Efe Obada had a choice to make.
The Panthers defensive end was spending his offseason with his family and friends in London, planning to return to Charlotte for the normal offseason training programs. But as the cases of COVID-19 spread around the world in March, talks of travel bans also increased. Then came the unknowns.
Should Obada leave to make sure he was back in time for football, or risk getting stuck in England?
“Things started to take a turn and the country started closing down borders,” Obada told The Observer. “In anticipation for that, I kind of made the decision to come early in mid-March to avoid that and I actually missed the travel ban by two days. That was crazy.”
Uncertainty is not what makes Obada’s story over the past few months unique. It’s how he utilized his offseason — and the pandemic — that stands out.
Across the ocean from his family, Obada has worked around the obstacles created by coronavirus, including international travel bans, and an ever-changing NFL calendar. Through it all, the defensive end has seen his abilities — and knowledge of Charlotte — grow, getting a crash course in football from the virtual offseason.
Obada, 28, started the offseason by signing a one-year contract extension in January, the first player the Panthers re-signed in 2020. And in the months since, new coach Matt Rhule has praised his growth, giving him a chance to shine under a new coaching staff and in a brand new defense. On top of that, he had an offseason to learn football in a way he never has before.
His path to the NFL has been well documented. Born in Nigeria, he became a victim of human trafficking as a child. He was trafficked to the Netherlands at age 10 and wound up homeless in south London with his sister, living in and out of foster homes.
He eventually discovered football at 21-years old with the London Warriors football team. The Cowboys gave him a tryout based on a recommendation and, after brief stints with the Falcons and Chiefs, he found his way to Carolina, where he has played the last two years.
But this offseason more than ever, he was given his first opportunity to study the sport.
Because of the way Obada came to the NFL, never playing in college or having extended time to learn football, the virtual OTAs came in particularly handy. Before this summer, his training came come on the job with the focus just on what he needed to do and relying on his athletic ability; more of a “micro” look rather than the whole picture.
“It was different, it was more football learning, which I kind of needed to learn more about the game, situational awareness and being more present. Just learning the game really and just understanding what this team is trying to do,” Obada said. “(Before) linebackers and safeties would have a conversation, I wouldn’t understand what they were saying, but now when they’re having their conversation, I am very privy to what they are talking about and I can be like OK, I can see the whole picture a bit more.”
The defensive end came to the league as a member of the NFL’s International Pathways program, which gives international athletes the opportunity to spend time and earn a spot on an NFL roster. In 2018, he became the first in the program to be active for an NFL game.
Last year, in his second full season in the NFL, he played in all 16 games for the first time, finishing with 24 tackles, including two for loss and one pass defended.
When asked about his role and expectations for the Panthers’ defense under coordinator Phil Snow, Obada did not want to give away too much information on what the team is working on, preferring to keep that under wraps for now. Rhule, however, shed some light on the subject.
“I think (Obada’s) had a tremendous offseason. He’s up to about 275 pounds, explosive, really committed to being a good player,” the Panthers head coach said earlier this month. “He’s somebody that we feel like we can use in a lot of different places, he could be a defensive end, he could go inside and be a sub defensive tackle, he can play in an odd package, can play in a four-down package. I think he’s gonna have a really nice year for us and I say that based upon all the work he did this offseason.”
Obada remained in Charlotte for almost the entire remainder of the offseason, and gained information about more than just football. He was able to talk with his family over FaceTime and phone calls, and took advantage of the time to better explore the city. Learning how to fish and staying in shape were among his favorite activities.
On top of his family being an ocean away, his wife has Lupus, a systemic autoimmune disorder, which leaves her more vulnerable to COVID-19. She has had to shield herself with the virus ongoing. Despite that, opting out would never have been an option for Obada. Football has done so much for him, and most professions don’t give employees the option of not going to work and still getting paid. Plus, he said, “I’ve done worse for less.”
He had an opportunity to go back to England in July to see his family, but because of the mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the country from the United States, his jet lag mixed with being stuck inside and needing to train made it a less-than-ideal visit. If and when it’s safe and the travel bans are relaxed in both countries, he’s hoping his wife can come here.
“I would hate to go to a game or during the season I come home and give it to her, that would be devastating, that would break my heart,” Obada said.”We’re just kind of playing it by ear for now.”
Obada hopes everyone does what they need to stay safe and use their voices in any way they feel comfortable, as he did this offseason on social media following the protests surrounding racial equality and police brutality.
Now it’s time for camp, and he’s staying focused on finding his role on this Panthers defense. Even if he’s keeping his goals to himself.
“Be a factor and help this team win, but I’ve also got some personal goals I’ll keep close to my vest,” Obada said. “I’ve got my head in the sand. It’s work time now.”
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