As the NFL prepares to takeover London again this month, for the eleventh consecutive year and the first of three regular season matches, the UK has a new homegrown hero in America's game.
Efe Obada is the NFL's newest sensation after making an internet-breaking debut for the Carolina Panthers last month. With one sack and one interception coming in the business end of his debut game, the 26-year-old was awarded the game ball and earned headlines all over the world. Efe became the epitome of an overnight sensation.
Born in Nigeria but raised in Brixton, Obada is a history-making game changer after becoming the first graduate from the NFL International Pathway program to feature in a competitive game. In addition to making a splash on the pitch, Obada's inspirational back story has also earned him admiration. Obada arrived in London without his parents at just 10-years-old and spent part of his childhood homeless. Efe credits American Football – and particularly his childhood team the London Warriors – for giving him focus and a platform with which he can change he and his family's life forever.
Complex caught up with Efe Obada on his return to Brixton with Nike, just one week after his life-changing Carolina Panthers debut, to chop it up over the NFL's influence in London, Naija pride and bringing the sound of Ghetts to NFL locker rooms.
COMPLEX: You’re back in London for the first time since your killer debut. How does it feel to be back in Brixton after a life-changing event like that?
Efe Obada: It’s surreal. I’m back here with a camera crew following me around, which is nuts, and I’m in a place right now where I can really reminisce and think about where you came from and how your life has changed. It’s good to be back – and I had Nando’s yesterday, which is a plus! You can only get that in Washington out in the States. I also get to talk to people that understand me, I haven’t got to put on an accent...I can drop this filter a little bit and really be me.
Now you’re living out in the States, what’s the stuff about London that you miss?
The diversity and the culture in general. Then there’s obviously friends and family members...all my roots are in London. I grew up here, I went to school here – there will always be things pulling me back here.
How difficult did you find the transition to moving from London to the United States? It’s a huge journey to take.
It was really difficult and I had a bit of culture shock. But the NFL insulated me a little bit and protected me so I could just keep my focus on football, which took me away from all the other stuff happening across America.
And that hard work obviously paid off – your debut was mad. Given that it was so fresh, how much do you remember about that game and what was the vibe like to achieve that lifelong dream of playing in the NFL?
It’s still a blur. It was a blur on the field but afterwards – how my team responded and getting the game ball – it was surreal and will always live with me. There was so much media attention too which is an entirely new thing for me.
What was your first experience of American Football in the UK? While the fanbase is growing exponentially here, it’s still not weaved into our cultural fabric and it’s not easy to come across local teams, games in your local park, etc. How did you begin playing?
A mate of mine played for the London Warriors and he saw me walking around – saw my size – and he thought I’d be a great fit to come down and take part. I absolutely fell in love with it. I fell in love with the contact side of it and the strategic side of it, the discipline...I did fit in and it felt like there was potential there for me to do well. The club took time and invested in me, which I’ll always be grateful for. I had the opportunity to fly out to Dallas and get a taste of the action out there, which made me know this is what I wanted to do with my life.
Had you ever had any exposure to the sport previously? Either on TV or by playing a video game? Did you feel like you knew how the game worked before you picked up a ball for the first time?
No! Not at all. I’d never watched a game and never played Madden or anything like that but as soon as I started playing, I opened my eyes more and began to see it become a part of my life in a day-to-day way. I’d see bits on Channel 4 or I’d seek bits out on YouTube, read articles about the game. The best way to learn this game is get involved.
The Warriors coach Tony Allen is quoted as saying that sport is so important for kids growing up in London who might not have happy or traditional family lives – it provides an outlet and a platform for aspiration. Is that something you found playing with the team in London?
I agree 100%. In any sport you play – for 60 minutes, 90 minutes, two hours – nothing matters except you being on the field. And that’s what the game did for me, it gave me something to focus on when things weren’t always great. It’s an outlet. Some people don’t have friends, family or support...the Warriors is a group where people from different walks of life can come together with one common goal. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, sport is extremely inclusive.
Your story is certainly an inspiring one. Do you like you now have a responsibility as a role model to young people who might have gone through challenging times?
Of course. Athletes are in the limelight and we have a real platform to influence change. Our profiles should be used for positive things and to inspire people – especially those who were in similar situations to you. We can help those people overcome the adversities that we overcame and set examples for the next generation. I think anyone in a public position should always want to inspire and motivate.
As a British player who made the leap to the NFL, what are the challenges facing players from outside North America and what can be done to help advance the game in this country?
That’s a big question. I had to be very patient with myself, I wanted things to happen so quickly, but I needed to check my expectations – I only just made my debut but I’ve been out here since 2015. I had to trust the process and that’s what I’d advise other players to do.
In terms of the sport growing in the UK, the programme that I was on – which gave me the opportunity to be on the Carolina Panthers practice squad for a year to develop – without any worries of being released, that was amazing. And not everyone has that opportunity. I think more needs to be done to drive a direct link between the NFL and leagues outside the US.
You grew up in the UK but you were actually born in Nigeria. Is that heritage an important part of your self-identity, too?
Definitely. It’s a huge part of who I am. Most recently I loved watching the team in the World Cup – I'm a Nike athlete so I got sent one of those fire jerseys – and while we didn’t get as far as we’d like, I thought the vibes were great and it showed the country in a great light.
I see you’re following Ghetts on Instagram. Are you still able to keep up to date with new UK music while you’re out in the states?
I love UK music, it’s pretty much all I listen to while I’m out there – it’s stuff I can relate to and it reminds me of home. A lot of UK rappers talk about their experiences and I can relate to that, they’re referencing certain things and places I have first hand experience of.
And are you putting any of your Carolina teammates onto the London sound?
A few of them are bumping Giggs I’m not gonna lie…
Jay Ajayi is someone who’s been so influential to the game on this side of the pond – especially after winning the Super Bowl. Have you had much chance to connect with him?
He’s an amazing guy and he deserves everything he’s earned – I wish him nothing but success. Whenever we’ve had the opportunity to connect and share stories, especially when we’re both here, we do that and he’s very supportive.
Jersey culture in soccer is such a big thing here – football shirts are a bit of a streetwear staple right now. Do you think we could see the same thing happen with NFL jerseys?
I hope so – if you go to a game out here at Wembley, there are so many different jerseys in the stands. It’s amazing. I think they might need to tweak the jerseys a little bit for them to work on the streets out here, they need to be given a European cut, but I’d love to see it happen.
How much would it mean to you to step out and play a game in London?
That’s big – that’s everything. It’s definitely something that I’m looking towards, I’d be a very happy man if I can step out onto the field in front of my friends, family and home city.
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