Efe Obada searches for home

He is the "glitch in the matrix." A miracle. The native Nigerian has lived all over the world. Now, he’s in Buffalo to supply a Super Bowl contender exactly what it needs.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — His joy gobsmacks you. His unbridled, unapologetic, infectious joy. Right here is the sort of bloke you simply need to be around, as if he’s emitting Vitamin D for all to absorb in his own personal solar system. Feeling down and out? Within seconds of being in this man’s presence, you are having a phenomenal day.

That’s the Efe Obada Effect.

Step into CoreLife Eatery, 2.5 miles from Highmark Stadium, and the 6-foot-6, 266-pound, Adonis-cut defensive end rises for a handshake that feels more like stuffing your arm in a meat grinder. Told that maybe the Buffalo Bills’ stammering pass rush is in good hands, he cuts in.

Great hands,” he corrects. With that, Obada pulls you in for the full dap. No greeting with him can be too rigid, too formal.

When he speaks, his blissful British accent is accentuated with a contagious laugh.

When he smiles, you see that permanent white gold tooth. A “London thing,” he says with a chuckle.

When he moves his arms around, you see the “wish bracelet” on his wrist. Both he and his wife have one. Whosever’s snaps first will see their wish come true.

He barely touches his food through two hours of conversation, but that’s fine. Obada says he’ll finish it later. And despite being a pro athlete with approximately 1.2 million items on his to-do list on this eve of camp, Obada insists he’s got time to kill and wants to shoot a little pool. He invites you to the rec room of his apartment complex to play, drains shot after shot, and says there’s a basketball court here, too.

Sensing interest, he then leads you back there for a game of “HORSE.”

What a hilarious expedition this is, too. Obada attempts every stunt imaginable, from bouncing the ball off his head 10 feet away, to high-arching one from behind the backboard Larry Bird-style to laser-beaming a rocket at the rim with one hand from halfcourt. No, he has never been coveted by NBA scouts. We both build a house of bricks. But, whatever. As he yelps and laughs, Obada is having the time of his life because Obada is always having the time of his life.

It’s impossible to tell that this is someone who’s been through hell.

Maybe you’ve caught snippets of Obada’s Nigeria-to-Holland-to-London-to-America odyssey but that’s probably it. Snippets. Obada has been reluctant to completely open up on his unparalleled road to the NFL. But on the cusp of what he knows will be a breakout 2021 season, he decides to share more than he ever has with Go Long because Obada also knows this: Sharing his life story can change the lives of others. As surreal as his journey may seem, it’s not rare.

Countless others are suffering through the same underground world of pain and stress.

He can shine that light. He can make a difference.

Friends tell the 29-year-old Obada that he’s a “glitch in the matrix,” and here’s why.

This is someone who was smuggled into a new country at 10… who was then abandoned in the streets of London… who was abused by his caretakers… who joined London gangs because he had to feed himself and his sister…who, all along, was an illegal immigrant unable to pursue his dreams as a teen… who got a chance to play in the NFL only to be cut repeatedly… who clawed his way to the gameday roster in Carolina and is now here — in Buffalo — with a chance to be the game-wrecker that elevates the Bills into the Super Bowl.

It’s no secret what stands in this team’s way: Patrick Mahomes.

In the AFC Championship, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback hardly broke a sweat. Then, in the Super Bowl, he was running for his life. Exactly 497 yards worth to be exact, the most any QB all season was chased down. Tampa Bay supplied the blueprint to all teams trying to stymie all elite quarterbacks and, frankly, it doesn’t require much All-22 grinding. You must relentlessly punch and punch and punch for 12 rounds. That’s it. As dynamite as the Bills offense can be, the passing game alone will always fall short if they cannot attack the other team’s quarterback.

Which is why the timing of this union feels so perfect to Efe Obada.

His globetrotting has aligned perfectly with Buffalo’s ascension.

Obada can be a player that chases Mahomes all over the field.

“He’s on my bucket list,” he says. “Definitely.”

To him, it’s not a matter of whether he can be the guy who closes the Super Bowl gap in Buffalo.

“I know I’m that guy. I am that guy,” Obada says. “I’m very confident — I have to be. With the amount of sacrifices I’ve made and the way I work, I have to believe that.

“Because of everything. How far I’ve come. How hard I work. I know how much I’ve sacrificed.”

So, don’t get his jubilant disposition twisted. Obada still feels a tick unfulfilled. He’s still on edge and, no, you can’t blame him. Obada’s been a nomad — a kid with zero guidance in London, an adult with zero safety net in the states — constantly in search of a true home.

He has lived out of a suitcase forever. Such life scars do not heal with a one-year contract.

Obada may be handing you his phone, telling you to fire up some country music here over pool because he’s curious like that. Tyler Childers’ “Whitehouse Road” does get his head bobbing, too.

Obada may be outstretching his arms in front of the stadium he plans to make his own personal octagon this season.

But he’s not ready to celebrate. Not yet. Rather, it feels like he’s just now rounding the corner in life. His body’s torqued, his arms are chopping, he’s about to smash the quarterback. This season feels like the climax of his epic life and he’ll finally get what he’s always dreamt of: A home.

“I just want to live stable and buy a home that nobody else can take from me,” he says, pausing.

“I’ve been living unstable.”

To put it mildly.

“Survival Mode”

Imagine being 10 years old, alone, in a foreign country. You don’t know anyone. You don’t speak the language. The person who brought you here bailed.

That was Efe Obada.

That was the nightmare both he and his sister endured.  

Oh, this all started innocently enough: With a desire to pursue a new life in London. Initially, Obada and his sister were raised in Nigeria by their father. Details are sketchy — “we haven’t spoken about it,” he says — but Dad got into trouble so the kids moved to Holland to live with their Mom when Obada was 6 or 7. A Mom that Obada was actually meeting for the first time. He lived here until the age of 10, when Mom hatched a plan for the three of them to move to the English-speaking United Kingdom.

Someone would smuggle Efe and his sister into the UK and, then, she’d follow.

Along the journey west, Obada had to pretend to be someone else. This smuggler told him if he was asked this to say that, etc.

The kids made it to Hackney, a borough of London, and the plan blew up.

They were abandoned.

The person who smuggled the kids in straight up “took the money and left,” Obada says. This wasn’t quite child trafficking as often circulated but being dumped off in a random apartment building felt nearly as hopeless as a kid. He still remembers his sister breaking down in tears. He still remembers, right away, trying to find somebody… anybody… who could help them find a phone to call Mom. One security guard in the building was kind enough to lend a hand.

Obada called his Mom, who arranged for her kids to stay temporarily with someone she knew locally.

She was right behind them, after all.

Until she wasn’t. Until her visa situation fell through. Until things, somehow, got worse.

The two kids ended up staying with this unknown woman — and her five other kids in a cramped three-bedroom apartment — for five years.

“She really took advantage of us,” Obada says. “She treated us like domestic slaves. But at the time? I just didn’t know. You don’t have any options. You don’t have any family. You just think everything’s normal. You don’t have anyone to talk to. You don’t have a support system. Your Mom can’t come in. Your Dad’s not available. You’re just in the situation. I had to be there for myself and my sister. And honestly, until I came into football, until I shared my experience, I personally didn’t feel that what I was experiencing was not normal.”

Those other five kids never did any housework. The Obadas were forced to do everything.

Asked if his mother had any clue how bad this was, Obada says he’s not sure. He bites his tongue.

Social services visited regularly to check in on his sister’s health and, eventually, intervened. The living situation was so bad that the two were pulled out and inserted into the foster care system. From there, the Obadas cycled through 10-plus homes. He admits he was full of pent-up “anger” and pent-up “hurt.” How could he not? After being abandoned? His real parents were MIA and the people taking them in sure didn’t seem interested in being parents. Obada believes they were seeking the financial benefits of foster care with no interest in expressing an ounce of love or care.

Thankfully, brother and sister were never separated. To this day, Efe is fiercely protective of his sister — he won’t reveal her name. Yet home to home to home there was “no stability… no nothing.” The day Obada turned 18, he stuffed his clothes into a bag and peaced out of his foster home. An entire childhood, just like that, had flashed before his eyes.

How does someone mature into a man under these circumstances? He chuckles.

“You don’t,” he says. “You don’t develop any attachments to anyone or anything. You don’t develop any attachments to any place. It’s constant survival mode. I had to keep doing it for my sister.”

All along, social services supplied the equivalent of $44 per week to each of them for everything — food, clothes, travel. Which, he assures, was “nothing.” Efe would give his $44 to his sister each week since she needed it more than him and — since both were illegal immigrants — neither could pursue a college education or a respectable 9-to-5 job.

Yet, life beat on. They needed money. So, Obada resorted to his only realistic option: London’s gang culture.

“I have to survive,” he says. “I have to live.”

It was unbelievably easy to get swept away. If you’re always outside, if nobody’s “policing you” in your life, he assures, you’ll likely succumb to a gang. Through his teenage years, his literal “home” never felt like a home. Outside was his “safe haven” and when everybody sees you outside? You’ll inevitably run into the wrong people day to day. His interpretation of a gang in this neighborhood is likely much different than what’s illustrated in your mind, too.

To him, it was more of a brotherhood.

“Sometimes,” he adds, “when you’re around a lot of guys, you will get a bit rowdy and you will get a pack mentality and you will get a bit defensive. But you’re just around your friends. You’re just having a good time. You create this name, this clique to protect yourself.”

Asked if drug dealing and stealing is wrapped into this lifestyle, he admits there is.

But this was about survival.

“I didn’t do it because I had any malice or hatred or anything,” he says. “I did these things so I could feed my sister. I did these things because 44 f------ dollars wasn’t enough. It’s just the options that were available to me as an illegal immigrant in order to survive in the streets of London. That’s what it was. I wasn’t trying to be Pablo Escobar!

“There were times I’d steal food just to eat.”

Whenever Obada is back in London, he asks around to see what happened to old friends. Here, at CoreLife, he re-enacts the chilling responses. How’s this person? “Dead.” How’s that person? “In jail.” How’s this person? “Dead.” And “dead” and “dead” and “dead.” Obada is one of the only people to make it out alive. That reality is always sobering because he knows so many of them were also immigrants trying to get by in life.

What he’d like to express today is what it feels like to be illegal — by no fault of his own.

He says it “clips your wings.” The threat that someone could report you constantly weighs on your mind. When Obada was able to get work at a warehouse or a cinema or in security or with a cleaning service or some other cash-in-hand side job — “Anything to get money, I’ve done it” — his bosses lowballed him. They held that illegal status over his head.

He felt like a drain on society.

He tried to leave the streets, too.

Obada was 16 years old when he first realized he was “illegal.” And when he tried to become “legal?” He was scammed. He and a friend found a solicitor who promised to get them citizenship papers and, boom, Obada lost $3,000 just like that. Not long after, he pursued a job at William Hill, a sportsbook in London. He shined through the intense application process, made it to the final stage and right when the company was set to hand Obada a handsome salary, that dream was crushed. The company asked him to show a passport which, of course, he did not possess.

He did not get the job. He was “broken” for weeks.

He knows there are people all over the world trapped in this same cycle, 99.99 percent of which are not jacked 266-pounders with a shot at playing professionally.

“Everything I’ve experienced isn’t foreign to a lot of people,” he says. “A lot of people are illegal. A lot of people are in foster care. A lot of people have no form of support system so they turn to gang cultures and do horrible things to survive. A lot of people are getting taken advantage of. This is nothing. A lot of people around me were experiencing the same thing so I didn’t think it wasn’t normal.”

Thankfully, he is not dead like so many old friends. Obada is instead a major key to the Bills reaching the Super Bowl.

This glitch in the matrix just needed to make one more great escape.

“On the Chopping Block”

When Efe Obada left his old life behind — when he met his future wife and moved to the countryside — he caught a massive break.  

It was 2014. He met a man named Josh Hastings and, one day, Hastings told him he should join him at practice. He played American football for the London Warriors of the British American Football Association. Obada had nothing going on that day, figured Why not? and, before he knew it, he was NFL-bound.

The defensive coordinator for the Warriors, Aden Durde, had spent time as an intern with the Dallas Cowboys and got Obada a workout with Cowboys when they were in London for a ’14 game vs. Jacksonville. The following spring — with all of five total Warriors games under his belt — Obada signed with the Cowboys. Of course, the first thought to cross his mind was, How in the hell am I going to get there? By then, Obada had acquired a visa in the UK but the USA? Thankfully, the Cowboys helped him jump through the necessary hoops to obtain a passport.

And off he went.

The kid once abandoned in the streets of Hackney now had a golden ticket to the Land of the Free. Which you’d think is precisely where Obada’s story peaks. With sunshine and rainbows and a huge bear hug from Jerry Jones.

What came next was a new torpedo of uncertainty.

First understand the stress all NFL players on the brink face. Where you see a name, a number, a transaction, an actual life is being uprooted. From the moment NFL hopefuls are paraded around the NFL Combine like cattle in spandex — poked ‘n prodded by doctors, questioned ‘n tested by scouts — their lives hang in the balance. They leave their wives and kids behind, praying they survive that cut from 90 to 53 on the roster all spring, all summer long. As training camp flies by, who knows if you’ll even have a fair chance to prove your worth? You could be a Hall of Famer in hiding but if nobody recognizes your talent, you’re one cut away from stocking groceries. And at least Kurt Warner had the now-defunct Arena League.

There’s no safety net in pro football, no legit minor league to fall back on.

The practice squad might keep you around. For most, all that does is delay the inevitable.

And, oh, one injury playing the most violent sport on earth could end it all at any moment, too.

OK, now put yourself back into the shoes of that kid abandoned in Hackney.

Forget the lack of a minor league. If Obada wasn’t under contract with an NFL team, he could not even live in the country. He was here on a work visa. Thinking back to this chapter of his life also gives Obada a familiar chill because he felt like Player No. 90 on that 90-man roster. The dream was beyond fragile.

“Any move they made,” Obada says, “I was on the chopping block.”

The Cowboys originally signed Obada in April 2015, tried him at tight end, moved him to defensive end, released him in September, signed him to the practice squad, released him again in October, signed him again in December, then released him once more in March 2016.

Obada signed with the Chiefs March 9. By June 7, he was released.

Obada signed with the Falcons July 28. By Aug. 27, he was released.

That chunk of practice squad money only took him so far. His wife actually needed to send him money from across the pond.

Absolutely nobody was built like Obada — his chiseled physique flabbergasted coaches — but he was still a total novice. The 101 basics everyone else consumed in Pop Warner were completely new to him, which made life on the bubble that much more difficult. At first, teammates would shout a hearty, “Hey, Efe!” whenever he was signed back and walked through the locker room. Eventually, they didn’t even react. Such normalization of this profession’s volatility stung.

“Every year,” Obada says, “I’m literally fighting for my life. I’ve got nothing. I quit my job. I uprooted my whole life. I came to a country I had never been to before.”

Into the 2017 offseason, Obada had a life-defining decision to make.

Another team was certain to sign him. He worked out for a few and the Green Bay Packers, especially, seemed interested. But now there was another option: the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program. Accept this position with the Carolina Panthers and Obada was secured a spot on the practice squad all season long. He wouldn’t be eligible for promotion to the 53-man roster at any point all season but he was also sick and tired of that “chopping block” stress.

So, he took it.

This was a chance to truly learn the game. Every day, Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington drilled the intricacies of the position and, for the first time ever, his manic life seemed to slow down. To a crawl. Obada was able to take a deeeeeep breath and hone a craft. His goal: Reach the point where he could play football for any team.

“That’s all I wanted to do,” he says. “If I learned the game and found a place where I didn’t have to worry about getting released because that anxiety, that worry, it just…”

His words trail off, so you fill them in.

Eats at you. Consumes you.

He nods.

“Especially when you’re not part of the sport. You’re not from the country. The international program honestly saved my life.”

No, it wasn’t easy to wait his turn as the 11th member of the practice squad. He remembers the Panthers signing players that both he and the coaches themselves knew weren’t nearly as talented. Everyone’s hands were tied. By 2018, it was time. Obada made the 53-man roster and, in Week 3, was activated against the Cincinnati Bengals.

When he knew it was about to be his turn, he wanted to make sure the Panthers had zero choice but to keep him. He practiced harder than ever and earned the game ball with one sack and one interception in a 31-21 win.

“It was electric,” he says. “My wife was there actually in the stands. She just moved home. She was just so proud of me. I was just happy. I’ve never missed a game ever since.”

Indeed, his wife has been there through it all, too. He credits her for keeping that fire within him lit.

Because, honestly, it didn’t get easier. He watched the Panthers draft other defensive linemen. He was forced to settle for one-year contracts. He did whatever coaches instructed him to do to survive in this league. Add 25 pounds to play inside? No problem. Special teams? 10-4. It’s not like the stress of the NFL completely disappeared — especially in 2020. As Covid-19 raged on, his wife couldn’t travel to the states due to travel restrictions and her own health.

From June 2020 through February 2021, Obada lived across the Atlantic Ocean from the person who helped him get so far.

“This is my wife. This is my other half,” Obada says. “It was tough. I felt like I didn’t have any support. I felt like I didn’t know what was going on. She got Covid. She was going through some things and I wasn’t able to be there for her.”

Despite it all, Obada had a career season. He was a bright spot on a bad team with 18 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 15 total QB hits. And he was so, so close to wrangling Mahomes to the ground.

His play style is now a direct extension of his life.

He plays with life-or-death desperation.

And you bet Obada expected more action in free agency. The big money went elsewhere. To Leonard Floyd. To Bud Dupree. To Trey Hendrickson. To Matt Judon. To Carl Lawson, who also had 5.5 sacks. Lawson inked a three-year, $45 million deal with the New York Jets while Obada had to settle for this $1.5 million pact in Buffalo. A breakout season here, he knows, will guarantee a payday next spring.

He’s got his wife with him now, too.

And, right now, “home” is wherever she is. When she arrived in Western New York, the place was immediately spruced up with new pillows and new candles. “Home” could absolutely be Buffalo for a long time.

All he needs to do is pressure Mahomes.

“That’s it,” he says, smiling. “That’s it.”

“I want mine”

He escaped that dark matrix in London for good and, honestly, he does not enjoy reliving that darkness. This Efe, the person, doesn’t recognize that Efe.

He escaped NFL purgatory, too. He’s too talented to get cut loose. This Efe, the player, also doesn’t recognize that Efe.

There are far more stories to tell, too. Obada could write a book right now that hits the big screen and is something like The Blind Side and Invincible and a gripping Netflix documentary rolled into one. One friend put it perfectly: Obada’s story is “beyond Hollywood.” Yet it’s also clear here that Obada isn’t interested in putting a bow on anything — he wants more. Needs more. This movie script still has many blank pages to fill and he intends to fill those pages in 2021. He views this fall as the true tipping point of his career.

All of these life experiences have created a very specific monster at defensive end.

“Relentless, relentless,” he repeats. “You can’t fake this. You have to actually work. I commend all of the people who are achieving — the Aaron Donalds, the JJ Watts — because you can’t fake this. You actually have to be good in order to survive anywhere. You have to put in that work. You have to wake up early. You have to study. You have to make good decisions. You have to sacrifice. Otherwise, you’ll get exposed.

“There’s a guy in front of you. You have to beat him. He’s standing in the way of what you want to achieve in life. He’s standing in the way of your dreams. He’s standing in the way. That’s what I take with me on the field.”  

For the first time, Obada was able to choose his NFL home. As he says, chuckling, he’s been forced to “eat shit” for seven years. Finally, he had options and he chose the Bills over Seattle, Indianapolis, Dallas and the WFT because of that relationship with Eric Washington and because he was well aware this team was a pass rush away. Washington helped him make a 53-man roster in Carolina so, now, he hopes the coach helps catapult him into another stratosphere.

Buffalo feels like home, too.

He’s renting a car and paying a bunch of separate bills for the first time ever. Gas, electric, insurance, etc. He’s digging this spot in nearby Hamburg and has already pounded his share of wings at Bar Bill Tavern.

Obada was also unbothered by the Bills drafting defensive ends with their first two draft picks, too. He’s beaten out rookies before. One breakout season and Obada can give head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane zero choice but to lock him up long term. While acknowledging that every player in the NFL is on their own “individual journey,” Obada assures he’s on a mission in Year 8.

He wants something he’s never had in life: True stability.

He has considered pursuing full US citizenship, but wants to keep his options open.

His sister’s doing very well in London and Obada leaves it at that. As for his parents? Dad is dead and Mom is not in his life anymore.

Not that he dwells on what happened two decades ago.

He never stays pissed off at his Mom for leading him into that abyss, instead choosing to live a life full of “gratitude.” So much gratitude that — some days — it brings him to tears. He cherishes the little things like opening up a cupboard and seeing 10 different cereal boxes. Or the time he got a flat tire. It wasn’t the end of the world. He called someone to get it fixed. Or sleeping in a king-sized bed. He had his apartment furnished for the first time ever here and made sure Raymour and Flanigan brought in the biggest bed possible.

He doesn’t look back. Only forward. Obada wants to give a voice to the voiceless because he’s certain there are countless kids around the globe living his same nightmare he did. Ask for one specific rock bottom and he’s at a loss for words because it’s impossible to choose just one. And any one of those moments could ruin a kid in London, in the Netherlands, in Nigeria, in the USA, anywhere.

His goal is to start programs that help immigrants in new countries. He wants to give speeches to the less fortunate.

And he knows his message of hope will get louder… and louder… and louder… the better he plays on the field. If his star rises anywhere remotely close to a Watt-level, a Donald-level, Efe Obada can change lives.

“I just want people to know,” he says, “this isn’t so uncommon.”

This season, bank on Obada taking that leap.

The Bills invested heavily in the defensive line. They’ll try to take a page out of that Buccaneers’ playbook by sending a herd of pass rushers at opposing quarterbacks. Jerry Hughes, Ed Oliver, Mario Addison, Gregory Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa and Carlos Basham Jr. will all get a chance to tee off.

On third downs, expect to see No. 93 sprint onto the field. He’ll cherish every snap.

“I want the sacks. I want the accolades. I want the respect for everything I put into this game,” he says. “I’m still humble. I’m still grateful. I’m still thankful for this experience. But now it’s coming to a point where I want mine. I see a lot of guys getting theirs and I want mine.”

The crazy thing is Efe Obada isn’t even sitting here with this opportunity if anything changes along his journey.

If he isn’t smuggled into the UK and left to fend for himself.

If he gets that job at the sportsbook.

If he doesn’t run into Josh and give American football a try.

If an ex-Cowboys intern doesn’t happen to be his coach in London.

Every single domino tipped for a reason. He sees that now, and his is a perspective every team should want in its locker room.

As training camp came to a close, as another Cutdown Day loomed and his name swirled in trade rumors, Obada didn’t sweat it. Instead, one of this tweets went viral locally.

Fans responded in droves and he replied to everyone he could. If it was up to him, he’d probably invite each of them over to his place for a game of pool or “HORSE.”

There’s no need to stress anymore, no.

Not when you finally know what’s happening next.

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