Efe Obada: from trafficked undocumented immigrant to NFL star and Times columnist 

Obada and his sister were looked after by a security guard at an apartment block in Hackney until social services took them in

Efe Obada: from trafficked undocumented immigrant to NFL star and Times columnist 
Efe Obada

A smile breaks on the face of Efe Obada, the Washington Commanders defensive end, as he recalls the day he saw snow for the first time, aged ten and just arrived in the Netherlands. It was also the first time he remembers meeting his mother.

That joy is soon dispersed by other memories: of being trafficked into England, abandoned, bounced from foster home to foster home, of domestic slavery, and the struggle to be recognised as a citizen of the country where he experienced such trauma, but for whom he now proudly flies the flag in the NFL.

There are some similarities with the recent revelations of Sir Mo Farah, who told of his experience of being taken to the UK from Djibouti, being given a new name, finding himself in domestic servitude, before a caring teacher and his talent as a runner helped him to forge a new path. Sport has also given Obada a life that he might not otherwise have had, but he is not keen to try to draw other parallels.

His initial move to the Netherlands was to join his mother, who had left behind her family in Nigeria “to further her education and her life”. The situation with his father broke down so someone — “I was too young at the time to know who” — arranged for Obada and his sister to travel to the Netherlands to be reunited with their mother. “That was actually the first time that I met her,” he recalls. “It was really nice. It was cold and snowy. The first time I saw snow as well.”

For a few years they stayed there, but with a daughter with learning difficulties in a non-English speaking country, Obada’s mother realised that it may not be the future that she wanted for her children. She decided to do something about it, believing — naively as hindsight tells us — that sending them to the UK would be better for them. “The plan was to come to England to try to get a better life, a better education,” Obada, 30, says. “So we were trafficked from the Netherlands to the UK.

 “The plan was for myself and my sister to come first, and then afterwards my mum would come and then build our life and start from there. But it just never happened, it broke down. Once we got to the UK the lady that brought us into the country left us and abandoned us and just kind of went about her business and took the money.”

Obada and his sister were looked after by a security guard at an apartment block in Hackney until social services took them in — not that the situation improved greatly.

 “You bounce from home to home,” he explains. “There were some homes that weren’t so nice, weren’t so good, you know. [We were] treated like domestic slaves. There’s some homes where it just didn’t feel that comfortable, so we just kept going back and forth and bouncing around.”

It was as he got older that he realised the most difficult legacy of the way he had been brought into the country — he was in the UK illegally and, like many others in similar situations, had to deal with the obstacles that this presented.

 “Everybody was furthering their lives and education and going on holidays and having jobs and I essentially hit a wall,” Obada says. “When I went into foster care, there were many times that we tried to apply and try to sort my status out. [But I] aged out of foster care and because I wasn’t legal, I had to go into . . . I had to do cash-in-hand jobs, warehouse jobs, jobs that weren’t really requiring that sort of document. And then fast-forward and American football came into the picture.

“Even to this day, England’s home to me, but I still haven’t sorted it out, I still don’t have a UK passport [he has a Nigerian passport]. You know, it’s only because of football that I’ve even been able to leave the country and this platform to do what I do in terms of American football.”

Finding the sport was a rare moment of serendipity in Obada’s life until that point. He was working in a warehouse in Welwyn Garden City when a friend from college — “He was big, like myself” — suggested that he try the sport and so he joined the London Warriors. “I tried out and it was fun,” Obada says. “It was a great outlet for me at the time, because of the lack of opportunities I had. And it gave me a nice little community of brotherhood and friends.”

It gave him more than that. One of the Warriors coaches was Aden Durde, who at the time was doing an internship in Dallas (he is now a full-time coach with the Cowboys). He saw potential in the 6ft 6in frame and organised an unofficial workout with the Cowboys when they came to play at Wembley in 2014. The next year they gave Obada a shot in the practice squad.

A year later both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons took a look at him, but it was in 2017 that he finally got his shot, handed a chance by the head coach, Ron Rivera — the same man who has brought him to Washington this off-season after a short stint with the Buffalo Bills.

“There were a lot of things said behind the scenes, a lot of promises made that weren’t really followed through on, on their part,” Obada recalls. “But that’s the nature of the beast and the industry that I’m in. So it’s a very competitive environment, I’ve learnt a lot from that experience.”

Needless to say, Obada has been able to make the best of the bad situation and now with the Commanders he faces a far less daunting new start than those of his younger days. “I’m excited for this new season,” he says. “You know I’m with coach Ron Rivera, and he’s someone that’s giving me my start in the league. He believes in international players, he gives them opportunities. So I’m very, very excited.”

Obada sees it as almost a duty to justify Rivera’s faith, and be held up as an example to other non-American players hoping to find a way into the league. The fact he is entering his fifth year as a fully-fledged NFL player shows what can be done.

“I hope my example opens the doors for other people that were in my situation or coming from outside the UK,” he says. “I hope I can show them that it’s possible to come and make an impact in this league — and hopefully change the mindsets of organisations and coaches as to how they view where where they should get their talent pool from.”

Then there is the spectre of the past and the hope that he can help raise awareness of — and change the future for — those who find themselves in a similar situation to him, blocked from furthering themselves by red tape, those who aren’t as lucky to be blessed with the physical attributes craved by the NFL.

 “I think that’s also what motivates me — having so many doors closed on you at a young age and just not seeing some of the things I had planned when I was young coming to fruition,” he says. “I think about it all the time; I have loads of friends that are still in that same situation.

 “Some of my friends are even born in the UK that still haven’t got [resident] status, and they’re still having lack of opportunities because of that. I have friends that I grew up with that are still in the same place, so I’m very grateful that American football came and essentially saved my life.”

The past is always there for Obada but unlike Farah, who has decided that “you can only block it out for so long”, he is not yet ready to seek the answers that might bring clarity and closure. “Right now I’m just focused on where I am right now making the most of this opportunity in terms of American football. I’ve built a life for myself in the UK. You know, I know who I am. And that’s enough for me right now.” And he smiles once more.

  • Throughout the 2022 season Efe Obada will be writing for The Times, giving an insight into life as an NFL player