MINNEAPOLIS -- Linda Odenigbo sat in the stands gazing out over all of it -- the gold helmets, the fanfare on the field, the decades-old traditions upheld with such fervor -- and the realization zapped her brain: This thing her son had taken to, and where it could go, was so much bigger than she thought.
"It was electric," she said. "It was like an out-of-body experience."
Not that she had any frame of reference for what she encountered that Saturday in 2011 at Notre Dame while on a recruiting visit with her son, Ifeadi. Sports in her native Nigeria were mostly seen as a distraction from the loftier pursuits of academics. There were no organized college sports, and aside from the select few who made the Olympic team in soccer or track, there was no viable path toward an athletic career. After Linda and her husband, Thomas, came to the United States in the early 1990s, they signed their three boys up for sports year-round as a way to keep them occupied, mostly. Football wasn't on their radar, and when their oldest son Somto asked to play in high school, they resisted.
"We sat him down and said, 'No. This is a very physical sport. You're not playing,'" Linda Odenigbo said. "And he was fine with it -- well, I don't know if he was really fine with it. But Ifeadi's a little different. He's the middle child, and he wants to know why things are done the way they are. He just kept chipping away at the resistance."
It was Ifeadi Odenigbo's steadfastness that finally opened the door to a path that led him to Northwestern and eventually to the NFL, when the Minnesota Vikings drafted him in the seventh round this spring. It paved the way for his younger brother Tito to follow him, through high school in Centerville, Ohio, and eventually to Illinois' defensive line. And it turned a family that had initially spurned football into one that now sets its schedule around Big Ten weekends.
Linda Odenigbo maintains some of her skepticism about the game, both as a mother and a pediatrician. In fact, she was never the one who consented to her son playing. "I think my husband did for me," she said with a laugh.
But as much as she's a mom who wants her kids to be safe, who prays for their health before each game they play, she's also a dynamo who moved to the U.S. to start her medical residency when Somto was a year old. If her kids had an opportunity to chase their own ambitions, she wouldn't be the one to stand in the way.
"I do wrestle with it," she said. "I have patients that will come in, and we'll talk about it, their fears and so on. But I'm totally supportive of what he's doing as a parent. You pray for him to be safe and successful in whatever he does. You can't bubble-wrap your kids."
By the time Ifeadi wanted to play football, the Odenigbos had gotten used to the requests; Thomas (a former squash player) is 6-foot-4 and Linda is 5-foot-7, so their kids' athletic stock made them a natural target for coaches.
It was Tito, though, whom Linda and Thomas figured would be the football player. Ifeadi, built tall and lean like a sprinter, didn't seem to fit.
But with a runner's persistence and a soccer player's ingenuity, Ifeadi struck a deal with his father: If he made the honor roll with a 3.5 grade-point average his freshman year of high school, his parents had to let him play football.
He finished the year exactly at 3.5.
"They were still very hesitant," he said. "But they were like, 'All right, [it's a] bet. Go ahead.' I ended up going out my sophomore year, and it was just frustrating. I was contemplating every single time whether to quit or not, but I would just think to myself, 'I would prove my parents right. I can't be a quitter.' I stuck through it, and things ended up going pretty well."
His speed off the edge turned him into a four-star recruit out of high school, and he posted 23½ career sacks (including 10 as a senior) at Northwestern. When Tito followed Ifeadi to the Big Ten, Thomas and Linda spent their Saturdays crisscrossing the Midwest.
They tried splitting up on some weekends -- one parent with the Wildcats, the other with the Illini -- but found they preferred to travel together. Last Sept. 3, they tried starting the day at the Nortwestern campus in Evanston, Illinois, and leaving at halftime to make the 150-mile drive to Champaign for a game later that day.
"We got there, and it was a mess," Linda Odenigbo said, with peals of laughter as she retold the story. "Tito had his only sack of the season, and we were somewhere in the middle of nowhere."
Linda would work extra hours during the spring and summer so she could take Fridays and Saturdays off in the fall. Last year, when work took Thomas to Pennsylvania for all but two weekends a month, the couple used Saturday trips as a chance to reunite and reconnect. Over time they warmed to the game, its intricacies becoming more decipherable the more they watched.
"I had a conversation with my dad, and he was like, 'Ifeadi, I understand the difference between a [defensive] end and a D-tackle! A D-end is faster!'" Ifeadi Odenigbo said, dropping his voice an octave and slipping into a Nigerian accent as he impersonated his father. "I was like, 'Dad, what do you mean you just found out?' But they're huge advocates. They're just like, 'We're your biggest fans, and we'll support you in whatever you do. We've come to realize at a young age, you've known what you wanted, and you've gotten your way.'"
He will try to make the Vikings' roster this fall under the tutelage of a defensive line coach (Andre Patterson) who's coaxed impressive results out of athletic-but-raw pass rushers similar to Odenigbo. And the travel schedule offers some perks for Linda and Thomas Odenigbo: a travel day between an Illinois game on a Saturday in Iowa City and a Monday night at Soldier Field, and a Vikings home game in October the day after the Illini visit Minnesota.
Whatever the next phase holds in their sons' careers, they'll make it work. They always have.
"It's a great sport," Linda Odenigbo said. "I'm glad they've made a lot of changes to make it a lot safer. But really, it's a great sport."