September 30, 2016, Iowa City — It’s the night before game day. Over half the Northwestern football team is gathered in the hotel auditorium, preparing for their weekly chapel. The team is 1-3 on the season, preparing to face an Iowa team that blew the visitors out last year and is a double-digit favorite heading into this year’s matchup.
Standing before the team, ready to speak is Ifeadi Odenigbo.
This is not a normal routine for the fifth-year senior. In fact, public speaking is one of his biggest pet peeves. His teammates had asked him a while back to give chapel for the team’s first road game and Odenigbo reluctantly accepted, but as the days drew closer to the speech he struggled to find a topic.
What would we talk about?
Would it touch people?
These questions all lingered in his head until an answer finally came to him.
“I was doubting myself and then I realized, doubting, that’s something significant right there,” Odenigbo says when recounting the experience. “That’s something we all do in our everyday life."
So Odenigbo preached to the team about doubt, telling the biblical story of Doubting Thomas and how the team members could apply it to their everyday lives in their game preparation. And although Odenigbo isn’t usually a guy who speaks up, it was clear that this message from chapel left an impact on those in the room.
“I was there and Ifeadi gave a great chapel,” Austin Carr said. “I think it inspired a lot of the guys. He was just reminding us not to doubt the process and trust that we’re prepared.”
“It was outstanding, his message was outstanding to the team,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “He was very passionate leading up to that whole week.”
October 1, 2016, Iowa City — It’s the morning before the game and Odenigbo is pissed off. This isn’t a normal feeling for Odenigbo; he’s not used to playing angry, but on this morning everything felt different.
“I was thinking about everything we’d done,” Odenigbo said. “I was just thinking, I haven’t had the season that I’ve wanted, the ‘Cats are 1-3, we’re a good football team and we shouldn’t be in this position. Now everyone’s throwing dirt to our names and talking down about us and I just got very very intense about it.”
So, pissed off at the current state of the team, Odenigbo decided to do something about it.
This wasn’t the first time Odenigbo has decided to take matters into his own hands. In fact, it’s something he’s been doing ever since he started playing football in his sophomore year at Centerville (Ohio) High School.
All the coaches at Centerville knew of Odenigbo even before he started playing football. They had been drawn to his athleticism and speed since he was in middle school. But when the program finally saw Odenigbo in action during his sophomore year as he played for the JV team, he was far from perfect.
“You could tell that if he got serious about the game that he had all the tools to be an excellent football player,” Odenigbo’s high school coach, Ron Ullery, said. “What he was lacking was just experience in understanding the game of football, the physicality of it, the nuances of it, stuff like that.”
Odenigbo worked to improve his game in between his sophomore and junior year. He worked hard. From a physical and mental standpoint, he tried to get a better grasp of the game he had so little experience playing. And despite the significant progress he was making, Odenigbo was still very critical of himself, something he says he has been since the day he was born.
“I don’t think you can be too critical on yourself in most cases, however, in Ifeadi’s case when he first started because of the limited football knowledge he had, I don’t think he knew what to be critical of and what not to be critical of,” Ullery said. “There were times where you’d see he was improving and making advances as a football player but he was still very critical of himself, but I don’t think he realized how far he was coming in such a short period of time.”
Part of the reason Odenigbo might have felt a step behind on the field could have been due to the level of competition he was playing with. During his junior year, Odenigbo played alongside, among others, Michael Bennett, Kyle Rose and Connor Donnini. Bennett went on to play for Ohio State and is now currently a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars after being drafted in 2015; Rose played for West Virginia and was signed by the Cleveland Browns this past offseason; and Donnini went on to play for the University of Cincinnati. While playing with this talent might have seemed overwhelming at the time, Odenigbo and his old coach agree now that having those high-caliber players around him served as a great source of motivation.
“I think Ifeadi was constantly comparing himself to those guys who had not only a year of age on him, but a ton more experience playing football,” Ullery said. “That really helped him because, fairly or unfairly, he was comparing himself to those guys.”
And before long, the results began to show in a dramatic way. Odenigbo’s name quickly became a common sighting on national recruiting boards, moving higher and higher up the rankings. Soon, he was ranked as the sixth-best defensive end in the country and the No. 1 player in the Midwest Region by ESPN.com. Schools like Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC all showed interest in Odenigbo, but in the end he was determined to use football as a tool to get into prestigious schools like Notre Dame, Stanford or Northwestern. In the end, those three schools were narrowed to Odenigbo’s final three, and on January 7, 2012, he announced his decision to come to Northwestern.
When he arrived on campus during the summer of 2012, Odenigbo had already been labeled as one of the biggest recruits in school history. But due to the hype brought on by much of the media and fans of the team and lack of immediate success on the field for Odenigbo, it didn’t take long for skepticism to arise.
“That’s the nature of recruiting these days,” Fitzgerald said when looking back on Odenigbo’s early years on campus. “I think it’s a blessing and a curse you get from those dot com sites in recruiting. He had an inflated image from the standpoint of external factors coming in and he was a guy that only played a couple of years of high school football.”
Another glaring issue that Odenigbo quickly discovered upon his arrival on campus was his size. At 6-foot-3, 205-pounds, Odenigbo was severely undersized to be a Big Ten defensive lineman.
“When I first came in here people were asking me, ‘Do you play strong safety?’ and I was like ‘No I’m a defensive end’,” Odenigbo said. “Then they would look at me like, ‘What are you doing to your life? You’re an 18 year old going against guys who are 22 or 23 years old.’ It’s kind of a humbling experience.”
Another problem Odenigbo was having on the field was on the mental side. The fact that Odenigbo had only played football for three years and lacked a full understanding of the game.
“I had little football IQ,” Odenigbo said. “So I got here and it was kind of a culture shock, like I have to know what other people are doing. Football’s almost more mental than it is physical and it’s a mind game.”
Odenigbo’s hardships continued during his first season in 2012, and he went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in his debut game, ending his debut season with a medical redshirt. Facing this adversity, doubt began to creep into his head: Does he have what it takes to be a defensive end? Would he ever be able to be the player that the recruiting sites had labeled him?
But rather than sulk about it or doubt his ability as a college football player, Odenigbo decided to do something about it and take matters into his own hands. Sound familiar?
His next four years on campus, Odenigbo saw his game evolve on all fronts. On the physical side of the ball, he turned to the team’s strength coach, Jay Hooten. Together, they developed a plan for Odenigbo, and since then he’s seen a steady increase in his weight each year he’s been at the program. In 2012 as a true freshman year, Odenigbo was an undersized 205-pound defensive linemen. His redshirt–freshman year he was 220, the next year 235, then 250. Now, as a fifth-year senior, Odenigbo weighs in at 265 pounds.
But along with his growth on the physical end, he also saw his football IQ rise a great deal each year he was on the field. Odenigbo began to familiarize himself with the ins and outs of the game. When looking back on his progression, Odenigbo says he remembers the biggest jump came in 2015 during spring ball before his junior year. It was during that time when he began to think to himself, “this stuff is easy.”
“It’s just thinking in football terms, the hardest part is thinking in those terms.” Odenigbo said. “It’s kind of like when you start doing math and you’re like this crap is foreign. Then you start thinking in mathematical terms, that’s what you’ve got to start thinking in football terms. And once you get past that curve and you start thinking about football then it’s pretty easy and pretty simple.”
After coming back from his season-ending injury, Odenigbo saw regular playing time in each of his previous three seasons. Through his junior season, he played in 36 games, registering 46 total tackles along with 14.5 sacks.
“Learning the game, to the extent that he’s learned it has been really impressive,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve really seen a lot of growth, a lot of maturity in his game. I’m just really proud of his perseverance.”
Despite the progression he has made each season, Odenigbo is still his own toughest critic. And while this attitude proved to be a helpful motivator at times, his head coach also saw it work against him early in his career.
“The first sign of a great leader is a guy that can lead himself,” Fitzgerald said. “I think Ifeadi is a hard critic of himself and sometimes that can become debilitating, to the point where early in his career he allowed one bad play to go into a quarter and a bad half into a bad game.”
So heading into this season, Odenigbo told himself this year would be different. He was determined to change his approach to the game. Rather than criticizing his every move and getting down about not making a single play, he decided to adapt a more positive approach. He decided that he was going to trust his ability as a football player and the results would follow.
“I was caring so much and I told myself I just need to calm down and play my sport and just have confidence,” Odenigbo said. “I have the ability, I’m big enough, I’m strong enough, I’m mentally strong enough now too.”
“Patience is a virtue, and it’s about to show up cause I’ve worked my ass off.”
Sometimes it can be difficult, having to not think about his passion at times when he’s feeling frustrated. He’s had to adopt some new hobbies this season, such as listening to more music in his free time, in order to stop thinking about football 24/7. Albums such as Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, he said, help to relax his mind off the field but also reinvigorate himself and get him hype before a game.
Aside from changing his mindset off the field, Odenigbo has also changed his role in the locker room this season. In the past, he let other leaders on the defense step up and be the team’s vocal leaders. This season, however, he thought the leadership in the locker room in the first four games was kind of quiet.
“We’ve had guys like Deonte (Gibson) and Dean (Lowry) and other upperclassmen and I was so used to them talking,” Odenigbo said. “And when those guys weren’t there I just assumed someone would take that role but you can’t assume, I’ve been here long enough, I’ve done my dues and diligence.”
So he decided to step in and do something about it.
October 1, 2016, Iowa City — Kickoff is minutes away and Odenigbo is determined to leave Kinnick Stadium with a victory, something he had never done in his time at Northwestern. Still carrying the pissed off mentality that he woke up with that morning, Odenigbo looked to rally the team and get them motivated.
“Before the game we bring it up as a defense and he was the person that came in and talked and he was mad,” C.J. Robbins said. “He had that energy the whole time, he was laser focused.”
“He brought the defense up and really got after us, he challenged us to be our best,” Anthony Walker said. “He preached it the whole week, just about not doubting anything and going out and playing physical and going out and playing hard. I think he took that as a personal challenge last week and this week that was all he preached.”
Odenigbo assured the team he was going to give it his all. He knew if the team wanted to win he needed to take a step forward and elevate his game. So he did just that.
According to his head coach, it was the best game of his career. Odenigbo registered four sacks and earned Big Ten co-defensive player of the week honors. His performance that game was a reflection of the work that he has put in in throughout his five years in Evanston.
On the field, Odenigbo was overpowering the Hawkeyes’ offensive linemen. Facing offensive tackles who had over 40 pounds on him, Odenigbo relied on his strength, speed and athleticism–the same qualities his high school coach initially pick up on–to blow by the lineman and get to C.J. Beathard in the pocket.
On the sidelines, Odenigbo continued to do what he’s been doing his entire football career: he took matters into his own hands. When the team faced hardships midway through the game, falling behind 21-17 at halftime and losing some teammates to injuries, Odenigbo stepped in. He encouraged the team to “regroup, reload, recalibrate and re-engage,” and the team proceeded to fight through the adversity.
Northwestern was clinging to a 38-31 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the game when Iowa got one last chance to make something happen. The Hawkeyes moved the ball down to the Northwestern 47-yard line with just over a minute to play. On third-and-six, Pat Fitzgerald took a timeout to talk things over with the defense. During the timeout, Odenigbo went up to the defensive line and implored them to make a play.
“This is where champions are made,” he told them.
On that play, Odenigbo spun past the offensive linemen and almost got to Beathard to record his fifth sack of the game. Instead, Beathard escaped and threw the ball downfield into the hands of Trae Williams, sealing the game for the Wildcats — a feeling much better than getting his fifth sack of the game, Odenigbo joked when looking back at the moment.
“It was a great feeling because all our hard work finally demonstrated,” Odenigbo said. “All the workouts we did during the summer, all the off-season training was all made for that fourth quarter.”
After the game, Odenigbo expressed how proud he was of the team’s demeanor that entire game, saying he had “never seen anything like it.” Now moving forward, Odenigbo is determined to keep proving doubters wrong and the team can continue turning in impressive performances week after week.
“We’ve shown that we can travel to away games and beat teams like Iowa that everyone has us losing,” Odenigbo said. “So we’ve got to have that swagger. That’s something that we didn’t have at first, but we have it now and just have to keep building on it.”
“It’s kind of like when they say you have a taste of power or taste of success, you don’t want to leave it because it’s a great feeling,” he added. “I plan on doing that every single time now.”
The defensive captains on the team, Walker and Robbins, have taken notice of Odenigbo’s transformation into a vocal leader.
“I just love playing with Ifeadi,” Walker said. “He’s always aggressive, always has that focus mentality–but for him to step up as a vocal leader last week was really big for us.”
“People are really respecting what he has to say,” Robbins said. “We’re feeding off of his energy and it’s just really great to see him come into his place and keep striving forward.”
Although Fitzgerald called Odenigbo’s performance against Iowa the best game of his career, Odenigbo is positive his best play is yet to come.
“I plan on going higher, I want to be the closer,” Odenigbo said. “In the fourth quarter, when the game is on the line, we’re neck and neck and need a play, I want to be that guy.”