From Nigeria to, possibly, the Lions: Obinna Eze’s unconventional path to the NFL

Detroit News

Obinna Eze looks like he has it all figured out.

That’s because for the most part, he does. He recently married his high school sweetheart, Yasmeen, and he’s been playing for the Detroit Lions on a deal that’s fairly lucrative for an undrafted free agent. He also holds a degree in finance from the University of Memphis.

The bottom line? Life is pretty good for the 6-foot-8 offensive tackle, but there’s one battle waged in his mind from time to time that he can’t seem to shake.

“I haven’t seen my family in so long,” Eze said. “And sometimes you just be like, ‘Man, am I just a greedy person right now or am I still the kind of person I think I am?’

“The person I am, I don’t consider who I am without family. I’m older now, obviously. I’m married to an American woman, my wife, which I love, Yasmeen. So I have better clarity about stuff like that, but I’m just looking forward to the day I get to touch home again.”

Home for Eze is Nigeria, but he’s been living in the United States since 2015, initially coming to the country as a teenager to play basketball.

He was invited to a basketball camp in northern Nigeria when he was 16 years old that hosted 50 players. Of the 50, six would be selected and given the opportunity to come play AAU basketball in the U.S.

Eze, who described himself as a lockdown defender, performed well and was one of the six picked and brought to Kentucky for a week to compete. Upon returning to Nigeria, Eze received a lot of attention from high schools in the U.S. looking to recruit him. Some of the institutions were in Connecticut, Florida and ultimately his choice, Tennessee.

Eze opted for Davidson Academy in Nashville, a private school founded in 1980. His family in Nigeria — four sisters, uncle and parents, Chuma and Ifeoma — knew he had no choice but to accept the offer, but that didn’t make the decision any easier.

“When you’re in America, you can say no to opportunities because the next one is down the street,” Eze said. “It ain’t like that (in Nigeria), man. If I said no to my opportunity to come to America, that might’ve been it. Like that’s it. That’s my one shot.

“I took it. It wasn’t (a) hard (decision), but it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s hard for people to comprehend how a teenager could just up and come to America. … But like, for some of us, we get one shot at it. That was my one shot and I’m glad that I had a supportive family that could see it for me.”

Finding football

Eze finished his sophomore year of high school in Nigeria and made his way to Nashville in the spring of 2015. He was placed with a foster family and his guardians in the U.S. became Maurice and Jennifer Fitzgerald. The Fitzgeralds also have two children, Nigel and Emerson, who became Eze’s foster siblings.

His foster family members were the ones who introduced him to football. At first, Eze didn’t even know what the sport was, but he decided to give it a shot. Due to Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association rules, he was forced to play on the JV team as a junior.

By the time his senior year rolled around and he was moved up to varsity, though, he realized he had NFL potential.

“I genuinely fell in love with football,” Eze said. “I really, really saw myself having a future with it. At the time, all I saw from football was a game that I loved. I really liked the camaraderie of the locker room (and) just the way the game is played. I loved it.

“I was like, ‘Man, it would be nice if I get a scholarship.’ … I just kept getting better and better at football because I had so much to learn. I’m still learning a lot today.”

Eze’s head coach at Davidson, Jonathan Quinn, said his program had produced college athletes before, but Eze’s recruitment was the first time elite coaches started to pay attention to Davidson. He helped put the school on the map.

“When I think of Obinna, I think of an outstanding person first,” Quinn said. “He is just a good person. He’s good to be around (and) he’s a good friend. … That to me stands out first and foremost. I just smile because I like him as a person.

“Secondly, it would be how raw he was when he came in. … To not understanding anything conceptually about the game of American football, to then going on and playing high-level Division I football to (then) have a shot with the Detroit Lions right now. It’s just an amazing story.”

Eze fielded multiple offers from around the country as a four-star prospect coming out of high school, including scholarship proposals from powerhouse programs like Alabama, Florida and LSU.

His first offer came from Kentucky in November 2015. Once he saw a school from the SEC was interested, he knew he had something special.

“I remember calling my mom on the phone and it was a moment right there,” Eze said. “I was like, ‘Mom, I’ve got a scholarship.’ I remember calling her again when I got a scholarship to Duke, and she was like, ‘You’ve got to go to Duke,’ because Nigerian parents are big on education.

“I was like, ‘Mom, it don’t really work like that. I’ve got the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and I’ve got to make the best of it.’ … Eventually, it hit me, that hey, God has blessed me with talent and this talent can actually make a way for me.”

Eze’s relationship with his Christian faith is something he’s used to stabilize himself during the difficulties of being away from home. His uncle was a pastor and he was raised in a Christian family, but he didn’t really delve into that part of his life until he came to the U.S.

“I grew up just knowing the word of God, but eventually I had to come into my own faith (and) my own personal belief in Christ,” Eze said. “It’s not because my family did this, I had to come into my own. I think that was a great thing for me because I needed it to root me in America. It really, really helped me work through a lot of tough times.

“COVID year, it brought a different man out of me. I went from just being a college athlete to being a leader of men during the COVID year, during the hardest times in America. My faith made me a better man, which is hard to say for most people. I take my faith serious.”

College days

Eze ended up with over a dozen offers, and despite getting plenty of attention from schools in the Power 5, he opted to go with Memphis in the American Athletic Conference.

“I would do it all over again if I had to go back,” he said. “I would choose Memphis again. I’d choose Memphis for the city. I’d choose Memphis for the state. I’d choose Memphis because it’s closer to family in America. I’d choose Memphis for the teammates and friends I made. I’d choose Memphis for the coaches.

“I’d choose Memphis for the man I became.”

Eze redshirted his freshman year in 2017 and logged 67 snaps at left tackle as a redshirt freshman the next season. As a redshirt sophomore, he started all 14 games at the left tackle spot and did the same in 2020, starting 11.

With at least one year of eligibility left, he entered the transfer portal in 2021 because he wanted to challenge and convince himself that he could play just as well on a larger stage. Eze sat down with Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield and explained his thought process, telling his coach that he was considering transferring, entering his name into the NFL draft or even returning if he felt like that was his best option.

After some consideration, Eze decided going to TCU would be his best bet.

“My heart is still in Memphis,” he said. “That place is home for me, but TCU was a business decision. I met great, wonderful people. … For me, I’m lucky to be able to have both of those worlds. I claim Memphis, very obviously, and I claim TCU too because it’s definitely contributed to my success, and I’m not going to look back at that.”

NFL Draft

Eze entered the draft with hopes of being selected. He participated in the NFL Scouting Combine, running a 5.17 40-yard dash, bench pressing 225 pounds 18 times, logging a 104-inch broad jump and finishing the three-cone drill in 8.2 seconds.

With that said, 262 picks came and went and Eze’s name wasn’t called. The same night the draft ended, however, it was reported that he was signing with the Lions on a deal that featured some of the highest guaranteed money among all undrafted free agents.

The guarantees helped, of course, but seeing Hank Fraley would be his offensive line coach made the decision that much easier for Eze. Fraley coached one of Eze’s mentors, Antonio Richardson, in Minnesota, and Eze remembered hearing how good of a teacher he was.

“Then, when I looked into Detroit, it resonated with me because I feel like people disrespect this team (and) this city,” Eze said. “That’s how I felt at Memphis. It feels like if you have to play for Detroit, you’ve really, really got to carry this city on your back like a badge. I did that for years in Memphis, it’s nothing new.

“In Memphis, we used to say, ‘Memphis vs. everybody,’ so it was funny coming here and seeing, ‘Detroit vs. everybody.’ I get that mentality. I know that. I’ve lived that. I’ve been there (and) I’ve done that. It resonated with me. Nothing is going to be given; you’re going to have to work for everything. That’s fair.”

Eze wants a roster spot, and as he said, he’s fully aware it’s not going to be given to him just because of his physical stature, guaranteed contract or for any other reason aside from putting in the work.

The two starting tackle spots are set in stone with Penei Sewell and Taylor Decker, and Matt Nelson is the favorite to be the swing tackle. That leaves Eze, Darrin Paulo and Dan Skipper all competing for a potential fourth roster spot, or a place on the practice squad if not the active roster.

“Obi (has a) ton of length (and he’s a) pretty good athlete,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said Friday. “He’s just got to learn to be a pro as far as it pertains to practicing. This stuff gets hard, man. It’s hard when you’re that big, that long. It’s not always easy to bend for two hours, 2½ hours.

“Those are the little things he’s got to work on. Staying in the fundamentals of it when he starts getting tired. But we like his ability and he’s a good dude. He’s pretty smart, but he’s just got to get in NFL football shape and grind through it. If he does that, he’s got a future here.”

Eze said he’s not stressing over whether he makes the team, that’s a decision for the coaching staff to make, and he won’t let it define him. No matter what happens, he’s still that kid from Nigeria just trying to make the most of the opportunity of a lifetime.

“(Nigeria) is a combination of civilization like you see here, but there’s also a cultural heritage that we intentionally retain back home. So that way you know your heritage, your culture, your tradition (and) who you are.

“That’s very, very important.”

rsilva@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Rich_Silva18

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