Carolina Panthers

You know Efe Obada’s incredible past. The Panthers in London is a sign of his future.

The boy bombarded him, appearing as suddenly and out of nowhere as a brisk breeze on a London afternoon. His clean white Carolina Panthers t-shirt rippled in that same wind, and his arms flailed with each bounding step across the grounds at Harrow School. At last he stopped kicking up tiny turf pellets, slowing step by step until he finally was face-to-face with the one player he admired most.

And Efe Obada was confused.

Why had this boy — out of all the others at the Panthers’ Play60 event Thursday ahead of Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers — singled him out?

Obada has drawn plenty of media and fan attention this weekend, considering he’s a London native making his homecoming and the first player from the NFL’s International Pathway Program to make a 53-man roster. Factor in his tumultuous upbringing, when he was a victim of human trafficking and briefly homeless, and it makes his return more notable.

But this was a field littered with superstars. Unimpeded access to Luke Kuechly and Greg Olsen, and even physical marvels such as Dontari Poe.

But the boy had something to say to Obada:

Thank you so much.

And he hugged his hero.

Out with the past

Obada’s backstory, with all its heartbreaking turns, has been told and retold countless times over the last year since he made the Panthers’ 53-man roster in 2018. He was born in Nigeria, trafficked to the Netherlands as a 10-year-old and eventually wound up homeless in south London. He fell into the foster system and subsequent gang culture before eventually discovering football with the London Warriors football team by chance.

When a Warriors assistant coach landed an internship with the Cowboys years later, he put Dallas onto Obada, who was signed to the practice squad on raw talent. From there he bounced to Kansas City and Atlanta before finally landing in Carolina in 2017.

But why dwell the ugliness and pain Obada, still just 27, has had to grapple with in his young life?

Obada’s trauma is his to process and his alone. To this day, he still is — understandably — uncomfortable discussing what exactly he went through.

There is much more to his story.

“You know, you talk about Efe growing up, that is a tremendous story,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week. “But as a football player, when you get your chance, it’s about taking advantage of the opportunity, and that’s what Efe’s done.

“Here’s a guy that didn’t grow up playing football like we do here in the United States. So when he got his opportunity to play in England, he showed and they gave him the chance — and he took advantage of it. That, to me, is really what the story is when you get past his growing up.”

Obada certainly has done that. In his first active game last season, in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Obada recorded a sack and an interception. He also had a strip sack nullified by a penalty. For his effort, he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

In his first ever NFL game.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada (94) had his first career sack, as well as an interception, in his NFL debut last season in Week 3 against the Bengals. Jeff Siner

“He’s worked super hard since he got here,” Kuechly said this week. “His journey from where he was until now shows how hard he works and how persistent he is.”

Since then, Obada has been a rotational defensive linemen for the Panthers. This season, as the team has transitioned to a new 3-4 defensive scheme, he has been tasked with learning how to play on the interior and on the edge. He doesn’t have a sack this season, but if he were to get his first in London ...

“You’ll see me spazz out,” Obada said. “I will seriously spazz out.”

That said, viewing Obada singularly — as a feel-good tale or a football player in progress — still doesn’t fully capture his story’s potential.

In with the new

Everything about Obada’s childhood and his recent success can be found with a simple Google search.

What isn’t as readily apparent, or apparent at all, is his growth. And for that, it’s best to just let Obada do the talking.

“I just think last year with the media frenzy and stuff, I kind of got overwhelmed,” he said this week. “Now I think I’m a bit more accustomed to that.” This after hardly maintaining eye contact with any reporter following his 2018 breakout against the Bengals.

But media accountability and comfort is far from the only way Obada has grown.

In three years in Charlotte, and especially these past 12 months, Obada has evolved as a person. He better understands his responsibilities as a football player, both in gap penetration and community involvement. While his upbringing is still a raw subject, he has newfound self-awareness for how his journey could potentially carve a new path for others.

“I’m aware that there’s a lot of people that are in my position and a lot of people that come from where I come from,” he said. “I have the platform — and I’m fortunate to have the platform — to tell that story. It’s a very common story. It’s a very common upbringing. And a lot of people don’t have the chances to do that.

“So if by me chasing my dreams and being a part of this and working hard subconsciously motivates them to let them know that it’s possible, then that’s what I can do.”

More than anything, particularly in preparation of this London trip, Obada has leaned into what it means to be a role model.

That’s why, when the team arrived early Thursday morning, people in the airport were screaming out his name. He’s the local son, and he embraces what that means — even if it goes against his demeanor.

“Truthfully, Efe is kind of a shy guy by nature,” Rivera said. “Just seeing his reaction to people screaming out, ‘Efe! Efe Obada!’ — he just kind of smiled a big smile on his face, but you could tell he was blushing.”

That smile has been more visible this week leading up to Sunday’s game.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada (second from left) was the main attraction with students from Harrow School on Thursday, when the NFL held a Play60 event after team practice. Jeff Siner

“What are the chances of me being on a team that’s going to go back to London?” Obada said grinning on Tuesday. “That’s kind of why I’m grateful. I feel like the stars are aligning, and I’m just going to make the most of it.”

Back to that kid at Harrow School on Thursday.

After hugging Obada, the two talked about where they’re from. The kid wasn’t from Obada’s neighborhood in London, nor did they share much in common aside from an accent.

Eventually, right before he ran away, the kid told Obada he had nothing else to say to him.

He’d already said more than enough.

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Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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