CHARLOTTE — In his first-ever NFL regular-season game, Panthers defensive end Efe Obada had an interception, tallied a sack and had a sack-fumble overturned on review. It was the game of his life—not because it was his NFL debut, but because there aren’t many games from which to choose. At 26 years old, Obada has played in just 20 games of competitive football in his entire life. And still, that’s not the end of his story.
Born in Nigeria, Obada was trafficked with his sister from the Netherlands (where he was living at the time) to London when he was 10 years old. We don’t know much else about his story—Obada has never fully shared it—except that at 22 he discovered American football and played in five games for the London Warriors of the BAFA National League. The Cowboys found him on an international scouting trip in 2015, and since then he bounced around four different NFL teams before finally getting a game jersey Sunday with the Panthers.
Standing at his locker after the 31–21 win against the Bengals, Obada opted against making eye contact with media members, instead focusing on tearing the tape off his fingers.
“You’re not going to get a lot from me because I’m not used to this,” Obada said.
We regularly hear about long shots in the NFL, men who defied the odds to become successful football players. Maybe they overcame an illness, or perhaps they rose out of crippling poverty. Just last week I spoke to Keelan Cole, who went from a seldomly used 120-pound cornerback in high school to the leading receiver for the AFC South champions.
The odds for Obada, though? “Even smaller,” Panthers defensive end Mario Addison told me.
Obada has told reporters he’s not ready to talk about his background yet, and it seems most have obliged. We stick to saying “your story” or “your journey” when talking with Obada, and both sides understand what it means.
But in 2015 he offered more than he ever has about those terrifying days when he was a victim of human trafficking at just 10 years old.
“This lady just left us out on the streets. It was scary and we were lonely,” Obada told NFL UK (via NPR). “We went to a tower block building and there was a security guard there. We explained our situation and he let us sleep in the foyer of the flats. We spent two or three nights sleeping in the foyer of that building and we only had our jackets to keep us warm. It was freezing."
Fast forward 12 years to when Obada is playing American football for the London Warriors while working as a warehouse storeman for a Caribbean-food grocery store. The team’s defensive coordinator had been a coaching intern with the Cowboys in 2014, and Obada participated in an unofficial workout for America’s team that year. In April 2015 the Cowboys signed him to their 90-man roster.
He had two stops on their practice squad for a total of seven weeks before getting waived. Obada joined the Chiefs for a cup of coffee in the 2016 offseason and spent training camp with the Falcons before getting cut.
Obada ended up in Carolina by pure luck. The NFL introduced its International Pathway Program for foreign players in 2017, and four players with potential were chosen to join a team’s practice squad and be given an exemption as the 11th player. The NFC South was drawn at random, and the Panthers got Obada. He was obviously raw, but the Panthers saw talent in the 6' 6", 265-pounder. He struggled with some of the finer points of the game—down-blocking especially—but earned another shot with Carolina in 2018 when during the preseason, Panthers coach Ron Rivera identified him as the team’s most productive young defensive end.
He made the 53-man roster but was inactive for the first two games of the 2018 season. Obada didn’t want to go into Carolina’s early Week 4 bye without showing the coaches they made the right decision, and he put together the best week of practice of all players according to his coaches. He found out he’d be active against Cincinnati when he walked into the locker room Sunday morning and saw his jersey and pads placed on his chair.
“He’s had this mindset that ‘I refuse to be a practice squad player. I want to play,’” Panthers defensive end Wes Horton says. “He’s always in tune with the meetings, on the grass. We all knew Efe had it in him to have the game that he had, but to actually see it happen is another thing.”
Early in the second quarter up 14–7, Obada appeared to force an Andy Dalton fumble when he sacked the quarterback and hit his throwing arm. The Panthers recovered, but a review showed that Dalton still had possession of the ball as he threw it despite the hit, and the call was changed to an incomplete pass.
Who cares? It was still a hell of a play, and Obada’s teammates treated him like an MVP on the sideline.
In the third quarter, Dalton looked to Josh Malone on first down but the pass was deflected by James Bradberry. The ball floated in the air and Obada slid to get the interception before getting mobbed by his teammates both to protect the turnover but also to celebrate.
To cap off the career day, Obada finally got his sack in the fourth quarter. Tight end Tyler Kroft was tasked with blocking Obada, but Obada pushed through and enveloped Dalton for a loss of 10 yards. One play later and backed up against his own goal line, Dalton threw a game-sealing interception.
Obada said film study helped him recognize the blocking scheme on his sack. He knew that left tackle Cordy Glenn would block down and Kroft would rotate left to pick him up. But what exactly about that play design keyed him to that pre-snap?
“I’m a bit new to this,” Obada sheepishly said. “That’s what was coached up and taught. 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.”
Veteran safety Mike Adams said that after big plays, Obada would repeatedly scream, “They don’t know me!” Adams assumed Obada was referring to how opposing players didn’t know Obada because he’s from London. But that’s not what Obada meant.
“They don’t know me,” Obada said. “They don’t know my grind. They don’t know what it took to get here.
“It took everything.”