Remarkable narratives in the NFL are not hard to find. Players overcome major injuries, or force their way into the league from obscure American high schools and colleges.
Some go undrafted, overlooked by everybody, and then turn into elite players.
Tom Brady, regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time, was the 199th pick in 2000. One coach, Dick Vermeil, retired in 1983, only to return 14 years later to win a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that the NFL is a factory for Cinderella stories. And the latest remarkable example off the production line is Efe Obada.
This week the Carolina Panthers named Obada, a Nigeria-born defensive end, as part of their final roster for the 2018 NFL season. For perspective, compare the normal path to an NFL roster for any aspiring young player to Obada’s journey.
The number of high school American Football players who make it into the NFL is around 0.08 percent, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Obada, a refugee from Nigeria, was trafficked to the UK at the age of 10 with his sister. Both were abandoned and left homeless in London. They were then placed into foster care, growing up in Stockwell and Lambeth.
An estimated 1.6 percent of all College Football players eventually make it into the NFL, per the NCAA.
Obada at the age of 22 was working in Grace Foods, a warehouse in Welwyn Garden City north of the M25, unpacking boxes and filling up trucks. He had never played any competitive sport in his life.
Around 1,000 players are cut by NFL teams throughout the course of the pre-season, until the final 53-man rosters are confirmed before the first game.
When he was working at Grace Foods, Obada bumped into a friend who recommended that the 6ft 6in, 18 stone Obada attend an American Football training session with the London Warriors.
“The rest is history,” Obada admits with a laugh from the Panthers’ base in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I fell in love with it.”
Obada was spotted by Aden Durde, then coach of the Warriors and now also working in the NFL on the staff of the Atlanta Falcons. The inexperienced athlete developed at a rapid rate from scratch, leading Durde to recommend Obada to the Dallas Cowboys, who picked him up as an undrafted free agent.
Short stints followed with Dallas, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta before Obada was signed last year to Carolina’s practice squad, for reserve players, as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, which allows designated NFL teams to have an extra spot on their practice squads specifically to develop overseas players.
“The IPP is amazing. It gives opportunities to people like myself who love football who will make the most of it. I hope my achievements can shine a light on it,” adds Obada.
“The compulsory year as part of the squads is a security that [new players] need in the NFL. I’m often told that the NFL stands for ‘Not For Long’, so to be part of those squads for a year to learn, to grow, to find yourself as a player and a person and work on your weaknesses, is huge.”
Following training camp with the Panthers over the summer, this time there was no word in Obada’s ear asking for his playbook and informing him that he had been cut from the team. Instead, he became the first player from the IPP program to make a final 53-man roster.
“I walked into the facility and saw the guy who usually collects people’s iPads [when they are being cut]. If he approaches you, it means you are going to get released. When I finally got past him and into the locker room, people were coming up and congratulating me for making it. But I didn’t believe it until I spoke to the head coach, Ron Rivera, who told me I had made the team. I was the last person in the 53-man roster to believe I had made the 53.”
The 26 year-old has been retained as the sixth defensive end by the Panthers, with his locker situated next to Julius Peppers, the veteran bound for the Hall of Fame. Another team-mate, Luke Kuechly, is regarded as the best linebacker currently in the game.
“I’m just like a fly on the wall when they talk, when they rush, when they’re on the field. I just hope something sticks. I’m trying to be a sponge right now.”
His rise is almost unbelievable. Obada has assimilated enough knowledge in the space of only four years to go from knowing absolutely nothing about American Football to becoming an NFL player earning a base salary of nearly half a million dollars. Others have devoted their entire lives just to reach that level.
What remains clear from a few minutes of Obada’s time is that his experiences as a child, the finer details of which he is yet to discuss, have given him a burning hunger to succeed in the NFL.
“I am not the only child who has been affected by these situations. These things happen, and are still happening around the world. It’s only because of the position I am in now that I can shed some light on it. The past has made me into the person I am today.”
Rivera, his coach at the Panthers, is unsurprisingly an enormous supporter of the way Obada has channeled his difficult upbringing into an unwavering work ethic.
“I see it every time he steps on the field. He practices 100 miles per hour.” Rivera told ESPN last week. “[I tell the players] ‘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.’”
For Obada, there is no other way to approach what he knows full well is the the opportunity of a lifetime. “Honestly, that’s just the way I play. I apply that same hunger.
“I just know how much it means to me. I have seen people come and go in the NFL, and whenever my time does come, I would not want to leave knowing that I could have done more. I don’t want to live with regret.”
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.