March to NFL be­gan in Man­i­toba for Nige­rian

The London Free Press - - SPORTS -

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 Nov. 29, 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-yearold 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 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 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 all-star game for col­lege se­niors.

New Or­leans traded up to pick Onye­mata in the fourth round, 120th over­all, mak­ing him the first Bi­son 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 Canada.

The six-foot-four, 300-pound Onye­mata said he still makes it back to Win­nipeg ev­ery year for a visit and likes to take in a Blue Bombers game when there.

And he had some ad­vice for Laval Rouge et Or de­fen­sive line­man Mathieu Betts, who is the first U Sports ath­lete to be named the top-ranked prospect for the CFL draft since Onye­mata. Betts has been se­lected to play in the Shrine Game on Jan. 19.

“Go out there and give it your all and the rest will fall in place,” Onye­mata said.

GETTY IM­AGES

David Onye­mata of the New Or­leans Saints sacks Dal­las Cow­boys quar­ter­back Dak Prescott dur­ing a Nov. 29 game in Ar­ling­ton, Texas.

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