If you don’t speak face-to-face with Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada, there’s one thing you’d never know about him.
But there are plenty of ways to get to know Obada without talking to him directly.
Read any news article about him, and you’ll learn that Obada, 26, is the first player from the NFL’s International Pathway Program to make a 53-man roster.
Watch any television clip, and it’ll detail Obada’s heartbreaking journey to the NFL: Born in Nigeria, then being trafficked to London with his sister when he was 10, only to be abandoned and left homeless from there.
Check his team bio, and it’ll tell you that No. 94 didn’t even discover the game of American football until he was 22, still living in England.
And while all that provides an abbreviated version of Obada’s life story, it doesn’t tell you the one personal detail about him that his teammates noticed first thing Sunday morning:
The chrome tooth on the top row of his teeth was blinging all over the locker room.
So when Obada, who was inactive for Carolina’s first two games, walked into the locker room Sunday and saw a jersey hanging in his locker, signaling he’d be active for his first NFL game, you betcha that tooth was going to be on full display.
“Efe has a chrome tooth right there — you know when he’s smiling, because that thing, it hits you. It hits you. He let that chrome shine,” defensive end Mario Addison said. “When I looked at him, he couldn’t do nothing but smile, man.”
But for all of Obada’s understandable excitement before the game, can you imagine what that tooth looked like postgame?
In his first career regular season game, an eventual 31-21 Panthers victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Obada did more than just provide defensive line depth. He was the polar opposite of being “just a body.”
Obada finished Sunday’s game with a 10-yard sack, another quarterback hit and an interception, not to mention a forced fumble that was ultimately reviewed and ruled an incomplete pass. Oh, and one more thing, courtesy of coach Ron Rivera.
“It wasn’t hard’
A game ball — with a second going to rookie cornerback Donte Jackson, who had two interceptions.
“It wasn’t hard,” Rivera said of the decision about who deserved a game ball. “It really wasn’t.”
Obada’s first big play of the day, when he knocked the ball out of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s arm as he threw, disappeared after officials reviewed the play and decided it was an incomplete pass. But no matter — Obada was credited with a quarterback hit instead, and there was still plenty of time left to make his impact.
“I was hungry, man,” Obada said. “I felt like, not getting that opportunity straight off the bat (to play in the first two games) instilled in me that hunger and that drive that when I do get that opportunity, I’m going to go all out.”
So a quarter later, when cornerback James Bradberry tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage high into the air, Obada had another opportunity. Despite never having an interception at any level of football — “not even in practice,” Obada joked afterward — he tracked the ball out of the sky and fell to the ground with it clutched in his arms.
As simple as see ball, get ball, Obada explained later. And as he came to the sidelines, shouts of support pouring in his from teammates, Obada gestured to the fans to get just as hyped as he was.
More to come
Only even then, Obada wasn’t done. In the fourth quarter, with just over four minutes to play and Cincinnati’s offense on the field, Obada was the spark that snuffed out any realistic comeback attempt.
On first down, Dalton dropped back ... and his blockers completely ignored Obada charging at the quarterback’s blind side. So Obada rocked Dalton, drilling him in the midsection and dropping him for a 10-yard loss.
The very next play, Dalton threw a deep pass that Jackson intercepted. A few Panthers first downs later, a field goal, and the game was effectively over.
“(His story) speaks volume on his character,” Addison said. “A guy like that, making it from where he came from, slim to none —for him to get out here for his first game start, and do that? Man, that’s love.
“He hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. That was just the first game. He’s got so much more in him, man. I’m just proud of him.”
A postgame scrum
In the locker room postgame, Rivera and the rest of the team huddled around as Obada was given his first game ball. They took pictures, videos, screamed and hollered. Then Obada dealt with an overwhelming scrum of reporters, doing his best to be polite while also rushing to see his wife, who had watched from the stands.
And as Obada answered a slew of questions — he acknowledged he never expected such a rousing debut, nor did he know all the technical elements of the offensive plays he had blown up — there was one other thing about him that stood out.
Besides the chrome tooth, of course.
It was his fire. Tasting success, ever so briefly, and being ... teased by it. And knowing that no matter what it takes, no matter how long the wait is, that you won’t rest until you do so again.
“You never know until you know,” Obada said. “I’m over the moon. Words can’t describe how I feel.
“But I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I want to go back in the lab, I want to prepare for the next opponent, and I’m going to get after it.”