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The 300-Pound Late Bloomer Who Traveled 6,000 Miles to (Accidentally) Make NFL History

“He came from nothing. He knew nothing”

An illustration of NFL defensive tackle David Onyemata during his time with the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons
Credit-NFL/AP/Joker Mag

He had no clue what was happening.

Standing alone in the corner of the end zone, he felt the piercing gaze of 120 college football players.

It was his first practice, and the 300-pound teenager was completely lost.

Little did he know, that moment was the start of an unprecedented journey. One that began far away from the gridiron.

David Onyemata was born in Lagos, the most populous city in the country of Nigeria.

“I come from a family of six kids, [and] I’m the last kid,” David said on the Falcons in Focus podcast.

“Once [high school] was done, it got to the point of, ‘Where do you wanna go for college?'”

With his older siblings living in both the UK and Canada, Onyemata faced a decision about where to go.

He chose the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, partly because the name “sounded cool“.

And it’s hard to imagine where he’d be today if he didn’t.

At 18 years old, David packed his bags, boarded a flight, and moved 6,342 miles on his own.

Alone in a new country, he was greeted by harsh winter weather with temperatures dropping as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit – a long way from the high 80s he was accustomed to.

When he arrived on campus in Manitoba, he took time to immerse himself in the Canadian culture and adjust to the college lifestyle.

At first, he was just a typical student: going to class, going back to his dorm, and doing homework.

And like other freshmen, he wasn’t immune to feeling homesick.

“Being an 18-year-old, being thousands of miles away from home…it took control of my mind, I guess. Sometimes I just called my mom to talk to her about it, and she just told me to hang in there.”

When the fall semester rolled around, David was more acclimated to his new life. And he was ready to find a new activity to “kill time”.

He could’ve joined a club, fraternity, or intramural team.

Instead, he picked a Varsity sport.

“I went by my head [football] coach’s office and kind of just asked him if I could join the team,” Onyemata said.

Staring up at the 6’4″ 300-pound kid, the coach thought to himself, “How do I not know him?”

So he told David, “You can come out for practice tomorrow.”

But there was just one problem: David didn’t know the rules.

He didn’t know the first thing about American football.

“I thought you just went out there and just ran and chased whoever had the ball.”

The only time he’d seen a game of real gridiron football was watching the CFL on TV in his dorm room. This was the first time he ever tried to play it.

“I was out there…practicing. I guess, not practicing. I was basically on the side like…I didn’t know [anything]…I was just out there like, ‘Okay, what’s going on?’”

David Onyemata on learning the rules of football in college: "I thought you just went out there and just ran and chased whoever had the ball."

At first, he quietly observed. A teammate had to show him how to buckle his chin strap.

“I put the helmet on, [and] my neck goes sore.”

He was beyond raw, and completely out of his element.

The coach gave him one week to prove he was worth their time. David believed he could.

“I knew I was athletic enough to play.”

So he kept working. Slowly learning the rules, establishing the basics, and adapting to the speed of a college football game.

“Just getting used to the stance took me like pretty much a whole year,” he said in a 2016 interview.

What did the coaches think?

“I put him on the field for the first time and we were shocked at the way he moved. Shocked,” said Manitoba Bisons head coach Brian Dobie.

“Our defensive coordinator turned to me and said, ‘Shame on us if we can’t turn this kid into a football player.’”

But David said that things didn’t “click” until his third year with the Bisons.

“It was just certain plays, certain blocks, the play recognition was just happening so quick….You just start moving at such a quick pace because you understand a little more.”

He improved every season, compiling 151 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and 8 sacks for his career.

As a senior, he won the prestigious J.P. Metras trophy, awarded to the best down lineman in Canadian collegiate football.

Suddenly, his coach was fielding calls from pro scouts.

But the reality of his future didn’t sink in until the Bisons hosted his pro day.

Coaches and scouts from 17 different NFL teams flew out to see his workout in person.

“I was like, ‘Oh there’s really interest across the border.’”

“Some of these guys had never been to Canada. It was foggy. Like it was just pitch black. You couldn’t even see the car in front of you…and they took the time to actually come out there for that.”

At a normal pro day, there are multiple players from a particular school and maybe a handful of players from other teams.

But this was different. All eyes were on David.

And he put on a show.

According to TSN, Onyemata’s pro day numbers would have ranked him in the top 5 at his position in the 2016 NFL Combine:

  • 33 reps on the 225-pound bench press
  • 5.06-second 40-yard dash
  • 9’11” broad jump

His draft stock skyrocketed.

“I wasn’t thinking numbers,” David said after the workout. “I just wanted to do the best I could.”

That pro day was a microcosm of Onyemata’s entire football journey. He took all the stats, probabilities, and historical data, and threw them out the window.

To begin with, very few Canadian college football players ever attract a glance from NFL scouts. Much less become bonafide top prospects.

Until then, only 11 U Sports athletes (Canada’s version of the NCAA) were ever drafted by an NFL team.

Heck, it’s rare for professional players from the CFL to make it to the NFL.

David Onyemata on critics: "You can't really tell someone what to think. It's what you got and who you are deep down. That's all that matters."

To call Onyemata’s journey improbable would be an understatement.

It would have been improbable for a kid who spent his entire life working to become a pro football player. But for a guy who only started playing at 19 years old? It’s unheard of.

“He came from nothing. He knew nothing,” his coach Brian Dobie said.

“He came from a continent on the other side of the world, and he had to learn the culture of our society, the culture of football…and people discount that. But you can’t.”

In the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints traded up to the 120th overall pick to select the defensive tackle from the University of Manitoba. Onyemata was the first player in school history to ever be selected in the NFL Draft.

In five short years, he went from not knowing the rules of American football to becoming a professional at the sport’s highest level.

And where was David when they announced his name?

“I was actually golfing,” he laughed.

“It was a friend’s birthday and he kinda planned a whole golfing trip…I was like ‘You know what? I’m tired of sitting at home watching the draft’…And while I was out there, I got the call.”

Some called the Saints’ draft choice a “head-scratcher” and referred to Onyemata as a “mystery man”. But instead of concentrating on the critics, David kept his focus inward.

“It’s just about proving myself right,” he said.

“People have their opinions and they go by. You can’t really tell someone what to think or how to go about what they think. It’s what you got deep down and who you are deep down. That’s all that matters.”

Onyemata faced a world of obstacles that could have prevented his success. But he trusted his instincts, put in the work, and capitalized on every opportunity that came his way.

The next time self-doubt creeps into your mind, think of David Onyemata. And keep pushing forward.

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Written By

Division III baseball alum (McDaniel College) and founder of Joker Mag. Sharing underdog stories to inspire the next generation.



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