said Kay, recalling hearing about his former teammate’s NFL debut.
Durde said: “I looked at my phone text, and he had told me what he had done.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I didn’t know if I believed him.”
Kay and Durde, who will be among the large group of Obada’s personal fan club on hand Sunday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, said the emotions will be running high.
“He represents us all as a nation, not just as a footballer,” Kay said.
Said Durde, “Before Efe, I don’t think anyone thought it was possible to do what he has done, to go that route and actually become a contributor on a team in the NFL.”
Obada isn’t sure what to expect, but said he’ll visit his favorite restaurant (Nando’s) for a chicken dinner and make time for other British kids who aspire to be football players.
“Honestly, I don’t want to make this game about me because it’s about team,” said Obada, who donates time with the BigKid Foundation in London to give others hope. “I’m going to stay focused.”
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 8, 2019
‘One of the biggest hearts in the NFL’
Obada’s British accent reverberated through the Carolina locker room last week as he quizzed teammates on British history in preparation for the trip.
“Honestly, I slow it down for you guys,” Obada said of his speech for interviews. “Normally, I talk 100 miles an hour.”
Obada is one of the more popular players in the locker room because of his personality and his story.
“The thing that makes him who he is, is his heart,” Pro Bowl defensive lineman Gerald McCoy said. “He’s got one of the biggest hearts in the NFL. He may have some technique issues, but his heart is why he made this team.”
As much as Carolina players respect Obada, former Warriors teammates respect him even more. They saw him in his rawest form. They walked the streets that could have taken Obada on a different path.
“Efe’s story is something that everyone can learn from,” Kay said. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your motivation in life is, the path that Efe took to get to London was something you couldn’t imagine.”
Obada looked down and began shifting his weight back and forth again when asked what his story means to him. He then did something a little different.
He looked up and made eye contact.
“That it’s possible, if that makes sense,” Obada said. “Sometimes you can’t see what you want. It’s so far in the distant future you don’t know how to get there. From my story, I take it is possible. Every time I get down, I pinch myself and remind myself I’m not supposed to be here.
“But I am.”