MF writer Laurence McJannet talks to the Washington Commanders defensive tackle about his unorthodox journey to the NFL, the key to his longevity and his Super Bowl XLIII predictions…
Efe Obada is possibly as far from the picture of a typical NFL star as you’re likely to get. Multimillionaire braggard and showman he most definitely is not. Instead Efe is a humble guy with an infectious laugh who has stayed true to his London and Nigerian roots. Those roots make his nine-year career in America’s biggest sport seem highly improbable, but it’s one he’s founded on an incredibly strong work ethic. It’s even more surprising, though, when you consider most American kids get into the sport at five or six and Efe discovered it at the ripe old age of 21.
Born in Warri, Nigeria, Efe’s formative years were spent in the Netherlands and England, where he was trafficked and abandoned, aged 10. Eventually picked up by social services, he went into foster care and came to call south London his home.
Making it into the NFL
A friend who played with the London Warriors in the British American Football League introduced him to the sport, thinking his physique would make him a natural fit. How right he was. It wasn’t long before no less than the Dallas Cowboys came knocking. “I was 21, just doing it for fun, didn’t think anything of it,” says Efe. “I just wanted an outlet. An opportunity presented itself to try out for the Cowboys. I gave it everything I had then went back to work. When Dallas were confirming their roster they gave me a call. I quit my job and went straight into training. I made the practice squad in the first year, and been knocking at the door ever since.” Not bad for a guy who had never played any sport seriously before.
His progress was rapid – he was the first player to go from the European football leagues direct to the NFL. His career has spanned nine years, with spells at the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, before his big break at the Carolina Panthers. Then a move to the Buffalo Bills and ultimately the Washington Commanders.
He’s been going more than twice as long as most NFL careers last, and shows no signs of stopping. Along the way he had to negotiate a new country and culture, as well as the rules and terminology of a new sport, not to mention imposter syndrome. Forging a path for himself in the NFL took not only physical prowess but also mental fortitude.
When we talk, Efe is coming off the back of a frustrating season. The Washington Commanders finished the season 4 and 13, the bottom of their division and a long way from the playoffs. None of that can be laid at Efe’s door, though. During his third game a teammate fell on his leg and broke it.
Efe Obada’s recovery from injury
“I think the season has gone the same way for both of us,” he laughs. “I started full of optimism, committed to getting ready and being in the best shape, setting goals. But my body let me down.” He had immediate surgery and luckily didn’t get compartment syndrome (an increase in pressure which can cause nerve damage). “It’s one of the biggest injuries I’ve ever had. Nothing’s ever taken me out of the game for that long before. In a few months I should be fully fit; I just need to reteach and reactivate all the muscles around it as atrophy has set in. At the top of my fitness I was unstoppable – after my injury I felt like a baby again. It’s been a humbling experience.”
His season over, Efe had to watch on as his team’s season crumbled too. For teams that don’t make the playoffs, the season ends in January. (Out of 32 teams across eight divisions in two conferences, only the division winners and six wildcards make it through to the first of three rounds of playoffs. Win those and you’ll make it to perhaps the world’s biggest sporting spectacle – the Super Bowl. This year’s iteration – Super Bowl LVIII – is in Las Vegas this Sunday, 11 February.)
Rest and recovery
Despite the disappointment, Efe is pragmatic. “It’s a good time to rest and let the body heal. Some people fast to get rid of all the medication, give their bodies a reset, go home and spend some time with their families. After that we get straight back into it. It doesn’t seam like it, with the regular season being four and a half months long, but it’s a year-long cycle.
“Off season is hard too. It’s meant to break you and then rebuild you. We start back with three to four days a week of rehab, cardio, weights. Then in April we’re back with the team for off-season training. That’s conditioning, weight training, getting into your programmes at training camp. Then we get a month off between June and July, go home and get our affairs in order. Because when the season starts in September it’s relentless. Then we’re back with the team for a crash course, fine tuning everything – position-specific drills in training camp for a month. It’s four days on, one day off. Then five days on, one off, then the season starts and it’s go. Week to week to week, non-stop. You’ve got to take your breaks when you can. Each team only gets one bye week [in a 17-game season].”
The key to Efe Obada’s longevity
So given the attritional nature of this sport, what does Efe put his longevity down to? “It’s a game of luck some times and anything can happen. At the same time I’m very diligent in terms of rehab. Guys I learned from early on taught me that this career is predicated on your body – what you put into it, how you look after it. And it really pays dividends to look after it. I don’t drink, I eat the right food, I sleep properly. And I make use of all the facilities that are available to me – like the ice tubs and saunas. I make sure I strengthen the right things and train the right way to protect myself from soft tissue injuries.” Though nothing could have protected him against the freak accident that ended his season. “As I said, it’s a game of luck.”
In terms of nutrition, in his early career Efe was consuming 7,000kcal a day during training camp. Now he’s getting older “and things are starting to stick a little”, that’s now down to 5,000-6,000kcal. He makes sure he gets 250g of protein per day – that’s 1.7g per kg of body weight. He’s flexible with carbs but tries to keep them complex. He also goes for healthy fats like nuts and avocado. “I always have an avocado with my eggs. I have five to six meals a day, but if it’s jollof rice [a Nigerian speciality] I’ll just keep plating up!” he laughs.
Efe Obada’s position
When Efe first entered the NFL he was a defensive end but had to adapt to keep his place in the team. “Draft picks would come in and they’d get the job over me. I had to put on weight and move inside to become a defense tackle to keep my job.” So what does being a defensive tackle involve? “My job is to be the first on the scene, to get whoever has the ball, to stop the play, to sack the quarterback. I need to get to the ball carrier before he gets to the secondary. It’s simple really – see ball, get ball, but within a system.”
Efe acknowledges he’s fortunate to be where he is, and makes sure he gives back to the sport as much as he can. As well as supporting causes like NFL Africa, BIGKID Foundation and Mind, he’s also an ambassador for the NFL Academy, based in Loughborough. “It’s an education and life skills programme that uses American football to create opportunities for student athletes aged 16-19, under the supervision of professional coaches,” says Efe. “I’ve been involved since its inception. Throughout my career I’ve got messages from people saying, I want to do what you did, I just don’t know how. So the Academy gave me a way to help these kids who were reaching out. It’s a way to get a scholarship to an American university and possibly a route into the NFL. We’ve had 40 students win scholarships and at the moment have 63 kids from 13 countries trying to do the same. I also mentor some of the students over Zoom when I’m in the US. I’d like to do more but just don’t have the time during the season.”
Super Bowl LVIII
Talk inevitably moves on to the Super Bowl, which Efe says is the prize his eyes are still firmly set on. With the championship matches still to come I ask him who his money’s on for Super Bowl LVIII? “My prediction is the Kansas City Chiefs. They’ve been there before and I wouldn’t bet against [their quarterback] Patrick Mahomes, especially in Vegas.” For the record, a few days later the Chiefs beat the much-fancied Baltimore Ravens to set up a Super Bowl showdown with the San Fransisco 49ers.
By the spring Efe should be fully fit again and vying to win his place back on the Commanders starting line-up. That will be his 10th year, when most pros don’t get to see their fourth. After his biggest ever setback, the longest serving British NFL player shows no signs of hanging up his cleats any time soon.
Efe Obada is an ambassador for the NFL Academy. To find out more about the initiative, visit nflacademy.com