The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Rivera gave Efe Obada his NFL break. Now, they’re together in Washington.

Commanders defensive end Efe Obada is a graduate of the NFL International Player Pathway program and faced a long journey to the league. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

At first glance, the tape looks ordinary, a third-and-11 sack of Tom Brady in 2020 by a defensive lineman hungry to tackle the NFL’s greatest quarterback.

And the out-of-the-ordinary part of this tape isn’t the play at all; it’s the fact that, just five years before bringing down a legend, the defensive lineman making the tackle didn’t know who Brady was.

Efe Obada, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in the United Kingdom, got his first shot at an NFL roster in 2015, when he spent the spring and summer with the Dallas Cowboys and was waived before the regular season. In 2017, he was part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, which guaranteed him a practice squad spot with Coach Ron Rivera’s Carolina Panthers. The next season, still with the Panthers, he became the first player from the program to make a 53-man roster. That 2020 sack of Brady was a bucket-list item for Obada, who signed a one-year contract with the Washington Commanders in March in a move that reunited him with Rivera and defensive line coach Sam Mills III.

Nearly four years after he played in his first regular season game, Obada is still surprised by the unlikelihood of it all. After being abandoned as a 10-year-old in London with his sister, he spent years in foster care and worked in a factory before stumbling upon a practice by the London Warriors of the British American Football Association. Now, he has earned his way to the highest ranks of a sport he knew nothing about until he was in his 20s. But as time has passed and his journey has become better known, it hasn’t felt any less surreal.

“I feel grateful, and I feel blessed,” Obada said of his journey to the Commanders. “And so many stars had to align, so many people had to say yes. I had to be on the right team. I had to play the right position.”

After so much of the 30-year-old’s football journey was happenstance, the latest chapter, the one that brought him to Washington, has been extremely intentional.

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Obada played 10 games in his rookie season of 2018, then 16 the following year. Then came his breakout season in 2020, when he logged 5.5 sacks — including that of Brady. Entering free agency after the 2020 season, Obada was courted by Washington and Buffalo, ultimately electing to sign a one-year contract with the Bills. He spent 2021 in Buffalo, finishing with 3.5 sacks in 10 games, then leaped at the chance to reunite with Rivera and Mills.

Obada is primarily a defensive end but can slide inside to tackle, which bolsters the depth chart across the line. With Chase Young still recovering from a torn ACL and James Smith-Williams working through a hip injury, Obada’s utility as a reserve defensive end is crucial.

Rivera has praised Obada’s positional flexibility and special teams presence, indicating he will see the field with that unit as well. And Mills lauded Obada’s growth since the two first worked together, when Obada was still learning the vocabulary and nuances of football.

Recently, Mills recalled one of the highlights of their time together with Carolina, when the Panthers played in London in 2019. During a rare chance for Obada to play in front of his home crowd, fans flocked to the defensive end and reveled in his presence on his home turf.

“He was a rock star,” Mills said, emphasizing every word. “And we had dudes on that team. But they love Efe, and you understand why. When he smiles, his smile brightens the room.”

Obada counts that day among the most memorable of his career, and he has grown to appreciate the experience even more over time, pointing to the sheer luck of playing for a team with a London game on its schedule during his tenure. He was named a captain for the day, and he took some of his teammates to Nando’s Peri-Peri, one of his favorite restaurants, which he was elated to learn has a location not far from the Commanders’ practice facility in Ashburn.

Although he might have to rely on the restaurant’s Virginia locations during the season, Obada still jumps at chances to return home. He is heavily involved with the NFL Academy, which provides teenagers in the United Kingdom with the chance to play football while also furthering their education. For Obada, the chance to give back is an essential part of his stardom.

“I never really had opportunities, and then when I was given one, I became an NFL player,” Obada said with a laugh. “So I’m like, ‘Okay, well, even if they don’t become NFL players, I’m sure it will lead to something else.’ ”

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Obada has embraced every opportunity in his NFL career, and the chance to grow in Washington was no different. And though it meant moving to his third team in as many years, the transition has been a comfortable one.

There is familiarity here in Rivera, Mills and David Bada, another graduate of the International Player Pathway program. Bada, a defensive tackle who was born and raised in Germany, remembers watching Panthers games after Obada made the 53-man roster, looking for him on every defensive and special teams snap.

The two later were roommates for a short time when Obada played for the Panthers and Bada was in the International Player Pathway program.

“I snore a lot, so he didn’t like it,” Bada said, laughing. “But it was fun for me.”

Bada has answered any questions Obada has had about the playbook while leaning on Obada’s experience to improve his technique. The two can relate to many aspects — and hassles — of being foreign players. For instance, when the Commanders reported to camp last month, Obada was a day late, still in London getting his visa renewed.

Although trips to the United Kingdom provide a much-desired chance to return home, Obada hopes he can renew his visa less frequently in the future. Visas are administered in accordance with the length of NFL players’ contracts, and Obada hopes Washington might be a good enough fit to allow for a longer tenure.

But even with logistical hurdles, he’s grateful to be able to travel home — and grateful for the chance to return to the United States to play the game he has grown to love.

“Before football, I never had a passport,” Obada said. “... So it’s just opening my world.”

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