Osi Umenyiora: “America Is Not What It Looks Like On Television.”
Although Osi lived in London until he was seven years old, he was forced to put away his British accent when his family moved back to Nigeria.
“When I left London, I was speaking with a cockney British accent and you can’t even imagine speaking like that here in Nigeria, it wasn’t good”. Osi further explained, “you know, things weren’t good for me there so they beat that out of me really, really quick.” Talking on how he adapted, “after maybe a couple of months, I lost that and I was speaking like a Nigerian, like a proper Igbo boy.”
Like any other successful athlete, majority of them have a grassroots in playing sports and this does not necessarily have to be what they end up playing professionally.
“I played mostly soccer, we played a lot of basketball. Oddly enough, there was a tree, it grew and it was like a hoop. I don’t know how this tree made it but it was like a circle and we would play basketball and we would use that as our basketball hoop. We would make sporting games out of anything”
Osi had no knowledge or intention of taking up any major sport as a career but a time came when he had to make a move to bolster his academic career and things evolved entirely for him in the sporting world.
“In Nigeria, if you are fortunate enough to go to America and get an education, the idea is you go back and get a better job or you go back and do things to take care of your family. My father was able to send us to America but he sent my sister and my brother first and then he sent me after all of them had already been established. The idea was just to go over there, get an education and then come back.”
Osi moved to America when he was 14 and that moment indicated the start of one of his many adventures into stardom.
“America is not what it looks like on television. It was a completely different world, it looked like nothing I had seen. I heard some ignorant things that really broke my heart when I got to Alabama.”
“I remember one guy specifically, he asked me how I got to America, I was like ‘I flew’. He then said ‘what do you mean ‘you flew? You guys don’t have planes’ he thought I came on a whale. He said I must have come on a whale because Africans don’t have planes. He was a black American guy and it broke my heart to see that this is the way they thought about us.”
As if watching football from the stands was more than it was for him, Osi also drew inspiration from a rather strange but physical sport compared to what he was used to back in his native country Nigeria.
“One day, we went to see a high school game and that was my first time seeing it and I just remember thinking this was just complete madness! People running into each other over and over. I was like these people are insane, what kind of American nonsense is this?
Like every player who plays American football, a pronounced physical attribute was always an advantage and most times a part of the requirement into making the team listing.
“I wasn’t into it at all but as I just kept getting taller and bigger, I started playing basketball, then my brother’s friend, his name was Shawn, one day, he was like, ‘you should go out for American football because you are big and athletic’. The next day, I went to the coach and told him I wanted to play and he just threw the number 72 jersey at me and asked me to come out to practice.”
It is typical amongst African parents to scold their young ones who decide to choose an early career path which is not academically inclined.
“My parents didn’t know and they wouldn’t have been for it at all. My sister was on the fence about it but because I was so lonely and all by myself, so she thought it would allow for me to make friends. So, she was like ‘alright, go ahead and do it”.
There’s always a big story behind the journey of athletes who at one point made it to the big stage; some have their talents to show for while others just work towards perfection.
“While I was in the in-school suspension, the coach put a call through to Tracy Rocker who was the defensive line coach at Troy University, then Tracy calls Larry Blakeney who was the head coach of Troy, and they offered me a scholarship and all that took less than an hour.”
In 2002, Osi set Troy single-season tackles for loss records with (20.5) as well as sacks in a game with four versus Florida A&M. He finished the season with 15 sacks, the second-most in NCAA Division 1. Despite not being invited to the combine, he was drafted in the second round by New York giants.
He had an incredible career; In 2005 Osi earned himself a ticket to the Pro-Bowl and at the end of that season, signed a massive six-year contract and spent them with the giants for $41 million with $15 million guaranteed. Then in 2017, he set the giant’s franchise record for sacks for 6 against the Philadelphia eagles.
By the end of that season, he already recorded 13 sacks and a surprise victory over the New England patriots. Osi retired in 2015 with a career total of 85 sacks, 35 force fumbles, 30 fumble recoveries, 2 touchdowns and 2 Superbowl championships.
Interview from season 1 episode 1 of Africans In Sports