Onye­mata mak­ing im­pact af­ter tak­ing un­con­ven­tional path to NFL

The Expositor (Brantford) - - SPORTS - CURTIS WITH­ERS

David Onye­mata hadn’t played a sin­gle down of foot­ball when he ar­rived at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba in 2011. More in­ter­ested in quar­terly re­ports than quar­ter­back blitzes, Onye­mata orig­i­nally came to Win­nipeg from Nige­ria to pur­sue an eco­nomics de­gree.

Seven years later, Onye­mata is mak­ing key con­tri­bu­tions to a New Or­leans Saints team with de­signs on a Su­per Bowl ti­tle. The de­fen­sive line­man starred in a na­tion­ally tele­vised NFL game last Thurs­day night, rack­ing up three sacks against the Dal­las Cow­boys.

Onye­mata’s jour­ney from his na­tive Nige­ria to the NFL, by way of U Sports’ Man­i­toba Bisons, is one of the league’s most unique sto­ries, one that would have played out much dif­fer­ently had he not had the con­fi­dence to show up in per­son to Bisons head coach Brian Do­bie’s of­fice to ask for a try­out.

“When I got (to Man­i­toba), there was an­other in­ter­na­tional stu­dent who was try­ing out with the team at that point,” the 26-year-old Onye­mata said from Metairie, La., af­ter Thurs­day’s prac­tice as the Saints (10-2) geared up for Sun­day’s road game against the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers.. “I talked to him and he was like ‘Give it a shot.’ So I did that. I called a cou­ple of times, didn’t hear from coach (Do­bie) so I went to his of­fice my­self.

“He told me to come out to prac­tice that same day, and that’s how it all started.”

Onye­mata went on to have an out­stand­ing ca­reer with the Bisons and was named the top line­man in Cana­dian univer­sity foot­ball in 2016. It was a feat made more im­pres­sive by the fact that Onye­mata had to start from scratch learn­ing foot­ball’s myr­iad com­plex­i­ties.

“I saw the game on TV, but at that point I didn’t re­ally un­der­stand what was go­ing on,” he said. “I didn’t un­der­stand the schemes and game plans and all that.”

Onye­mata grad­u­ated from Man­i­toba with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence af­ter switch­ing his aca­demic fo­cus, but by then his pro foot­ball op­tions were look­ing bright. He was the top-ranked prospect for the 2016 CFL draft, but the Saints had their eye on Onye­mata af­ter he im­pressed at that year’s East-West Shrine Game, an al­ls­tar game for col­lege se­niors.

New Or­leans traded up to pick Onye­mata in the fourth round, 120th over­all, in 2016, mak­ing him the first Bi­son ever taken in the NFL draft.

Most Cana­di­ans who get drafted come out of Amer­i­can pro­grams, and Onye­mata said tak­ing the U Sports road to a pro ca­reer south of the border is tough.

“It’s not the eas­i­est en­vi­ron­ment,” he said. “You don’t have all the nice things you have out here. You’ve still got to work dur­ing the sum­mer time, you still have to work dur­ing school.

“So it’s your work ethic, and just play the game. En­joy the game. Just go out there and show what you have.”

Al­ready adept at mak­ing ad­just­ments by evolv­ing from foot­ball novice to star line­man with Man­i­toba, Onye­mata then had to leave the three-down game be­hind him to fit in with the Saints. The con­ver­sion to the Amer­i­can game is per­haps more pro­nounced for a de­fen­sive line­man, who is used to start­ing a yard away from the line of scrim­mage in Cana­dian foot­ball.

“The line of scrim­mage, you’re right on the ball. Like right there,” Onye­mata said. “Some­times be­fore you make a step, you have a guard or cen­tre on you and the con­tact is al­ready there.”

There was also the in­tim­i­dat­ing tran­si­tion of play­ing in front of a mod­est U Sports crowd to suit­ing up be­fore a deaf­en­ing mob in New Or­leans, where the Saints are prac­ti­cally a re­li­gion.

“At first, com­ing from a small school, you’re in front of 70,000 peo­ple,” Onye­mata said. “There’s noth­ing that’s go­ing to max out that feel­ing. The fan base out here is just in­sane. I don’t know how to put it.

“Some­times on the field you can’t even hear the plays. It was re­ally amaz­ing.”


New Or­leans’ David Onye­mata sacks Dal­las quar­ter­back Dak Prescott last month in Ar­ling­ton, Texas.

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