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 last Thursday night, 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-year-old Onyemata 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 football 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 from Manitoba 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, in 2016, making him the first Bison ever 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 summertime, 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 Canadian football.
“The line of scrimmage, you’re right on the ball. Like right there,” Onyemata said. “Sometimes before you make a step, you have a guard or centre on you and the contact is already there.”
There was also the intimidating transition of playing in front of a modest U Sports crowd to suiting up before a deafening mob in New Orleans, where the Saints are practically a religion.
“At first, coming from a small school, you’re in front of 70,000 people,” Onyemata said. “There’s nothing that’s going to max out that feeling. The fan base out here is just insane. I don’t know how to put it.
“Sometimes on the field you can’t even hear the plays. It was really amazing.”
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 back in Manitoba.
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 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Go out there and give it your all,” Onyemata said, “and the rest will fall in place.”