Saints' David Onyemata returns home to Nigeria as NFL growth continues

METAIRIE, La. -- David Onyemata didn't really get any questions about Drew Brees, Adrian Peterson or the New Orleans Saints' playoff hopes when he returned home this summer for the first time in over six years.

Frankly, most of Onyemata's friends and family in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, have never heard of Brees, Peterson or the Saints.

Onyemata said the question he got most frequently was simply this: How did he wind up playing a sport he had barely even heard of six years ago?

"Most people I talked to, they're like, 'How'd you do it? Like, how did that happen?'" said the Saints' second-year defensive tackle, whose unlikely path from Lagos to the NFL is one thing that translates in both parts of the world.

"Like, every other person played soccer. So soccer would've seemed more realistic to people. But this isn't something we played in high school or nothing like that. So guys were pretty surprised about it," said Onyemata, who had never even held a football until he began attending college in Canada at the University of Manitoba.

But the 6-foot-4, 300-pound DT decided to try out the sport as a hobby -- and it turned out he was a natural.

The Saints drafted Onyemata in the fourth round last year; he appeared in all 16 games and racked up 18 tackles. He's expected to play an even bigger role this year in the wake of starter Nick Fairley's season-ending heart issue.

Onyemata is hardly the first native of Nigeria to play in the NFL. Running back Christian Okoye -- aka the "Nigerian Nightmare" -- followed a similar path to the league three decades ago. And the Saints' defensive line includes two others with Nigerian roots (Obum Gwacham, who lived there until he was 7, and Alex Okafor, whose father is from Nigeria).

But Onyemata said, "More work has to be put in for it to be that famous out there."

"Most people don't know what it is," he continued. "Like, if you stop the next person on the street and be like, 'Yo, do you know what American football is?' they wouldn't know."

Onyemata said a few of his friends and family are starting to get a little more "in the groove" of how American football works, although it doesn't help that the games are usually played in the middle of the night in Nigeria. He said his parents are still trying to get adjusted to the time difference.

"Sometimes they'll call at 3 in the morning," Onyemata said with a laugh. "But they’re starting to understand the timing of everything ... and they're following and understanding the game a little bit."

Onyemata said some of his friends and family were surprised by the concept of calling plays before every snap of the ball, and all that goes into preparing for a game during the week.

He did bring home some Saints gear -- shirts, hoodies and other garments to help "get a couple Saints fans out there."

Mostly, though, Onyemata said it was just a laid-back, eight-day trip that allowed him to spend time with his parents, his five brothers and sisters and a couple of his buddies from high school.

"It was pretty good just getting back and seeing family I hadn't seen for a while. So that was the highlight of the trip," Onyemata said. "That was really good."

The rest of Onyemata's offseason has been equally promising; the defensive lineman is in the midst of that sophomore leap that so many NFL players experience -- an opportunity to finally work full-time on football development and learn from rookie mistakes.

Onyemata said he hasn't made any huge changes to his physical training, though he has tweaked a few things to try to become more explosive.

He also has a better "understanding of what's going on" in the NFL after previously playing in Canada, where defensive linemen line up a yard off the football, among other things.

"So now it's something you're used to from last year," Onyemata said. "You already had a feel for it from the year before, and now it's just kind of picking up things ... noticing things faster, like telling when things are gonna happen on the field."

Onyemata's development during OTAs and minicamp elicited praise from coaches like Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, as well as fellow second-year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.

Payton called him "a guy who's really progressed." Allen, for his part, said, "I think he's just a little bit more confident with what he's doing."

"His run technique's been much improved," Allen continued. "So I think we're really looking to see, 'Hey, how much can we improve him as a pass-rusher? And what kind of value can he bring in that regard?'"

Onyemata probably fits best as a three-technique, where Rankins will start. But Onyemata can also fill in at nose tackle and as a big defensive end, so he and Rankins will likely spend some time on the field together on passing downs.

Onyemata said he is "definitely" ready to step up following the news that Fairley will miss the season (and possibly be forced into retirement).

"I'm just gonna go out there and put it all on the table. There is no other option," Onyemata said. "That's what I have to do, and I have to do that for my teammates. So just go out there, put my best foot forward and go from there."