Panthers’ Obada makes improbable NFL debut

Carolina defensive end was a victim of human trafficking, but he clawed his way from Europe to earning the game ball with a sack and interception against Cincinnati

Panthers defensive end Efa Obada pressures Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton during Carolina’s win Sunday in Charlotte. Obada, making his NFL debut, was a victim of human trafficking as a child. (Jason E. Miczek / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Efe Obada tried to do things the right way.

Meeting the media after his first NFL game, the defensive end tried to deflect attention and talk about Carolina’s win over Cincinnati.

“I’m happy,” Obada said in his clipped British accent, white gold tooth gleaming in the camera lights. “Let’s leave it at that. I’m happy.”

The media, of course, couldn’t leave it at that and peppered Obada with questions about his remarkable performance in his NFL debut. 

“I’m happy that we won,” he said. “It’s a team effort.”

Obada apologized for his discomfort in the spotlight. “You’re not going to get a lot from me,” he said. “I’m not used to this. … As you can tell, I’m not making eye contact.”

Finally, Obada couldn’t keep up the smokescreen any longer. He collapsed in laughter and waved his hands in front of his face.

“It’s too much,” he said.

Indeed, the story of how the Nigerian-born Obada reached this point in his life is too much. It strains the limits of credibility.

As a 10-year-old, Obada and his sister were victims of human trafficking. His mother reportedly tried to send them to England to have a better life, but the stranger who promised to take them there, instead had them shuttled around Europe from the Netherlands to England, where they were found homeless living on the London streets.

Obada doesn’t talk about his childhood — the scars are still too fresh. So details are scarce. He’s said that he bounced around the foster care system and, at one point, joined a gang.

As he entered adulthood, he found a goal to motivate him, although there was no reason to believe it was achievable. A 22-year-old African-European with no experience playing organized football, Obada decided he wanted to play in the NFL.

“I found out about American football four years ago,” he said. “That’s because the Dallas Cowboys came over to London, and I had the opportunity to have an unofficial workout with them.”

From there, Obada signed with the London Warriors. The games were a far cry from the attention America’s team garnered. The Britbowl — the league’s championship game — regularly drew 2,000-3,000 fans.

Obada’s British American Football League career was short-lived. Four games in, he was signed by the Cowboys and headed to the United States.

“They picked me up, and then I started believing,” he said. “Soon, I came out to America, and the rest is history.”

The history included being a training camp cut, then spending two stints on the practice squad during the 2015 season. From there, he bounced around the league, spending time on the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster for offseason minicamps, only to be cut before training camp began. He was also a training camp cut by the Falcons in 2016.

When the Carolina Panthers signed him to their offseason minicamp roster on May 25, 2017, Obada had been in the United States pursuing a football career for just over two years. During that time, he’d spent 381 days on an NFL team’s roster and 404 days looking for someone to sign him.

In 2017, the NFL started a program to encourage foreign participation in the league. Obada was given a camp roster exemption — meaning he didn’t count toward the Panthers’ 85-man limit, and an extra practice squad spot to help him develop.

Still, the odds were long. No one had ever gone from a European football league to the NFL, and of the 28,792 players that have suited up in NFL history, a grand total of 472 have done so without ever playing in college. The vast majority of that group were punters and kickers. The last defensive lineman to play in the NFL with no college experience was Ray Seals, who retired in 1997. Only nine others preceded him.

Obada was a bright spot in 2017 training camp, getting a sack in his first preseason game. After a year on the practice squad, he picked up where he left off, beating out former third-round draft pick Daeshon Hall for a spot on the Panthers’ 53-man roster.

“Ron (Rivera) has seen something in him since day one,” said GM Marty Hurney.

Making the roster didn’t mean Obada got a jersey. He was declared inactive for the first two games, which drove him even harder in practice.

“Not getting that opportunity straight off the bat gave me the drive, that when I do get it, I’m going to go all out,” he said. “I was hungry, man. I didn’t want to go into the bye week and not have the opportunity to show this team what I can do.”

In Week 3, with the bye looming the following week, Obada got his chance, and the story got even less believable.

“Opportunity,” said quarterback Cam Newton. “Opportunity knocked on his door, and he opened it smiling.”

A few snaps after taking the field for the first time, he sacked Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and stripped the ball loose — although video review changed the result to an incomplete pass.

Later, he pulled down a tipped pass for an interception.

“Mario Addison said he’s been playing 15 years, and he hasn’t had one yet,” Obada said. “And I get one in my first game.”

Obada added a sack later in the game — one that counted this time — bringing down Dalton near the goal line. He credited film review for allowing him to get past the tight end.

“We’ve seen that play before,” he said. “So I knew it was coming.”

Each time Obada made a play, the sideline exploded in celebration in a show of emotion rarely seen in the NFL.

“It couldn’t have happened to a better person,” said Julius Peppers. “That’s just what happens when you’re a good person and you work hard.”

As the bye week begins, Obada plans to go right back to work.

“I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder,” he said. “I’m going to go back into the lab.”