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Bright lights, big-time debut

Former Bisons star Onyemata finds his footing in glare of first NFL game action

WINSLOW TOWNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata looks on during a joint training camp practice with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.</p>

WINSLOW TOWNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata looks on during a joint training camp practice with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/8/2016 (1041 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the heart of Patriots Nation, about 50 kilometres southwest of Boston, the Gillette Stadium complex soars over cosy Foxborough like some traffic-choked football Valhalla. On game days, thin venous highways pump more than 68,000 people into the region, more than tripling the town’s population.

The resident Major League Soccer team is the New England Revolution. The resident NFL team is the New England Patriots.

The Pats logo is a stylized 18th-century U.S. general in a swooped-back tricorne hat, a nod to Boston’s history as the birthplace of a nation. Few cultures in the world are so adept at commodifying its creation myths as this one.

Adjacent to the stadium sits Patriot Place, which boasts 1.3 million square feet of “shopping, dining, and entertainment,” including a 14-screen movie theatre and a celebrity-branded feedbag (formally named Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill). The stadium wears colours best described as tastefully star-spangled. It is, in short, the most American place imaginable.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/8/2016 (1041 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the heart of Patriots Nation, about 50 kilometres southwest of Boston, the Gillette Stadium complex soars over cosy Foxborough like some traffic-choked football Valhalla. On game days, thin venous highways pump more than 68,000 people into the region, more than tripling the town’s population.

The resident Major League Soccer team is the New England Revolution. The resident NFL team is the New England Patriots.

The Pats logo is a stylized 18th-century U.S. general in a swooped-back tricorne hat, a nod to Boston’s history as the birthplace of a nation. Few cultures in the world are so adept at commodifying its creation myths as this one.

Adjacent to the stadium sits Patriot Place, which boasts 1.3 million square feet of "shopping, dining, and entertainment," including a 14-screen movie theatre and a celebrity-branded feedbag (formally named Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill). The stadium wears colours best described as tastefully star-spangled. It is, in short, the most American place imaginable.

It is also pretty, in the inoffensive way American consumer ziggurats are pretty, all curves of multistorey glass and manicured stone feature walls. From the press box, set so high above the end zone NFL players bounce like video game pixels, you can look past the stadium’s stylized lighthouse and see forested hills cresting in the blue haze beyond.

On Thursday night, the place is bumping. Sixty-six thousand people, and a large battalion of reporters, have turned out to watch the Patriots play host to the New Orleans Saints in the first game of the pre-season. A vast congregation of junior cheerleaders capers around the field, spreading out in snaking lines to spell "Brady" with their bodies. The crowd roars its approval.

Most of those fans will go home happy. Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was at the centre of their worries: he’ll make the first four starts of the season while starter Tom Brady sits out his "Deflategate" suspension. Thursday, the little-tested pivot issued a decent 11-for-18 showing in his half-game outing. The home team won 34-22.

In the guts of the stadium, the tunnels filled with media, there are not many Canadians. When in doubt in America, it’s best to pull out that card; they recognize your intimidation and are quick to render assistance. Sorry, you’re from Canada and don’t know your way around. Sorry, you’re from Canada and you only know the procedures that surround the CFL.

Maybe they’ve already noticed your accent, the way you drag out the "o" in "sorry," which to American ears sounds like the word got stuck in a vowel bog. Right away, they are curious. For instance, there is the guy in the Patriots staff shirt who joins you in an elevator and, after confirming you are in fact a journalist from Canada, exclaims: "So what are you doing here?"

Then, because he’s also a big Boston Bruins NHL fan and thus knows a thing or two about middle Canada geography, his face lights up with recognition, and he answers his own question.

"Oh!" he says. "You’re about that kid on the Saints!"

WINSLOW TOWNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata goes through drills during a joint training camp practice with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.</p>

WINSLOW TOWNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata goes through drills during a joint training camp practice with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

The last game David Onyemata played was the East-West Shrine Game, a regular January convergence of pro football’s top prospects. The 6-4, 300-pound defensive lineman was one of a handful of Canadian university players invited to the annual showcase in Florida. It would provide the stage from which he somersaulted to NFL attention.

If you don’t count that one, which is understandable, the last regular game Onyemata played was Nov. 7, 2015, in Vancouver — the Canada West semifinal — when a young University of Manitoba Bisons roster got pasted 52-10 by the ferocious UBC Thunderbirds.

Onyemata recorded 3.5 tackles in that game, a quiet one by his standard; in the 2015 CIS season, he averaged 4.8 and had five sacks in eight games.

About 1,100 people attended that match, which is about half the number that packed the stands at a joint Patriots-Saints practice session earlier this week, and only about 1.7 per cent of the crowd that thronged Gillette Stadium Thursday. Yet, after that game was over, Onyemata stood in the Saints locker room and looked as calm as ever.

"It was pretty good," the 23-year-old said, in his usual quiet way. "Just getting out there and getting your first NFL snap, it was pretty good."

Try to imagine, for a minute, what that trajectory is like. It’s been almost six years since Onyemata left Nigeria to study in Manitoba, where he saw football for the first time. Ten months since he was named the top down lineman in Canadian university football. A little more than three months since he was selected 120th overall in the NFL draft by the Saints — the first U of M alumnus to be chosen in the annual event’s 81 years.

Now here he is, at the heart of a football Valhalla, making his NFL preseason debut on the biggest stage of all.

Did he get a chance to soak it in? Yeah, Onyemata said, a little. Before kickoff, he walked onto the field in his bright white Saints uniform. It was so hot, so humid the air itself felt sticky. He looked up at the stands, shooting 12 storeys above the land, and took it in — but only for a minute. Then he marched back into the locker room and got down to business.

This isn’t the CIS anymore. Media access to Onyemata is now parcelled out in precious minutes; if you want to chat with him on a second consecutive day, well, you can forget it. Here, he is not the pride of Bisons football. He is a raw rookie in a billion-dollar sports machine; the powers that be, it seems, don’t want him to stand out too much or get too much attention.

In truth: Onyemata might prefer that. Also a truth: it’s even harder to avoid it here than it was in Manitoba. The Saints have a handful of players who landed in the NFL via the Canadian pro ranks, including starting cornerback Delvin Breaux (Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 2013-14). But Onyemata is the only player on the roster whose alma mater is Canadian.

"I saw his T-shirt the other day, I guess that was his college or wherever his province was," veteran Saints safety Roman Harper said after practice earlier this week. "I was like, ‘What team is that?’ So he had to explain it to me. Man, I just didn’t know. But this game is so special to me because you meet people from all walks of life."

Even there, though, Harper doesn’t know how deep that difference goes. If Onyemata’s story is famous in Manitoba — and increasingly famous in New Orleans — it doesn’t seem to have trickled to his teammates.

The first thing Harper thinks about when he thinks about "Big O," for instance, isn’t Onyemata’s remarkable path to the NFL — it’s the way Onyemata delivered a rendition of the K-Ci & Jojo pop hit All My Life at a rookie performance challenge.

"When he had to get up and sing, (he) was excellent," Harper said with a laugh, then sang a few bars of the tune. "He did a great job. He had to write it down because he kind of forgot the words. His singing’s not good, but he was a great performer."

For his part, Onyemata groans when asked about the moment. "Oh no. I’m glad videos didn’t get out."

The joviality is a good sign, surely, the guy on the roster with the most unusual story is fitting in and making himself at home. Still, it seems almost surprising there are so many things about Onyemata his teammates don’t yet know. Did Harper know, for instance, Onyemata hadn’t played football until he arrived at university?

The veteran paused. "I did not know that," Harper said and scrunched his brow. "So wait, what did he play?"

After hearing the rest of the story sketched in, Harper shook his head. "That just does not happen," he said. "Maybe you get a late bloomer like in high school, then they’ll go to a small college. But usually, in America, somebody’s playing football or in the backyard or something with your dad, mom, uncle, cousin. It’s just crazy, the fact that he’s still able to get drafted."

WINSLOW TOWNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata, right, stands with fellow rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (99) during a joint training camp practice with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.</p>

WINSLOW TOWNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata, right, stands with fellow rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (99) during a joint training camp practice with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

In Winnipeg, Brian Dobie had put his protege’s professional debut out of his mind. There is a new crop of charges coming in, with Bisons training camp set to open Sunday, so the U of M football head coach was in a long, late meeting Thursday with recruits.

On the way out of Investors Group Field, he stopped by the team’s locker room to urge the stragglers to go home. "But coach," they said, pointing at the television. "Onyemata."

So Dobie sat down and they watched the remainder of the NFL game together, mostly the second half in which Onyemata saw the lion’s share of action. As soon as the NFL Network camera showed a shot of Onyemata, Dobie felt a shiver of recognition: "Ah yeah, that’s David," the coach recalled thinking. "The way he looked, the way he moved. It’s your player."

That familiarity is now stretched over thousands of kilometres, but it is not faded. Onyemata’s family is half a world away, though they call to check in how he’s doing; he hopes to bring them to New Orleans for a game. In the meantime, his Bisons crew is the closest connection to his old life he has; he has been chatting with some of them as training camp progresses.

The affection goes both ways. Dobie sometimes jokes Onyemata feels like the 6-4, 300-pound son he never had — though he’s quick to add he’s no more proud of the young man than he is of a player who has gone on to become a teacher or a dad. Still, the Bisons head coach is famously a man of stories, so allow him this one notably paternal tale.

It was in mid-July, Dobie said, during a break between the Saints’ rookie minicamp and their regular preseason. Onyemata returned to Manitoba, and the coach couldn’t help but note he called it "home." Then he called Dobie up, and said he wanted to buy a car; would the coach come along to help?

Onyemata never had a vehicle while he was playing for the Bisons, but now he had some NFL money. His rookie contract (not guaranteed) is for US$2,882,345 spread over four years; for a signing bonus, he will pocket US$542,345 (guaranteed) over that same span. Even if he never plays a down in the big show, that’s real money.

So with Dobie’s daughter, Bisons volleyball libero Caleigh Dobie, in tow, the trio set out. As they browsed, the coach pointed out the sleekest new trucks, the most bestial of vehicles. But every time a salesperson was out of earshot, Onyemata just shook his head. "No coach. I don’t think I should spend that kind of money."

In Massachusetts, Onyemata shrugged when asked about it. He’s a low-key kind of guy; he didn’t come into football the way a lot of youngsters do, dreaming about wealth and boundless glory. He knows the risks that lie in wait for blossoming pro players that don’t think too hard about the future. (Roughly one in six NFL players will go bankrupt after they retire, according to a 2015 report.)

"It’s your first year," Onyemata said. "You can’t just go out and throw it out there. It might be your last one. You don’t know what’s coming after this. It’s just a humble mindset. You don’t want to be the one guy that like, yeah, he was in the league for a bit and just blew all the money off and now he’s begging on the street or something."

This could all end tomorrow, after all. There would be a spot for him in the CFL, but even then, nothing is for certain.

WINSLOW TOWNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata stretches during a joint training camp practice with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.</p>

WINSLOW TOWNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata stretches during a joint training camp practice with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

The pre-season game Thursday night sped by. Onyemata saw a lot of playing time at defensive tackle in the second half, though he didn’t do anything dramatic. His talent showed mostly in flashes: a surge of power here, a smart angle there. There were mistakes, including one just before the half the NFL Network broke down in detail. A positioning error, analysts thought.

If anyone in Manitoba was hoping Onyemata would grind out a thunderous sack or make a giant splash — well, that didn’t happen. After the game, Saints head coach Sean Payton summarized Onyemata’s performance with a non-committal, "We’ll have to take a peek at the tape." The player himself said almost exactly the same.

This is not surprising. The difference between the CIS and NFL is vast, and the agreed narrative about Onyemata amongst all who observe him is he is a raw talent, full of power. The Saints knew that when they drafted him — the coaches asked Dobie mostly about how quickly Onyemata learns — and still traded up to make the pick. They’re in for his development.

The athletes around him have noticed. "His raw ability and his talent is very, very high," Harper said after practice Tuesday. "We don’t need him to come out and start for us right away. We can continue to groom him and teach him more of the game, American-style. His natural abilities will continue to just flourish. He’s got the things that you can’t coach."

With the Bisons, that rawness was hidden by the part-time nature of the league and his physical dominance. That won’t happen going forward.

"Everyone out here is fast, everyone is big, everyone is all on the same page," Onyemata said after a weekday practice. "You don’t have that one guy that’s just better than the rest of the guys. That’s the difference."

So no, Onyemata didn’t make his NFL pre-season debut and blow anyone away. For now, though, that may be OK.

"I’ll be honest with you," Dobie said. "I thought he looked absolutely in place. I saw him being relentless, saw him exploding, saw him working hard. Did he make some mistakes? Probably, I don’t know exactly what they are doing. But I thought he looked no different than the other guys that he was lined up with. And I thought he was an NFL player."

It’s true. After it was over, in the visitors’ locker room underneath Gillette Stadium, Onyemata wandered back from the shower. He stood in front of the stall he shares with the Saints’ 2016 first-round draft pick, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, a fast but slightly undersized 6-1, 300-pound standout from the University of Louisville who is pencilled in as a starter.

While reporters wandered through the room, hunting out more-prized interview targets, Onyemata and Rankins chatted lightly, laughing. In that moment, they were just two strong young men starting their careers together. The roads that brought them to this place could not be more different, but each wound inexorably to this bustling intersection.

Every day Onyemata gets up and goes to work, he’s getting a little more used to it.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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