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From Nigeria to the NFL: Ifeadi Odenigbo trying to stick with Vikings

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (95) during the teams night practice at TCO Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

EAGAN, Minn. — Ifeadi Odenigbo still remembers the first time he told his parents he wanted to play football.

As a kid growing up in Centerville, Ohio, Odenigbo gravitated to the sport from an early age and, in turn, tried to convince father Thomas and mother Linda to do the same.

It was easier said than done.

His parents grew up in Nigeria and weren't exactly familiar with American football. Plus, they placed, and added, emphasis on academics for their three sons: Somto, the eldest, Ifeadi, the middle, and Tito, the youngest.

"I remember (the conversation) was like, 'You must focus on academics, my son,'" Odenigbo said with a full impression of his father's Nigerian accent. "He was like, 'When I was a kid, it was nothing else except school. I would go to the library and study and that's why I was at the top of my class. We didn't have sports.'"

As the stubborn middle child, Odenigbo wouldn't take no for an answer and eventually he struck a deal with his parents: If he made the honor roll during his freshman year at Centerville High School, they'd let him play.

"I did that and then I was like, 'We aren't thinking about it anymore. I'm doing it,'" said Odenigbo, who added that football might also earn him a college scholarship. "It just kind of went from there."

Since then, Odenigbo has carved out a path for himself, indeed earning a scholarship to play at Northwestern before being selected by the Vikings in seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He spent last season on the practice squad, and with some experience under his belt, has goal is to make the 53-man roster this season.

Perhaps the only problem is Odenigbo has spent the past few months learning a new position. After playing defensive end last season, he has moved inside to tackle, a switch that likely gives him a better shot at making the team.

"I feel like that's the best position for him," coach Mike Zimmer said last week, emphasizing his quickness as a player. "He's a tough, heavy handed kid, and he probably didn't have the juice that we need at (defensive end). I think inside is a better spot for him."

While he's welcomed the change with opens arms, Odenigbo admitted it's been tough learning on the fly.

"It's a lot quicker," Odenigbo said. "That's been quite a bit of an adjustment. I feel like the key thing about it is just getting my pads low and my hand placement has to be perfect. I'm a little undersized, so I've got to use my quickness to make a difference."

Some of the added challenges that come with playing in the trenches include taking on double teams, something he never really had to do when he was playing outside. Instead of rushing the passer off the edge, and using his quickness to beat offensive lineman, Odenigbo has been forced to become more technical in his movements.

"Those fundamentals are pretty new to me," he said. "Like having over 600 pounds on my back (on a double team). That's been quite a bit of an adjustment. It's a little tighter of a window; there's not all that air. And then there's all the hand movements. All of that is new to me."

Still, Odenigbo feels more comfortable at training camp this time around, mostly because he knows what to expect.

"I just didn't know any better last season," he said. "I came from (college) and I thought I knew what I was doing, and everything was just really different. You want everything to click during training camp, and it didn't click for me until like Week 3 or Week 4, when I was on the practice squad going against the starters."

While he hasn't necessarily been able to build on that this season, forced to learn a new position, that experience alone has helped Odenigbo adjust more quickly. He has spent time on the second team alongside fellow tackle Jaleel Johnson, and with the way the Vikings like to rotate on the defensive line, he could be in good position to make the team.

"It just makes me more valuable," Odenigbo said. "My goal is to have a long career. If they need me to play defensive tackle, I can play defensive tackle. If they need me to bump out to defensive end, I can do that. If they want me on special teams, I can do the core special teams. I'm just trying to be a guy that sticks in the league."

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