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Ifeadi Odenigbo is just having fun

There are few people like Ifeadi Odenigbo and even fewer who have as much fun as he does.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. -- "What would you say is your favorite pass-rushing move?" I ask Ifeadi Odenigbo on a hot and humid August afternoon, following one of Northwestern's last training camp workouts.

Expecting a traditional, oral response, I stand in front of him with my notepad and recorder in my left hand and a pen in my right.

It should have been clear to me at that point in the interview, seven minutes in, that a discussion with Ifeadi Odenigbo would not be constrained by the status quo nature of an interview. This is a young man whose path to Northwestern is as unique as it comes.

"My favorite pass-rushing move? I'll show it to you," he says to me with a smile.

With that, what was anticipated to be a routine interview ends and my first rep as an offensive tackle begins.

A division between two slabs of sidewalk in the walkway separating the entrances to Welsh-Ryan Arena and the football team's locker room becomes the line of scrimmage and I stand awkwardly in my polo and slacks, thinking more about self-preservation than jotting down notes.

"I'm a little short for a d-end," the six-foot-three lineman says as he gets into his stance. "I'm not six-five, six-six like Dean Lowry. So a lot of tackles I go against in the Big Ten are like six-five, six-six, six-seven, but one thing they all have a hard time doing is that they have a hard time getting low, especially when you're speed rushing."

From there, the lesson begins. He chooses to demonstrate his favorite sack of all-time: a third-and-seven takedown of Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner.


Looking back at it, the sack is a beauty. He separates from the offensive lineman and dips his right shoulder to get around the blocker, opening up a lane to the quarterback. He shows me in slow motion how he uses his arm to chop at the hands of the lineman and even though he often misses, he says it's more important to keep his momentum going forward, forcing the lineman to get lower than he wants to. When it gets to a certain point, he says as he performs the final motion of the sequence, he rips his right arm through, creating an angle past the lineman and toward the quarterback.

It seems like a subtle move, perfected over years and years of coaching, practice and film study.

But it's not.

The truth is, Odenigbo still isn't even sure if he did it right.

"Maybe this is bad coaching," he says, "I still don't know, but I don't ever look at the o-lineman's hands."

Instead of looking, he says he anticipates where the lineman's hands will be, relying almost entirely on his instincts for a move he has used over and over again to the tune of 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2013, good enough for second on the team.

When I'm in doubt and I go, ‘Nothing's working against this guy,'" he says as he flings his hands in the air in an act of faux-frustration, "it's back to the basics baby."

For Odenigbo, though, even the "basic" concepts are still new.

"When coach asks you a question like, ‘Why'd you do this move?' You tell him, ‘I had help from the (outside) linebacker because he was coming through,' instead of like ‘Yo, I just saw an opening. I feel like being an athlete and going for it.' They don't like hearing that," he says.

Coming out of Ohio's Centerville High School as a four-star recruit, Odenigbo was one of the highest-rated players ever to sign with Northwestern. He was the top player in Ohio, a member of the U.S. Under-19 National Football Team and competed in the Under Armor All-American Game.

All of those accolades are certainly impressive, but the most impressive of all: he only started playing football during his sophomore year.

His "first love" was soccer, he says, and he played up until sixth grade when the practices and games interfered with his parents' work schedules.

"Soccer's like your first girlfriend," he says. "Even though you guys broke up, you still have a thing for her."

Then Odenigbo turned to track, where he excelled, eventually anchoring Centerville's 4x200 relay team in a third-place finish at the state meet.

Early in his life, football was never really an option for Odenigbo, the first member of his family to be born in the U.S. His parents, Thomas and Linda, were both born in Nigeria and knew nothing about the sport. They didn't let his older brother, who was also born in Nigeria, play because they thought it was too dangerous. Football also took up a ton of time and, according to Odenigbo, the Nigerian attitude toward education is "school, school, school, study, study, study. You need to get a 3.5 [GPA] or I won't let you play."

There came a point in time when, he says, he couldn't escape the prospect of playing football.

First the pressure came from his friends.

"You're a big, black, Nigerian dude," they'd tell him. "Those are all indications of a football player, man. Ifeadi, you're a freak athlete."

Then people started talking to him at track meets after they saw him run in his skin-tight speed suit.

"Dude, you're big as hell, bro. You play football?" people asked him.

"Nah," he would respond.

"You got to be playing football," people kept telling him. "Dude, you're a football player trying to do a track sport. That's not you."

Eventually he gave in, starting out as a "JV All-Star." And soon after he started, he was ready to give it up.

"It sucked man," he says. "I almost quit. Sophomore year I was just getting rocked, man."

His biggest challenge, he says, was "getting over that phase of being afraid of hits." He calls himself "tentative and soft" and it wasn't until about nine or ten games into the season that he finally understood that aspect of football.

But that fear of physical confrontation actually helped him find his niche on the field.

"Originally, I was a pass rusher because the coaches knew I was afraid of contact. So that's why I'm such a good pass rusher, which is kind of funny. My coach told me, ‘Yo, yo, yo, just pretend like [the lineman]'s got diseases or something. Don't let him touch you. If he touches you, you've got to say no and be paranoid.'"

Once it all clicked for him, there was no slowing down. His physical skillset alone caused him to leap onto the radars of some of the top schools in the country such as Stanford, Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and USC.

"When I was getting recruited in high school and getting all of these offers, I was like, ‘I don't know why I'm getting these offers. I really don't think I'm that good, but I'll take them anyway,'" he says.

The thing is, he was that good. Whether he knew it or not, Odenigbo was making waves around the country. When Odenigbo ran down and caught current Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller not once, but twice, in a high school game, it was clear that he could play at an elite level.

Eventually, the inexperienced Odenigbo arrived at Northwestern, following up on his parents' (his mother is a doctor and his father is an engineer) wishes for him to make his education a priority. Football-wise, Odenigbo was prepared to redshirt, but with fellow defensive end Deonte Gibson sidelined with an injury, Odenigbo was thrust into action. He played in the 2012 season-opener but gained a medical hardship waiver after an injury cost him the rest of his true freshman season. It ended up being a blessing for him.

"I had such a low football IQ, coming in," he recalls. "I didn't know anything about coverages. All I was told in high school was, ‘Go get the quarterback, Ifeadi.'"

But it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing for the defensive end in the past two seasons. He's still admittedly small for a lineman — although he has bulked up to around 240 pounds this summer — and because of that, and other issues dealing with his inexperience, he has been unable to develop into an every-down defensive lineman.

"He's developing, he's growing into his body," says his coach, Pat Fitzgerald. "He's gaining experience. There's no substitute for experience."

What Odenigbo lacks in experience, he makes up for with his constant energy or "juice" as he and his coaches call it. There are few people that look like they are having as much fun as Odenigbo on the field. It's most evident in his sack celebrations.

Sometimes he flexes, he might use his right arm like a hammer or he may even use his favorite celebration: pulling an imaginary sword out of an imaginary belt in an homage to his favorite TV show, because he's "a ‘Game of Thrones' guy. Shout out to ‘Game of Thrones' right there." It's his job, he says, to get the crowd and his teammates fired up.

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"Yo man, it's your turn. Let's see what you got. I did my thing. Now you've gotta do your thing," he says as if he's yelling in a teammate's ear on gameday.

It's clear that he has embraced football and the opportunities it has brought him. As for the rest of the family, they've come along too. His younger brother, Tito, is a freshman defensive tackle at Illinois, creating a schism in the family's rooting interests. His parents have also begun to embrace the game, but in different ways.

"My dad thinks he knows a lot more than he really does. He's like, ‘You guys should have done this. I think I'm starting to understand the game, Ifeadi. I think I really understand.' I just nod my head, ‘Yeah, yeah.' He really doesn't know much," he says.

His exchanges with his mom are less about x's and o's.

"Hey, you had a great game," his mother says.

"Mom, I didn't have a good game," Odenigbo responds.

But like any mother, she doesn't care about the outcome: "But you didn't get hurt so that's a great game for you! You're my little pookie-loo. You did great!"

Almost anyone else would be embarrassed to say that his mother still calls him a "pookie-loo," but his cheeks don't turn red, he doesn't lower his head. He smiles. Ifeadi Odenigbo will undoubtedly make mistakes on the field; he's only played the game for five or so years. But when he does, he goes back to the "basics." And for him, that just means having fun.