Former rugby player Eze Obiora blossoming into gridiron star

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    Aug 5, 2012

    By Tom Weber

    CARBONDALE, IL - Saluki senior defensive end Eze Obiora didn't think very much of football when he was growing up in Manchester, England. He had played rugby since the age of nine and didn't watch his first football game on TV until he was a junior in high school.

    "I started watching American football and I thought, what are they doing in the huddle?" he laughed. "I wondered what they were saying -- are they giving each other a pep talk or something?"

    One day Obiora's dad, Edward, suggested his son try playing football in the United States as a way to earn a college scholarship. His dad had friends in Indiana, so Obiora applied to Purdue and Notre Dame with the intention of walking on to the football team.

    After settling on Purdue, Obiora arrived in West Lafayette, Ind., in the fall of 2008. He didn't know anybody, and it was obvious to the Purdue coaches that he knew little about football, either. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he had a remarkable combination of size, power and speed. Those skills were of little use, though, without even a basic understanding of the sport.

    Eze Obiora

    Obiora wanted to be a running back, but the coaches made him an outside linebacker. He soon discovered there were few similarities between rugby and football.

    "In football, every step you take is analyzed," he said. "Football is more scientific."

    He described his freshman year as discouraging, saying "there were times when it was almost over, and I thought I would go home without a scholarship."

    Finances became his primary concern. Purdue had no plans to offer him a scholarship, and his parents were having financial difficulty back home.

    "My parents didn't have money to pay for my school fees, and I didn't have a scholarship, and then I was on academic probation," Obiora explained. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't have anything. I didn't even have money for a ride to leave Purdue."



    Obiora figured his best chance was to find a junior college, and with the help of a friend who drove him to Chicago, he ended up at the College of Dupage. He recalls his coach being surprised to see him when he arrived on campus with all of his possessions.

    During his redshirt freshman year, Obiora played middle linebacker at Dupage. Then he was moved to defensive end as a sophomore, where things started to click. His elite speed -- he runs a 4.7 40 -- wreaked havoc on offenses. Obiora recorded a whopping 14 sacks his sophomore year and was named All-Conference.

    "I would pass rush on every play because I didn't know what the heck I was doing," he admitted. "Eventually, I calmed down and started to learn."

    His raw ability caught the eye of Southern's coaching staff, which offered him a scholarship in 2011. He played in every game last year, and while he flashed big-play ability, his stats (16 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack) were modest.

    "I don't think I really did anything last year -- I was humbled," he said. "I thought I was the big guy on campus because I had gotten a scholarship. I had come from nothing."

    Part of his lack of production was due to playing behind established veteran Chance Coda. Also, Obiora was a 4-3 end at Dupage, and SIU's 3-4 system is more complex.

    Last spring, Obiora seized the starting defensive end job, though, and he expects to put up big numbers as a senior.

    "My philosophy on the field is to have no mercy," he said. "It's not a game to me."

    He's also studied the history of Saluki Football and wants to reverse the fortunes of a program that has missed the playoffs the last two years.

    "The school has been in a slump for a little while," he said. "We want to take Southern back to the days when they won trophies. We want to be considered like the people who made a change."

    Obiora, who was born in Nigeria and hopes to live in the U.S. after he graduates, marvels at how far he's come in the past four years.

    "I just believe that God has helped me through everything," he said.