New York Giants defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo always believed that he was athletically gifted.
But being athletically gifted and being able to turn that to success was a formula that Odenigbo, the son of Nigerian-born parents, had to learn for himself.
One of Odenigbo's earliest exposure to the old cliché "hard work really does pay off" began with his mother, Dr. Linda Odenigbo, a pediatrician.
Deemed an academic prodigy during her secondary school days, Dr. Odenigbo graduated from high school at 14 and had the world at her feet.
But rather than sit back and let opportunities come to her, she worked relentlessly to pursue her education and eventual career with all the vigor of a walk-on college prospect looking to impress the coach.
“That was a big lesson for me,” Odenigbo told Giants Country by phone. “Here was my mom, a prodigy who was super smart and all that never stopped her from working hard. And I think that a lot of times if someone isn’t going to make it in life, whether it’s sports or business or whatever, it’s not because they’re not smart enough, but because they don’t work as hard as they could to make sure they’re giving themselves every possible advantage.”
That same mindset is shared by Odenigbo’s father, Thomas, a civil engineer.
“One thing I remember my dad told me when I was young is you'll be as successful as you want based on the choices you make," Odenigbo said.
“A lot of people that have God-given talent, but they don't always make it in life because it could be they get caught up in things—they hang out with the wrong crew, their grades—all the intangible things that can ruin someone’s path.”
Odenigbo was always a fast runner. Having been blessed with speed, track and field seemed like a natural fit for him as an activity during his years at Centerville High School in Ohio.
While he excelled in track, Odenigbo's friends involved with the football program tried to convince him to join them.
Odenigbo was intrigued and certainly willing to give it a try. But he first had to convince his parents, who didn't exactly view the sport in the most favorable light, that he could benefit.
“Fortunately, peer pressure, in this case, was a good thing,” Odenigbo chuckled. “A lot of my peers really pressed me, saying, ‘Hey Ifeadi, you should come out for the football team.’ So I eventually convinced my parents to let me join the football team.”
Odenigbo began playing on the offensive side of the ball but eventually switched to the defensive side. As he progressed through a very productive "career" in football and track, Odenigbo soon began thinking about his college options.
“Kids in my hometown were getting scholarships for football and I was a big track guy growing up,” he said. “Since I had speed and since people always used to say that speed is essential for football, I’m looking at my (post-high school education) options, and there weren’t that many scholarships in track, but there were for football. So I worked to get a football scholarship.”
Odenigbo would go on to attend Northwestern University, where he began his college career at 205 pounds. Through hard work, focus, and paying attention to his training, diet, and sleep schedule, he bulked up to around 260 pounds by the time he was ready for the NFL draft.
Before then, though, his college career got off to an inauspicious start when he suffered a season-ending injury after appearing in just one game in his freshman season.
The good news is he was granted a hardship waiver, which meant he didn’t have to lose a year of eligibility. And when he returned to the field for his sophomore campaign, Odenigbo, then primarily a pass-rushing specialist deployed on third down, began showing signs of promise as a gridiron star, finishing second on the team with 5.5 sacks.
By the end of his four-year stint at Northwestern, Odenigbo recorded 61 total tackles, including 26.5 tackles for loss and 23.5 sacks—all good enough to get him drafted in the seventh round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2017.
Cut Down to Size
Transitioning from college to the NFL is challenging enough for any player, regardless of his background. But when that transition involves going from an active, visible field presence to the obscurity of the practice squad, that can be a tough pill for some to swallow.
Not for Odenigbo, who, after battling to make the Vikings roster as a rookie, found himself on the outside looking end when he was part of the final training camp cuts that were eventually signed to the team’s practice squad.
"I was put on the practice squad, and that was a humbling experience," he said. "But at the end of the day—and this is gonna sound cheesy, but it's true—it's all about your attitude.
"A lot of guys, when they're put on the practice squad, they're like, 'Oh man, they lost faith in me.' I was like, 'Okay, there are a lot of good guys out here and I need to get better.’”
After spending his rookie season on the Vikings practice squad, Odenigbo got another chance to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster--not as a defensive end, the position he played in college, but as a defensive tackle, a position with which he had little experience.
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"Initially, the Vikings had me playing on the outside, but then it was like, 'Hey, Ifeadi, you've been on practice squad; we think we've seen everything you've done. All right, we're going to have you play D-tackle and gain 30 pounds."
Odenigbo gave his all toward making the transition a successful one, but he struggled with achieving a natural feel--and the production--working inside.
With his chances of earning a roster spot looking grim, Odenigbo kept on fighting to make the switch work. But when midway through the preseason, the Vikings, in a loss to Jacksonville, saw defensive end Ade Aruna suffer a knee injury, suddenly Odenigbo had a new opportunity that would allow him to compete at defensive end, his natural position.
Odenigbo didn't disappoint in that game, finishing with a team-leading seven tackles (five solos) with two tackles for a loss, two sacks, and three quarterback hits.
'The coach must have been like, 'Oh my gosh, what do we do now? This was not a part of the plan,'" Odenigbo said of his performance.
The coaches cut the rising young defender, hoping to add him to the practice squad. Only this time, Odenigbo's film began drawing the attention from around the league, and once he hit the waiver wire, at least two teams--the Browns, who were awarded him off waivers, and the Giants--put in a claim for his contact.
Odenigbo spent three weeks in Cleveland but never made it onto the field. He was cut on September 22 and was then signed by the Arizona Cardinals two days later.
He appeared in one game for Arizona but was waived on October 23, 2018. A little more than a week later, Odenigbo was back with the Vikings on their practice squad.
After the 2018 season, Odenigbo signed a two-year contract to remain in Minnesota. During the 2019 off-season, Vikings defensive end Tashawn Bower suffered a torn Achilles, which opened the door for Odenigbo to earn a more significant role.
That season, Odenigbo contributed 23 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, 13 quarterback hits, seven sacks (his first career sack coming against the Giants and quarterback Daniel Jones), and one forced fumble in roughly 34% defensive snaps played.
Encouraged by what they saw, the Vikings nearly doubled Odenigbo's defensive snaps the following season, but his production didn't follow suit. He finished with 35 tackles, three tackles for a loss, 15 quarterback hits, and 3.5 sacks.
After the Vikings chose not to tender him after the 2020 season, he hit free agency. The Giants, still intrigued by his potential as a pass rusher, signed him to a one-year deal.
Now and (Hopefully) Always a Giant
Odenigbo is thrilled to have a chance to continue his career for the New York Giants, a team the Bayonne-born defender always held in high regard and one whose head coach had him at hello.
“Yeah, I’m already locked in with a huge New York/New Jersey vibe,” Odenigbo said with a laugh. “I think Coach Judge is trying to do something special here and I’m really excited to be a part of it.”
Odenigbo especially likes how in the Giants locker room, everyone is on equal ground, regardless of how he came into the league or what he's accomplished.
“The Giants as an organization come first; there are no individuals or stars on this team. We’re all here to play a role to the best of our ability as defined by the coaching staff and we’re going to build great things together.”
Odenigbo is still learning about what his specific role will be in building something special. In anticipation of potentially working more out of a two-point stance in the Giants defense, which is something relatively new to him, Odenigbo has already been training to gain a comfort level so he can hit the ground running.
The other thing that will undoubtedly endear him to his teammates and coaching staff is his comfort in his own skin. Odenigbo, who is still growing as a player and person, thrives on being a mentor.
“A lot of times in this league, veterans, as they get older, kind of become more reserved and more about themselves. I'd like to think that I'm an unselfish guy," he said.
"I have no problems helping others and sharing what I’ve learned. Obviously I've bounced around the league, I've had different coaches, so I have an understanding of how to respond to different perspectives.”
He's also hoping that those lessons he shares with others will help him in his quest to turn his one-year contract with the Giants into something more long-term after the season.
“I'm honored and blessed to be a part of his organization, and I'll do whatever it takes to help the team win the division.
“I’ve been given the making of a great story and I'm going to make sure it doesn't end.”