Panthers' Efe Obada on NFL journey: 'I don't take anything for granted'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There are countless stories about the struggles of players on their journey to the NFL, but few, if any, are like the one of defensive end Efe Obada, who went from homeless in a foreign land to the 53-man roster of the Carolina Panthers.

But it is that path that helped the 26-year-old become the first player from the NFL's International Pathway program to make a final roster. He describes a journey from his native Nigeria to the Netherlands to the United Kingdom -- via human traffickers. Then, in England, Obada and his sister were abandoned and left homeless.

"It instilled a hunger in me that I have to this day and I feel I can apply in the game,'' Obada said Tuesday. "It's kind of going through a state of survival.

"So what I do today I don't take anything for granted. I don't take this opportunity for granted because it doesn't come so easily.''

Obada couldn't stop smiling on Sunday when telling reporters how he got the news he'd made the team. On Tuesday, he was focused on making the most of his opportunity to the point he didn't want to discuss in detail his unusual path here.

"I'll be honest with you,'' Obada said. "What happened to me is something that has happened across the world, it's happened to a lot of people. I'm just blessed to have the opportunity I'm in right now. I just want to focus on football.

"Eventually down the line when everything is settled and I've established myself in the league, then I'll go into that. I'll go into my background. I'll go into my history.''

Obada acknowledges his story of suffering and perseverance is intriguing to those on the outside. He can't believe he has a locker next to future Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers, fourth on the NFL's all-time sack list with 154.5 sacks.

Obada also admits he still has trust issues, that there are things from his past he hasn't fully processed.

"I'm in a position where I want to contribute to this team,'' Obada said. "I don't want it to be focused on my story. Some of these issues I haven't dealt with, I haven't taken time to understand. I don't just want to be a story.

"I know media is a part of the process, a part of the industry I'm in right now, but this means the world to me. I don't want anything, anyone, to take that from me.''

That the Panthers open on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, the team that first discovered Obada, adds to the intrigue of his story.

Dallas signed the 6-foot-6, 266-pound player who had never played high school or college football to its practice squad in 2015. He spent time with Kansas City and Atlanta in 2016 before being assigned to the Panthers as part of the international program last year.

He spent the entire 2017 season on the practice squad because the Panthers had a roster exemption.

But Obada made this year's 53-man roster on merit. Among the players he beat out was 2017 third-round pick Daeshon Hall, a defensive end out of Texas A&M for whom Carolina initially had high hopes.

One of the things that caught the eye of coach Ron Rivera when final cuts were made on Saturday was how far Obada had come from the start of offseason workouts. The other was the intensity Obada brings to practice every day.

"I see it every time he steps on the field,'' Rivera said. "He practices 100 miles per hour. I've got guys that get upset with him because on Friday he's going hard.

"It's funny, when you want to point to something, when you say, 'Hey guys, if you came from where he came, if you dealt with what he dealt with, that's how you want to approach everything in life,' that's what I think is impressive.''

Obada said his past hardships are what drives him now, up to the point he was prepared for the worst on Saturday.

"Walking in and getting released is what I'm used to," Obada said. "I was walking in and making eye contact with everyone. No one spoke to me. I didn't say anything to nobody. I made it to my locker and they still hadn't stopped me or said anything.

"Coach Rivera eventually came over to me, and I was like, 'Is it real?'"

Defensive end Mario Addison often talks about the hardships and poverty he grew up with in Birmingham, Alabama. But he admits Obada's story takes it to another level.

"For him not to give up speaks volumes,'' Addison said. "My hat is off to Efe. I know he's going to continue to do tremendous things on and off the field because of the kind of guy he was.

"Unfortunately, he went through bad things, which we all do. What you do afterwards is what you're about.''

Obada said his mother made the decision for him to move from Nigeria when he was 10.

"Then she wanted me to have a better life,'' he said. "[The trafficking] was more so in the UK. It just didn't play out the way everything was planned and that's how I ended up in foster care.''

When asked about the trafficking, Obada said he was too young to be scared.

"I didn't have any say about what was happening in my life,'' he said. "I was ignorant to it. As I got older I started learning about the system and I realized I kind of fell into that category.''

Obada and his sister were abandoned in the streets of London shortly after they arrived there.

"My main focus was to stay safe, just try to find some place to stay,'' Obada said.

Obada eventually got a job as a security guard for Grace Foods and began playing football for the London Warriors of the British American Football Association.

It was there, based on a recommendation by defensive coordinator Aden Durde, a former intern with the Cowboys, that Obada got a tryout with the Cowboys. He began working as a tight end before being moved to defensive end.

While he likely won't be active for Sunday's game against Dallas, Obada is indebted to the Cowboys for giving him a chance.

"Everything else I feel I've earned,'' he said. "I'm just focused on football. It's good being a story and being the first to do it. Now I have to keep going. I have to prove to people that believe in me, people that's given me an opportunity, that I have the right to be here.''