Once able to walk the streets of London in anonymity, Efe Obada no longer has that luxury.
The general public still may not know the Washington Commanders defensive end’s name. But that’s not the point.
“They call me ‘the NFL guy,’ ” Obada told USA TODAY Sports by phone from England on Thursday.
What matters, Obada said, is that they recognize him and the sport he plays. That’s an indication to him the NFL’s popularity abroad, particularly in Europe, is growing with each year.
“There is this shift happening right now,” Obada said.
“There’s so much love for the American football game,” he continued. “There’s so much good that’s happening, there are so many initiatives being created that are changing the game.”
First-ever NFLPA Player Passport Tour
Last week, a group of NFL players embarked on a trip through Frankfurt, Germany, and London as part of the inaugural NFL Players Association Player Passport Tour. The participants were:
- Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup
- Buffalo Bills WR Gabe Davis
- Kansas City Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
- New England Patriots LB Josh Uche
- Tennessee Titans S Kevin Byard
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers CB Jamel Dean
- Indianapolis Colts practice-squad player Marcel Dabo, a Germany native member of the NFL’s International Pathway Program
- Obada, the first-ever player to graduate from the International Playing Program to make a 53-man roster
Players toured the cities, had meet-and-greet sessions with fans, held autograph signings and served as coaches for youth flag football games.
“Being homegrown is something that I’m passionate about,” Obada said. “I am actively trying to grow the sport. To see the NFLPA do that, it’s amazing.”
Obada, 31, said that his fellow players told him they “loved” their time abroad.
“Even on (Washington), I have a lot of guys who want to come to the UK and experience it,” Obada said.
Soccer monopoly to cultural breakthrough
During the flag football games, Obada said, he saw the rising from the younger generation up-close.
“On the grassroots level, there are these kids, and they’re engaged so much and they’ve learned about their favorite players and their favorite teams, even though they don’t have that connection through a (hometown team),” said Obada, who added flag football is an inclusive way for all children to participate and be exposed to the game at an early age.
Strangers will message him on his personal social media accounts, saying they are from Wales or England or beyond and ask for his advice on how to pursue the NFL dream.
“That was unheard of,” Obada said. “(Soccer), it had a monopoly in Europe. Now it’s changed.
“Honestly, it’s allowing American football to be part of the culture over here.”
No more gatekeeping NFL in United States
Crowds have filled Wembley Stadium with more than 83,000 in attendance on more than a dozen occasions dating back to 2007, while Tottenham Hotspur Stadium has also been packed to its NFL-contest capacity of roughly 60,000.
According to the NFLPA, Germany is the top European NFL market with 3.3 million fans, while in the United Kingdom trails slightly at 3.2 million supporters.
The league played its first game in Germany last season in Munich and will play both of its games in 2023 in Frankfurt. There have been multiple games in England since 2013 (the International Series began there in 2007), and the NFL has stretched its product into Mexico, with four games taking place south of the border since 2016.
“This sport, that has so much history and that’s been gatekept by Americans, it just shows that it has room for growth,” Obada said. “It’s not just ‘American football.’ It’s a sport that can be shared and experienced and loved by everyone.”
How International Player Pathway Program helped Efe Obada
Obada began his American football career with the London Warriors of the BAFA National Leagues in 2014. From there, he earned a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys the next year and spent the 2015 season on their practice squad. He spent time with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons before the 2016 season but was released by both.
Weighing a decision to play in the Canadian Football League, he instead went to the International Player Pathway Program and was part of its second class. The Carolina Panthers signed him to their practice squad in 2017, and he made his NFL debut in Week 3 of the 2018 season.
The IPPP “saved me and gave me the platform to be on a team and learn and grow and close that gap,” Obada said.
Obada played in every Panthers game in 2019 and 2020, when he had a career-best 5½ sacks and 15 quarterback hits. He played 10 games for the Buffalo Bills in 2021 (3½ sacks) and reunited with former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera in Washington last season. Obada played in all 17 contests and had four sacks with four tackles for loss.
“This game changed my life and that’s why I’m such an active participant in using my journey and my career, my platform to be able to create opportunities for other people because I’ve seen what it’s done for me,” Obada said.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.