As difficult as it may be for those of us in the south to believe, there are people in this world not culturally bound to, or defined by, football.
John Umenyiora, a retired telecommunications contractor and a king in his native Nigerian village of Ogbunike, is one of those unfortunate souls.
He believed football was the proper name for soccer, that strange hands-free version that they favor in certain other hemispheres. He tended goal as a young man and introduced all his children to his particular sporting passion.
“Didn’t understand (American football) at all,” laughed John Umenyiora’s son, Osi. “Thought it was just pretty much people running into each other.”
Brief pause. A chuckle. “Well, maybe that’s what it is,” Osi added.
Of course, it is the younger Umenyiora’s job to run into as many quarterbacks as possible this season in the employ of the Falcons. He was hired, at two years for $8.5 million, to stand in for the team’s departed sack specialist John Abraham. It is a role he definitely was not born to play, rather one he grew into so adroitly that he made it to a couple of Pro Bowls and accompanied the New York Giants to two Super Bowls.
Before Umenyiora is the task of proving himself over again at the age of 31 and to show himself once more as the double-digit sack guy of his prime. Those numbers had fallen off a bit recently.
Behind him is a story that covers three continents and hits on practically none of the standard themes that follow a fellow into the NFL.
Umenyiora is a reminder not only of what a small, accessible world this really is, but also how a person’s place in it can be drastically reordered in a young lifetime.
Born in London and spending most of his preteen years in Nigeria, Umenyiora grew up admiring the legends of players such as Pele and Maradona. In fact, Umenyiora’s only connection to American professional football was a blanket his stepmother brought him back as a souvenir of a trip to the United States, one that featured an angry-looking pirate caricature. It was years later, after being sent to the United States at the age of 14, that he learned that figure was the logo of the Oakland Raiders.
And now his own son, 6-year-old Tijani, is so wired into the NFL that recently, while playing a little Madden, he began hounding his old man about getting to meet his favorite player — Roddy White. With all this new Falcons connections, Umenyiora called up the receiver then and there and put him on the phone with his excited son.
“That really made his day. These offensive players get all the love,” Umenyiora said.
Well-pleased, White still had to confess it was difficult to understand why Umenyiora’s boy would go outside the family to search for a favorite player.
“(Osi’s) done everything he needed to do to in this league. I’m still trying to get to where he is,” White said.
Honing his craft
The making of the Falcons’ biggest defensive offseason acquisition was something of a rush job. Only when he was sent to Auburn, Ala., to live with his older brother and sister and pick up his secondary education in the United States did Umenyiora even catch the first scent of this strange game.
He had to be cajoled into joining the team as a junior at Auburn High by a coach who couldn’t help notice his size (250 pounds even then). The first day, someone had to show this 11th grader how to put on his pads.
He redshirted as a college freshman at the one place that gave the big, unrefined player a chance, Troy University. He bounced around from end to tackle, even playing some nose guard.
“He knew he didn’t have background of a lot of the kids, but he wanted to learn,” said Mike Pelton, his position coach at Troy who this year joined the Georgia Tech staff. “The drive he had was to catch up to everybody because he knew they had the experience and he didn’t. So everything we told him, he just soaked it up.”
Pelton played a role in what has been identified as Umenyiora’s coming-out game, which didn’t occur until 2002 in the eighth game of his senior season. Umenyiora was matched against an All-American tackle at Marshall, a player who hadn’t yielded a sack in two years, a fact that Pelton drilled into him all week leading to the game.
In the second quarter, spotting a technical weakness that Pelton had clued him into, Umenyiora shot around the tackle to sack quarterback Byron Leftwich. The quiet kid broke into a noisy celebration. “Man, you would have thought he won the Super Bowl,” Pelton remembered.
Meanwhile, as all this transformation was happening, Umenyiora’s father maintained a content distance from American football. Spending most of his time in Nigeria, John Umenyiora went to one game while his son was at Troy. It was cold and snowing that day, and he never got out of his rental car.
He didn’t much pick up the pace after his boy went pro. Umenyiora said his father has witnessed him play in the NFL twice — both in Super Bowls with the Giants. No, dad, they don’t have pop stars perform at halftime and give out a big silver trophy after every game.
Football, however, radically redirected the course of one family, something Umenyiora acknowledges when asked if his different background yields a different perspective on football: “I never forget the opportunity football has provided me. I never take it for granted. It is such a struggle in Nigeria.”
The Giants recognized enough potential in Umenyiora — who finished with 16 sacks his senior season at Troy, but was not invited to the NFL combine — to take him in 2003’s second round.
The payoff was a gifted speed rusher with a knack for stripping the ball — he had 10 forced fumbles in 2010 — and an integral part of Super Bowl-winning defenses in the 2007 and 2011 seasons.
Atlanta home before Falcons
Playing in New York, Umenyiora’s stock with the fans rose and dipped sharply, according to his production. That’s life in the big city. Contract squabbles eroded his support there to the point that in an offseason ESPNNew York “Take ’em or Trash ’em” poll, 76 percent placed Umenyiora on the Trash ’em side.
He doesn’t go out of his way now much to talk about days, good or bad, in the Big Apple. “I don’t want people to look at me as where I was before; I don’t want that anymore. They have to get used to fact I’m with the Falcons now,” he said.
Playing in Atlanta made just too much sense for Umenyiora. He has chosen to live here — the nearest major urban center to his Alabama high school and college locale — since entering the league. His son, fiancee, brother and sister all live here, and now they are just one big happy family all year long. “It means the world to me,” he said.
Dare we cast a man with roots all over the globe a good and true southerner?
“I know I enjoy the south. I love the southern people, they are very hospitable. They show you a lot of love out here. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed living out here,” he said.
Early in this training camp the Falcons have toyed with standing Umenyiora up at the line of scrimmage — always before he has played with a hand in the dirt. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan may even drop him into coverage now and again.
“(Standing up at the line) is something I’m going to have to do in this defense, obviously. It makes a lot of things real easy if I’m standing up. You’re able to see the whole field. That’s what’s going to be asked of me, and that’s what I’m going to have to do,” Umenyiora said.
The man has seen London, Lagos and Phenix City. And still new frontiers remain?