- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
OSI UMENYIORA fell asleep every night beneath a white blanket adorned with little one-eyed men. He'd pull the cover under his chin and stare at the faces, pondering who they were and where they came from. They had patches over their right eyes and two swords crossed behind their heads. They wore silver helmets with a black stripe down the center. Umenyiora wondered why they needed the helmets.
The blanket was a gift from his stepmother, Ijeoma, who'd picked it up on a trip to the U.S. and took it home to Lagos, Nigeria. Young Osi loved the blanket, even if its decorative origins eluded him. "I just thought it looked cool," he says.
Only after he had turned 14 and moved to the States did he make sense of those one-eyed men. Watching television on a Sunday afternoon at his new home in Auburn, Ala., Umenyiora stopped on a channel showing athletes running into each other. Two teams were playing American football. One was wearing silver-and-black helmets, with those same little men on the sides—patches over their right eyes, swords crossed behind their heads. "I finally realized then who they were," Umenyiora says. "The Oakland Raiders."
It was the beginning of an accelerated Western education. Born in London and raised in Nigeria, he will play in the most American of games on Sunday and could have a decisive role. The 26-year-old defensive end, who had 13 of the Giants' league-leading 53 sacks this season, is a key factor in the critical matchup of Super Bowl XLII: the Giants' pass rush against the Patriots' pass protection.
Umenyiora is an ideal representative of New York, a mash-up of cultures. Ask him where he comes from, and he hesitates. His passport says the United Kingdom. His family is from Nigeria. His pass-rush skills are from the Deep South. His accent has hints of cockney, Igbo and Southern drawl. "I feel like I come from everywhere," says Umenyiora, who now splits time between Atlanta and Edgewater, N.J. "But I've taken something different from all the places I've lived. I try to represent all of them to the fullest."
He is royalty from New York to Nigeria. Umenyiora's father, John, a retired telecommunications contractor, is a king in the village of Ogbunike, which makes Osi a reluctant prince. Last off-season, when Umenyiora returned to Nigeria for the first time since he left as a teen, the villagers made him an honorary chief—not for his football achievements, but because of the 30 scholarships he endows each year for local schoolchildren. "It was a huge party," says Umenyiora's older brother Ejimofor. "There was a lot of music and dancing. It was very unusual for someone so young to be a chief."
Umenyiora earned his second Pro Bowl nod this season and made almost $6 million. But his gridiron success is largely an accident. He grew up in England playing soccer. When he was seven his family moved to Nigeria, and he played more soccer. But his father believed his children could get a better education in the U.S., so Osi traveled to Auburn, to live with Ejimofor and his older sister Nkem, who was attending nearby Tuskegee University.
Osi had no urge to play football, but in Alabama, a 14-year-old who weighs almost 250 pounds does not have much choice. He went out for the team when he was 15 and a junior at Auburn High. "The first day, I remember everybody was on the field for practice—except Osi," says Clay McCall, then the school's defensive line coach. "I went to the locker room and saw him standing there with his pads next to him. He didn't know how to put them on."
He learned quickly and played extensively that year. But early in his senior season Umenyiora quit. Ejimofor and Nkem had pulled their brother off the team, believing football was the cause of his slipping grades. Osi spent two weeks pleading before they begrudgingly let him return. "The way we were brought up, sports was not a form of employment," Ejimofor says. "It was a form of recreation. I was totally against letting him play football. But in hindsight I guess it was a good decision."
Having drawn no interest from recruiters, Umenyiora was planning to enroll at Auburn. But when he saw Tracy Rocker, a scout from then Division I-AA Troy, in the hallway at his school, he introduced himself. "I am going to play for you," Umenyiora said. Rocker, a former All-America defensive lineman at Auburn, was too startled to laugh. He watched tape of Umenyiora and came away nonplussed. Umenyiora did not get to the quarterback. He did not make tackles. But he also never stopped chasing the ballcarrier, never stopped running. "If he was willing to do that," Rocker says, "I was willing to give him a chance."