FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — To catch the first glimpse of David Onyemata Tuesday morning, you had to get a little lucky. You had to be looking in the right place. If you were, then sometimes a throng of bodies and helmets would stretch out just enough, and in just the right way, to reveal a coal-black jersey emblazoned with the golden No. 93.

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This article was published 9/8/2016 (1937 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — To catch the first glimpse of David Onyemata Tuesday morning, you had to get a little lucky. You had to be looking in the right place. If you were, then sometimes a throng of bodies and helmets would stretch out just enough, and in just the right way, to reveal a coal-black jersey emblazoned with the golden No. 93.

That’s him, you think. That’s Onyemata, once the pride of the University of Manitoba Bisons and now a prospect of the New Orleans Saints. You recognize the way he carries his 6-4, 300-pound frame; then he is swallowed by the crowd again, vanishing into a roiling mass of 200 NFL stars and prospects that have converged on this practice field.

Suddenly, everything that helped raise Onyemata to this point seems very small, and very far away.

When Onyemata started playing football, which was not so long ago, he trained in the shadow of the old University of Manitoba Stadium. That venue isn’t much to look at, just a squat concrete slope, and though its perfunctory stands can fit 5,000 fans, there were usually far fewer when the Bisons stampeded at full tilt.

There was no spotlight on Onyemata then, on the field or in the newspaper. The lights came later, after the Bisons moved up from the stadium built for the 1967 Pan Am Games and into the gleaming arms of Investors Group Field. On that turf, Onyemata exploded as the star of a Bisons defence that helped seize a 2014 conference title. In 2015, he was the nation’s top university down lineman.

'You're out there the whole day. You go from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and you're learning football, you're talking football, you're breathing football. Every day is football'‐ David Onyemata 

Astonishing arc

Now, Onyemata has moved up again. The astonishing arc of his career has brought him here, about 50 kilometres south of Boston, where the upper decks of Gillette Stadium curve above the treetops like the the petals of some massive flower. This is the home of the New England Patriots, four-time Super Bowl champions. This is where legacies are built. 

On Thursday night, this is where Onyemata is set to sink his cleats into his first NFL pre-season game.

A lot has changed in his life since May, when he was plucked by the Saints in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, 120th overall.

The Saints pencilled him in at both defensive end and tackle, and put him through his paces at a mini-camp in June. He soon signed his rookie contract, a four-year deal worth more than US$2.8 million, though only a fraction of that is guaranteed.

There is also this: he jumped from sharing a locker room with talented young Bisons pivot Theo Deezar, to sharing one with 2010 Super Bowl MVP and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. Ten months ago, he was raining sacks on CIS quarterbacks who will likely never play a pro game. On Tuesday, he launched his bulk at the human wall around Patriots star Tom Brady.

This week marks the fourth time the Saints and Patriots have converged for joint pre-season practices, a feature of Saints coach Sean Payton’s reign. The centrepiece of the meeting will be the Thursday game, but it is also a chance to test the players’ mettle against real opponents.

"This will be great competition for us," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said.

Amidst this star-spangled pressure, and after a two-hour practice in the scorching Massachusetts sun, Onyemata is little changed.

Of course, he still has the same iron-wrought frame that compelled the Saints to trade up in the draft to snag him. But even his demeanour is no different than it was in Manitoba: still with the deep laugh, still easygoing and soft-spoken.

By now, two weeks after the Saints’ main training camp kicked off at a West Virginia luxury resort July 27, Onyemata has settled into its punishing rhythms. Other than the 1,500 fans that cheered on the open practice Tuesday morning, there is little glamour in this part of big-league life. Wake up and push your body to its limits, then study, sleep, and repeat.

"You’re out there the whole day," Onyemata said. "You go from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and you’re learning football, you’re talking football, you’re breathing football. Every day is football."

This workload is a critical crash course for every prospect, but for Onyemata it is especially vital. The narrative that has congealed around him is as obvious as it is constant. He is the only player on either the Patriots or Saints whose alma mater is Canadian. When he gets mentioned in media reports, it is usually appended by a mention of his "rawness."

Sometimes, it’s obvious. At one early practice in West Virginia, Onyemata kept lunging offside before the snap. For that, he was was assigned a lap around the field. But there have also been flashes of his explosive talent: a few days after that stumble, he impressed reporters with a ferocious practise sack on veteran Saints backup quarterback Luke McCown.

By all indications, the Saints intend to give him time to grow into the NFL’s expectations. Last Friday, coach Payton praised Onyemata as a quick study. In feedback sessions, Onyemata said, coaches said he is improving every day.

On Tuesday, veteran Saints safety Roman Harper also praised his defensive colleague’s work ethic.

"The biggest thing in the NFL is, you can mess up, but you just don’t want to be a repeat offender," Harper said. "If you can just learn from your mistakes, and just don’t make those same ones, you’ll be just fine. You’ll be playing a long time. Because you can learn from mistakes, and learn from people and what you see around you."

Now, the biggest test of Onyemata’s fledgling pro career is looming. He doesn’t yet know how much playing time he’ll see in Thursday’s pre-season opener against the Patriots. But he will walk into it with the same quiet focus that got him here: a journey that began in the shadow of the old U of M stadium, now set to march before an audience of millions.

"It’s going to be, go out there and make the best of it," Onyemata said. "Just take it one snap at a time." 

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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