The Odenigbo family schedule was set that weekend — as it had to be with two sons playing football in the Big Ten.
Linda Odenigbo would head to Lincoln, Nebraska, to watch Illinois and her youngest son, Tito, a defensive lineman, face the Cornhuskers. Her husband, Thomas, would be off to Iowa City, Iowa, where Northwestern and the Odenigbos’ second-oldest son, Ifeadi, a defensive end, would be playing the Hawkeyes.
But something didn’t feel right. Linda knew she had to head to Iowa. The Wildcats had lost three of their first four games, and Ifeadi, in his final season, wasn’t his usual upbeat self.
“He had been having a rough time,” Linda said. “He was just sad. I called up Tito and said maybe I should go to Iowa. . . . Boy, was I glad I went to Iowa.”
If she hadn’t, she would have missed the best game of Ifeadi’s college career: a school-record four sacks and a forced fumble in a 38-21 victory.
“He had career day. There is no question about that,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said of one of his most prized recruits.
It was a dominant display of strength, speed and relentlessness — Ifeadi’s defining moment.
“I thought I was going to lose my mind,” Linda said. “I was just so happy for him.”
New for everyone
A few years earlier, during the high school playoffs in Ohio, Ifeadi was a junior standout for Centerville, a local powerhouse responsible for producing NFL players. Centerville had just scored against Wayne High, which was led by future Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
Football might have been new for Thomas as a Nigerian immigrant, but he knew he had to celebrate.
“[He] stood up — all 6-4 of him — and started screaming, ‘Home run! Home run!’ ” Linda said, laughing. “We still tease him about that.”
It’s a favorite family memory from a point in the Odenigbos’ lives when football had started to change them.
The sport wasn’t on the family’s radar when Linda first left Nigeria for the United States with the couple’s oldest son, Somto, in 1992. (Thomas would visit before making his final move three years later.)
With a medical degree from the University of Iloria, Linda did her residency at Harlem Hospital Center in New York. She was pregnant with Ifeadi at the time.
“That tells you about my mom,” Ifeadi said.
Ifeadi was born in New Jersey, and the family also briefly lived in Decatur, Illinois.
Centerville, where their football lives begrudgingly began, didn’t become home until Ifeadi was in first grade. Somto wasn’t allowed to play; Linda and Thomas preferred track, soccer and baseball.
“But [Ifeadi] wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Linda said.
So he struck a deal with his father: Finish with a 3.5 grade-point average or better his freshman year, and he could play football the next season.
“My husband said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. When they knock him over twice, he’ll quit,’ ” Linda said. “But that’s how he got into football. And he never quit.”
‘The biggest recruit’
Ifeadi arrived in Evanston under pressure, though he didn’t realize it at first. He was a four-star recruit who’d chosen NU not only over Ohio State but also 31 other schools.
“Little did I know I was going to get all these offers,” he said. “I had Nick Saban calling me. Brian Kelly was coming to my house. Jim Tressel was bringing me into his office.”
Northwestern felt right because of Fitzgerald and the schools’ educational value. After all, Linda is a pediatrician. Thomas is a civil engineer. And Ifeadi also wouldn’t be the first player with Nigerian roots in the NU program.
“Nigerian immigrants are all about academics,” Ifeadi said.
But he soon learned he was a big deal on campus.
“Everyone was always like, ‘Oh, Ifeadi, you’re a four-star. You’re the biggest recruit we’ve ever had,’ ” he said. “I was just like, ‘Dude, I just came here to play football.’ I didn’t think I was going to have all these expectations.”
Adversity struck early. Ifeadi tore his labrum in his first game and was redshirted. He also had to grow physically after joining NU at 205 pounds.
“He had not played a lot of high school football, and a lot of football just in general,” Fitzgerald said. “He knew he had to get into the playbook. He had to learn football. He had to work fundamentally, and he just did that with an open mind.”
But through it all, the pressure grew.
“I just didn’t want to be known as that bust,” he said.
Hearing his own words
The week leading up to the biggest game of Ifeadi’s college career, Wildcats captain Austin Carr asked him to lead the team’s chapel service. Then Fitzgerald, who was happy with Ifeadi’s practices, tapped him to give a speech.
These were challenges at a challenging time. His playing time had decreased early into his final season.
“I was just devastated,” he said.
With his teammates listening, Ifeadi used his favorite Bible passage — John 20:24-31, in which Thomas the Apostle doubts Jesus’ return — as his inspiration. “Stop doubting and believe.”
That was Ifeadi’s message then. Now it’s his life’s approach.
“It really got people fired up,” he said.
Starting with his four sacks at Iowa, Ifeadi finished the season with a conference-best 10 sacks. He was voted first-team All-Big Ten by the conference’s coaches.
As a team, the Wildcats went 6-3 over their last nine games, including a win over Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl. Ifeadi was rewarded with an invite to the combine.
“Poetic justice — that’s what it felt like,” said Ifeadi, who is second in NU history with 23½ sacks. “I left my legacy here.”
But his story isn’t finished. The NFL is next.
“Last year was a great indication of not only what he’s capable of doing, but also, I think, from an exciting standpoint of what he can become,” Fitzgerald said. “His best football is ahead of him.”
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.