FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was the biggest night of David Onyemata’s life and it surged by in a blitz of roaring hits and brilliant white lights.

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Opinion

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was the biggest night of David Onyemata’s life and it surged by in a blitz of roaring hits and brilliant white lights.

When it was over, the former University of Manitoba football star stood in the visitor’s locker room at Gillette Stadium. He was freshly showered and fully calm. If you could ignore everything else going on around him — the reporters racing through the stadium like schools of fish, the clouds of more than 66,000 exiting fans — you could almost imagine he was back at Investors Group Field after a Bisons game.

Stew Milne / The Associated Press</p><p>New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata (right) tries to fend off the block of New England guard Joe Thuney during first-half action Thursday night.</p>

Stew Milne / The Associated Press

New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata (right) tries to fend off the block of New England guard Joe Thuney during first-half action Thursday night.

Instead, he had just made his NFL debut Thursday night, just over three months after he became the first Manitoban drafted into the league. The game itself was not triumphant: his New Orleans Saints fell to the New England Patriots, 34-22. Still, what a ride — and despite the giant spotlight, the 6-4, 300-pound defensive lineman said he didn’t get too nervous. 

'I think we'll have a chance to see the film. He was out of his gap a few times on some big runs. We'll take a peek at the film'‐ Saints head coach Sean Payton on David Onyemata

"It was pretty good, just getting out there, getting the first NFL snap," Onyemata said.

Onyemata is still considered a raw prospect by the Saints, having landed in the NFL after just five years of playing football and in a non-traditional Canadian way at the U of M. 

Accordingly, his NFL game debut wasn’t perfect. The speed and strength of his opponents is so much greater than it was in the CIS ranks, to which Onyemata was most recently accustomed.

(It also likely didn’t help that it was a sweltering hot night in Massachusetts; prior to the 7:30 p.m. kickoff, the heat and 71 per cent humidity made it feel like a 34 C steambath on the field.)

The Saints appeared to ease him into his first NFL game action. Most of the tilt’s early work at defensive tackle went to the Saints’ 2016 first-rounder, Sheldon Rankins, and free-agent Nick Fairley, who the Saints signed in March. Still, as the game wore on Onyemata did get to feel more of the field under his cleats.

One of his earliest appearances was on a goal-line stand at 12:51 of the second quarter, which ended with a one-yard scoring run by Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. 

In the dying minutes of the first half, he pressed away from a gap through which Patriots RB Brandon Bolden exploded for a 24-yard run; that prompted a time-out from the Saints.

That may turn out to have been an error — Onyemata said he’d have to wait to see film, to comment — but it didn’t keep him off the field. The Saints gave him ample playing time in the second half, putting him out in a range of situations. "I was happy," Onyemata said. "I got out there, I got some reps, it was pretty good."

That kind of exposure is what training camp is for. Saints fans and coaches have already taken note of Onyemata’s formidible physique, and some of the buzz about his debut centred on the potential he carries in that frame:  "I like him a lot," football journalist Jeff Risdon said on Twitter. "He’s got muscles on his muscles." 

Others noted the ongoing work for the former Bison, to continue to grow into the NFL game. 

And Saints head coach Sean Payton, who recently praised Onyemata for his work ethic and development, was noncommittal. 

"I think we’ll have a chance to see the film," Payton said.  "He was out of his gap a few times on some big runs. We’ll take a peek at the film."

Thursday’s game capped off a week that featured a couple of joint practices with the Patriots. 

The Saints will now head back to a luxury resort in West Virginia where they started training camp. Their next pre-season game is set for Aug. 20 in Houston, where they’ll face the Texans. 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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