CHARLOTTE – Nothing can ever erase what Efe Obada endured as a child.
But Sunday, on a stage he never could have imagined in his cheeriest childhood dream, Obada couldn’t stop smiling like a little kid.
“I’m over the moon,” Obada said in the British accent he developed growing up in London with storm clouds all around. “Words can’t describe how I feel right now. I’m still filled with adrenaline.”
Obada became the first product of the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program to be active for a regular season game, and boy was he active. His teammates were beside themselves with excitement when the defensive end who barely knew the first thing about American football four years ago sacked Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and forced a fumble that teammate Captain Munnerlyn recovered in the second quarter.
A replay review took away the takeaway, but it did nothing to deter Obada. He eventually got a sack that stuck – one late in the fourth quarter that helped the Panthers protect a one-score lead in their 31-21 victory – and before that he stole the show with a sliding interception that allowed Carolina to take control of the game.
“I wanted to show this team what I have to offer,” said Obada, who was mobbed by teammates after the game-changing plays that counted and the one that didn’t. “This team is like my family to me. I’m happy how supportive they are.
“They see the hunger in me. They see the uphill battle I had to climb in order to get here.”
Obada doesn’t like to talk about his childhood, and understandably so, but he said it did help create the hunger that he referenced several times after the game. He shared an overview of his story with Panthers.com prior to the start of last season, which he spent on Carolina’s practice squad.
“I don’t want to go into it, but being at such a disadvantage in life and then being put in a position like this, you value it way more than some people do,” he said Sunday. “That hunger is what keeps me going.”
Born in Nigeria, Obada moved to the Netherlands to live with his mother at age 8 but was sent to England with his sister at age 10 with plans supposedly in place for him to be raised by someone there. Those plans didn’t pan out and he and his sister ended up on the streets for a short time and then in foster care throughout their childhood when a Plan B fell through as well.
Four years ago, still struggling to piece his life together at the age of 22 and having never been involved in any athletic endeavor, Obada took part in a practice with an American football team in London at the coaxing of a friend. His raw, untapped athleticism caught the eye of the team’s defensive coordinator, who later interned with the Cowboys and mentioned Obada.
That led to some practice squad time with the Cowboys in 2015 and parts of the 2016 offseason with the Chiefs and Falcons. But Obada’s most serious look started with the Panthers last year when the NFL’s fledgling program granted Carolina an extra practice squad spot for the entire season.
Many assumed Obada’s time with the Panthers would either end entirely or end up with another practice squad season in 2018, but he kept making plays in the preseason, and the Panthers made room for him on the 53-man roster.
Sunday, with injuries freeing up one more spot on the gameday roster, Obada got the call.
“The players and coaches kept reassuring me, letting me know my opportunity was going to come,” he said. “And not getting that opportunity straight off the bat instilled in me that hunger and that drive that when I do get that opportunity, I’m going to ball out.
“I’ve been working my ass off, and I’ve been praying and I’ve been hoping that I do get an opportunity. When my name did get called, I just knew I had to make the most of it. I buried my head all week in my film studies, and then with some of the things I saw, it was instinctual. I knew what was coming.”
Obada admitted that he thought the Bengals were going to run the ball early in the third quarter on what turned out to be his most impactful play. Andy Dalton’s pass over the middle was deflected high into the air by cornerback James Bradberry, and Obada swooped in and caught the ball before it hit the ground, landing on fellow defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. in the process.
Obada said it was his first interception ever, including practice. Fellow defensive end Mario Addison was quick to point out to Obada that he’s never recorded an interception seven-plus seasons into his career.
“He hasn’t gotten one yet. I get one in my first game; that made me feel like I achieved something,” Obada said. “I knew I had it, but I just said, ‘You know what, I’m going to hold onto this ball. I’m not going to try to get up and try to score and have somebody punch it out.’ I’m going to get the ball, give it to my quarterback and let him do what he does.”
Cam Newton responded to the extra possession and extra good field position, directing the offense 26 yards for a touchdown and a 28-14 lead.
While that play call surprised Obada, he saw his next big moment coming a mile away. The Bengals took over at their own 27 with 4:21 left looking for a touchdown to tie, but Obada closed in on Dalton from the right side virtually untouched and sacked him for a 10-yard loss. The next play Dalton tried to force the ball downfield, resulting in a Donte Jackson interception that virtually sealed the victory.
“I knew it was coming. I saw it on film. I knew the quarterback was going to keep the ball, and I knew I needed to get there and make sure he didn’t bounce outside on me,” Obada said, stopping there when asked to further elaborate. “As I progress in my years, I’m going to get more technical and stuff. But right now, I’m just going to go out there and play football.”
And he’s not going to let go of his hunger anytime soon.
Obada was literally hungry after the game, answering countless questions from the media while hoping to soon leave for a celebratory dinner with his wife.
And then there’s that deeper hunger – the one fed by some many factors and still not satiated by even the most satisfying of starts.
“I’m filled with adrenaline right now and I’m happy, but this is just the beginning,” Obada said. “I’m happy, but I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I want to start creating that momentum and just keep going. I’m going to go back in the lab, prepare for the next opponent and go after it.”
Check out some of the scenes on the field and in the locker room as the international pathway defensive end soaks it all in.