Ex-rugby kid Eze Obiora of SIU might be custom-made for NFL
BY ADAM L. JAHNS firstname.lastname@example.org March 23, 2013 1:16AM
Eze Obiora. Credit: Southern Illinois University
Updated: April 25, 2013 7:16AM
Southern Illinois football coach Dale Lennon immediately saw something in Eze Obiora when he was recruiting him out of the College of DuPage.
‘‘He was still raw, still developing as a player,’’ Lennon said, ‘‘and you took that into account. But he just did a lot of things that were very instinctive for football.’’
Similarly, NFL teams are now seeing potential for an outside linebacker/rush defensive end whose background makes him a unique prospect.
Obiora is a 6-3, 240-pound Englishman with Nigerian roots who started playing football in 2008. Teams that have 3-4 defenses, including the Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns, are looking at him, and a good pro day on Thursday could propel him into the later rounds of the draft. He’s expecting to meet with some teams soon.
‘‘This is my first experience with somebody who hadn’t grown up playing the game,’’ Lennon said. ‘‘But if you’re an athlete and you have that determination and that desire and work ethic, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s given himself the chance. I know he’ll make the most of any opportunities that he’s given. I believe in him.’’
Obiora was a top rugby player but faced prejudice when it came to certain positions in England. He likened it to what African-American quarterbacks have experienced.
‘‘I was watching on YouTube as young black Americans were seeing colleges come after them and were saying, ‘I’m not going to Florida, Alabama or Georgia. I’m going to Tennessee,’ ” said Obiora, who participated in a regional combine at the Bears’ Walter Payton Center.
‘‘I was like, ‘Dad, you look at how many opportunities they’ve got, and I’m the best here and I’m fighting to be equal.’ So my dad said, ‘You’re going to go play American football.’ Some people thought I was crazy.’’
The crazy — and impressive — thing is that he enrolled at Purdue in 2008, tried out for the football team and made it after only two months of training.
‘‘It was very nerve-racking because I didn’t know much about football,’’ Obiora said. ‘‘I didn’t know what a walk-on was. I didn’t know what a scholarship was.’’
Tough times followed.
Obiora admittedly lacked focus and said his head was ‘‘pumped up a little bit’’ at Purdue. Poor grades and financial concerns soon led to his departure.
‘‘It was a struggle,’’ he said. ‘‘I was homeless for a day or so. I just prayed.’’
What did he learn?
‘‘That if you want to succeed, you have to be humble,’’ said Obiora, who lives in Chicago. ‘‘It taught me how to handle [myself] in life.’’
Obiora enrolled at the College of DuPage, where he worked through more financial struggles but played more. He quickly learned that football is different than rugby.
‘‘Football, to me, is more scientific,’’ he said. ‘‘Every step you take matters.’’
Bigger colleges soon noticed his speed, size and athleticism and went after him. He got scholarship offers from Illinois, Southern Illinois, Northern Iowa and Jacksonville State. He said he chose SIU because of playing opportunities.
Lennon said the Salukis coveted Obiora’s speed off the edge. He excels at shedding blocks and has a relentless motor that teams value. It was just familiarizing him with schemes and concepts. Lennon called Obiora a very coachable player who is ‘‘going to pick your brain and find out what he needs to know to be successful.’’
‘‘He believes in himself and does it in a way that’s actually contagious,’’ Lennon said.
Last season, everything clicked. Obiora had 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 11 games to show up on NFL radars.
‘‘It was him getting comfortable with the game,’’ Lennon said. ‘‘His ceiling is way up there. He’s not even close to what his full potential can be. His level of improvement will be significant each year that he plays.’’