OSI UMENYIORA fellasleep 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 theywere and where they came from. They had patches over their right eyes and twoswords crossed behind their heads. They wore silver helmets with a black stripedown the center. Umenyiora wondered why they needed the helmets.
This is an article from the Feb. 4, 2008 issue
The blanket was agift from his stepmother, Ijeoma, who'd picked it up on a trip to the U.S. andtook it home to Lagos, Nigeria. Young Osi loved the blanket, even if itsdecorative origins eluded him. "I just thought it looked cool," hesays.
Only after he hadturned 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. Twoteams were playing American football. One was wearing silver-and-black helmets,with those same little men on the sides—patches over their right eyes, swordscrossed behind their heads. "I finally realized then who they were,"Umenyiora says. "The Oakland Raiders."
It was thebeginning of an accelerated Western education. Born in London and raised inNigeria, he will play in the most American of games on Sunday and could have adecisive 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 ofSuper Bowl XLII: the Giants' pass rush against the Patriots' passprotection.
Umenyiora is anideal representative of New York, a mash-up of cultures. Ask him where he comesfrom, and he hesitates. His passport says the United Kingdom. His family isfrom Nigeria. His pass-rush skills are from the Deep South. His accent hashints of cockney, Igbo and Southern drawl. "I feel like I come fromeverywhere," says Umenyiora, who now splits time between Atlanta andEdgewater, N.J. "But I've taken something different from all the placesI've lived. I try to represent all of them to the fullest."
He is royalty fromNew York to Nigeria. Umenyiora's father, John, a retired telecommunicationscontractor, is a king in the village of Ogbunike, which makes Osi a reluctantprince. Last off-season, when Umenyiora returned to Nigeria for the first timesince he left as a teen, the villagers made him an honorary chief—not for hisfootball achievements, but because of the 30 scholarships he endows each yearfor local schoolchildren. "It was a huge party," says Umenyiora's olderbrother Ejimofor. "There was a lot of music and dancing. It was veryunusual for someone so young to be a chief."
Umenyiora earnedhis second Pro Bowl nod this season and made almost $6 million. But hisgridiron 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. Buthis father believed his children could get a better education in the U.S., soOsi traveled to Auburn, to live with Ejimofor and his older sister Nkem, whowas attending nearby Tuskegee University.
Osi had no urge toplay football, but in Alabama, a 14-year-old who weighs almost 250 pounds doesnot have much choice. He went out for the team when he was 15 and a junior atAuburn High. "The first day, I remember everybody was on the field forpractice—except Osi," says Clay McCall, then the school's defensive linecoach. "I went to the locker room and saw him standing there with his padsnext to him. He didn't know how to put them on."
He learned quicklyand played extensively that year. But early in his senior season Umenyioraquit. Ejimofor and Nkem had pulled their brother off the team, believingfootball was the cause of his slipping grades. Osi spent two weeks pleadingbefore they begrudgingly let him return. "The way we were brought up,sports was not a form of employment," Ejimofor says. "It was a form ofrecreation. I was totally against letting him play football. But in hindsight Iguess it was a good decision."
Having drawn nointerest from recruiters, Umenyiora was planning to enroll at Auburn. But whenhe saw Tracy Rocker, a scout from then Division I-AA Troy, in the hallway athis school, he introduced himself. "I am going to play for you,"Umenyiora said. Rocker, a former All-America defensive lineman at Auburn, wastoo 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 alsonever stopped chasing the ballcarrier, never stopped running. "If he waswilling to do that," Rocker says, "I was willing to give him achance."
Umenyiorared-shirted as a 16-year-old freshman at Troy, then shuttled between tackle andend for the next two seasons. Coaches remember the day he found his groove:Oct. 19, 2002, the eighth game of his senior year. Troy was playing atMarshall, and Umenyiora was lined up across from Steve Sciullo, a future NFLdraft pick who hadn't given up a sack in two years. The week leading up to thegame, Troy defensive ends coach Mike Pelton taunted Umenyiora: "No sacks intwo years."
In the secondquarter Umenyiora sprinted around Sciullo and tackled quarterback ByronLeftwich. As Umenyiora ran to the sideline, he howled, "I got him! I gothim!" By the end of the season, Umenyiora had a school-record 16 sacks andwas an NFL prospect. "That game changed everything," Pelton says."It was the moment he took off."
Back in Nigeria,no one understood. Umenyiora's mother, Chinelo Chukwueke, had never seen himplay. His father had come to Troy to watch a game, but it was so cold he nevergot out of his car. His large family was just learning the word sack.
Though Umenyiorawas not invited to the NFL combine in 2003, Giants G.M. Ernie Accorsi draftedhim in the second round. A year later, when Accorsi was negotiating the famousdraft-day trade with the Chargers for quarterback Eli Manning, San Diego askedthat Umenyiora be included in the package. Accorsi refused. "It would havebeen a deal-breaker," Accorsi says. "There was no way I was going totrade Umenyiora."
In Umenyiora, NewYork found a book-end for Michael Strahan, as well as a soulmate. LikeUmenyiora, Strahan was raised overseas, in Germany. And like Umenyiora, Strahanplayed college football in relative obscurity, at Texas Southern. "The morewe talked," Umenyiora says, "the more we realized we are almost thesame person."
With Strahanrushing from the left and Umenyiora from the right, opponents have not knownwhom to double-team. In Week 4 this season the Eagles assigned primaryresponsibility for Umenyiora to 6'6" left tackle Winston Justice, who wasmaking his second start, in place of injured veteran William Thomas. Watchingon television, Thomas was concerned. "When you're going up against Osi, helines up really wide, about three or four feet away from you," Thomas says."He gets down low in that sprinter's stance and takes a running start. Ifyou don't get off the ball fast—really fast—he's already around you."
That night,Umenyiora was the next coming of Lawrence Taylor. He raced around Justice forone sack, then another, and another. The Eagles tried chipping him with arunning back. They slid their protection toward him. But he kept findingquarterback Donovan McNabb. The 6'3", 261-pound Umenyiora got so tired fromsacking McNabb that he needed an IV before halftime.
On the way to thelocker room for the treatment, he saw Taylor standing on the sideline. The twohad never met. Umenyiora nodded. Taylor nodded back. "It was an amazingmoment," Umenyiora says. "It was like I had his spirit inside ofme." He finished the night with six sacks, one short of the NFL record.
If there is a gamethat can inspire hope in the Giants this week, and fear in the Patriots, it isthat one. But whatever happens on Sunday, Umenyiora will have another game toplay. He is going to the Pro Bowl, and his parents are coming along. His mothersaw him play for the first time in October, when the Giants faced the Dolphinsin London. His father will be watching too—assuming, of course, it's not toocold in Hawaii.
After that,Umenyiora plans to return to Lagos and to Ogbunike. He will be greeted as aprince and a chief, but he is not comfortable with those titles. He prefers tobe known simply as a Brit, an African and a Southerner, the havoc wreaker whocomes at you from everywhere.