By Lindsey Young
Seven players of Nigerian heritage are on the roster of NFLs Minnesota Viking. They include Ade Aruna, Bisi Johnson and Olisaemeka Udoh, Bené Benwikere, Kaare Vedvik, and brothers Ifeadi and Tito Odenigbo.
When Ade Aruna walks through the expanse of the Vikings locker room, he scans the purple nameplates mounted above lockers and breathes easy.
This is comfortable.
Ade moved from Nigeria to the United States at the age of 16, making the international journey by himself. He has no immediate family here in Minnesota, yet it’s come to feel like home.
And while it’s fair to say that the Vikings roster is a family all its own, six teammates’ individual nameplates particularly catch Ade’s eyes – and his heart.
Counting Ade, seven players of Nigerian heritage are on Minnesota’s 90-man roster. He is joined by draft picks Bisi Johnson and Olisaemeka Udoh, Bené Benwikere, Kaare Vedvik, and brothers Ifeadi and Tito Odenigbo.
“Just seeing their names when I walk across the locker room, it kind of gives me peace of mind, like I’m home,” Ade said. “I don’t feel like the odd man out.”
Bené, whose father emigrated from Nigeria to attend college in the States, appreciates the connection he’s felt with players around the league who share his heritage. The veteran has spent time with several teams and referred to an “open arms” experience, no matter the locker room.
“You go in and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re Nigerian?’ It’s almost like you get a hug, pretty much, like ‘I got you,’ ” Bené explained. “It’s almost like, I guess, a little fraternity. So that’s been something that’s been pretty cool from team to team.”
Kaare, who signed with Minnesota on Aug. 11, shared a similar experience.
“I walked in here, and the first two people who come up to me are Nigerian – Ade and Ife (Ifeadi),” he said. “And Bisi gave me a ride [to work]. I think that’s pretty cool.
“It’s just funny to see how their journeys have gone, how my journey has gone and how we all ended up in the same place,” Kaare added.
Ade often fields questions about Nigeria from the other six, who appreciate learning more about their heritage and culture.
“We talk and just relate with each other since we have the same roots,” he added. “Even though they weren’t born there, I still see them as my brothers.”
Back & forth between cultures
Ask the teammates, and they will tell you that challenges and advantages alike come with “straddling cultures,” per se.
Bisi grew up in Colorado and noticed many differences between the families of his father, who is Nigerian, and his mother, an Iowa native. Even daily meals reflected the stark contrast between cultures.
“I would go to my dad’s house and have a bunch of Nigerian food. And then I would go to my mom’s and have Iowa pea salad,” Bisi said with a laugh. “She’s really big on that.”
Childhood friends couldn’t understand his Nigerian family members who spoke in thick accents, and he remembers realizing that it hadn’t been a natural part of their upbringing the way it was his.
For Tito, attending school in Dayton, Ohio, was like “going back and forth” between cultures.
“You’re not fully Nigerian … and you know that very quickly,” he said. “But you’re not fully American. We have a little bit of an accent, too, and we’re clearly so much darker than anyone else.
“We knew that we were kind of different,” Tito added. “It’s just something that we’ve always noticed and had to adapt to quickly.”
Several players spoke of realizing at a young age that their parents were much more serious and stricter – a common thread for Nigerian households – than, in general, those of his friends.
Tito and Ifeadi were not allowed to turn on the television during the week, so weeknights at classmates’ homes offered a chance for taboo screen time. When Kaare invited friends for dinner, they received firsthand his father’s philosophies.
“Every single day, my dad will have a speech about something,” Kaare said. “Everything is a life lesson.”
He recalled being at home with his brother and sister and “doing stuff we didn’t think was a big deal” but suddenly hearing the booming voice of his father.
“Everybody’s got to come down to the living room because now we’ve got to have a talk,” Kaare said. “So, everybody sits down, my dad is always standing up, and he goes about preaching.”
From swapping similar stories to impersonating relatives and cooking traditional Nigerian dishes, the teammates who share a heritage also share a unique bond.
“Just funny things like, ‘Remember we had to fight for like 20 minutes to get a curfew from 9 to 9:10? That was awesome.’ We share inside jokes about how strict our parents were, and it’s pretty funny,” Tito said. “[It’s] reassuring that my upbringing wasn’t that crazy.”
From housework to homework, the bar was set high for all seven. But by and large, the rigid upbringings have been not only respected but appreciated.
Kaare is grateful for his father’s “life lessons,” understanding that the teaching is based on personal experience and motivated wholly by love.
“He’s trying to help us move ahead and to not make the same mistakes that he saw in his own life. He grew up in a harsher reality than I did,” Kaare explained of his father, who was raised along with seven siblings by his grandmother. “He had it tough. A lot of it was, ‘Everything you do, you have to fight to survive. You find a way for yourself – there’s nobody holding your hand.’ ”
Now living 4,000 miles away from his family, Kaare often finds himself revisiting fatherly advice and encouragement he’s received over the years.
“When he talks, we have to listen,” Kaare said. “It’s helped me, throughout when I was pretty much on the sideline for a whole year [in Baltimore]. Certain things that my dad talked about, that’s when you apply those things. It keeps you pushing ahead. … If anything’s going to defeat you, it’s not you. You have to have your own back.”
Ifeadi added that he doesn’t take his unique background for granted, and he prides himself on the work ethic his parents ingrained in him from a young age.
“I grew up in a household where it’s kind of the norm to work hard, and you didn’t always get that validation,” he explained.
He thought back to grade school, when some classmates would receive a $10 or $20 bill from their parents as a reward for positive report card grades.
“I dared to bring that up with my parents, and they – (imitating deep laughter) – ‘You want me to pay you to do what you’re supposed to?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, this was a terrible idea,’ ” Ifeadi quipped. “One thing about me is, growing up, I wasn’t always the smartest kid, I wasn’t always the top kid. I wasn’t a prodigy. Even though I went to Northwestern … things came very slow to me. But one thing that my parents instilled was, ‘When the going gets tough, just grind, work hard.’
“At the end of the day, you don’t always need that instant gratification. You’re working hard because it feels good to work hard,” he added.
Balancing academics & athletics
Ten years ago, it was not as common to see Nigerian NFL players or, really, pro athletes in general.
In Nigeria, academics are top priority over athletics, and it’s no contest (pun intended).
“I’m going to tell you straight now – Nigerian parents don’t play. It’s academics first,” Ade said, cracking a smile. “African parents, particularly Nigerians, they are really, really proud of their kids. ‘My kid is a medical doctor. My kid is an engineer.’ They love bragging about their kids.
“[But] it’s changed over the years, and I think parents are starting to relax a little bit, sort of letting their kids explore what they want to do,” continued Ade, who has a degree in Homeland Security Studies from Tulane University. “But at the end of the day, they still want you to have that degree. They still want you to do school, because that’s the number one priority.”
Kaare, whose father immigrated to Norway at 24 years old, recalls being 4 or 5 years old and being taught eighth-grade level math at the kitchen table. To this day, his father will find a way to somehow weave academics into nearly any conversation.
Bené’s father, Bené Benwikere, Sr., played soccer at Central Oklahoma but regarded studies over sports.
“He always knew things, he was always present at my school. We had a lot of things that took precedent in the household, and definitely, education was one of those,” said Bené, who hopes to pass along similar values to his 5-year-old son.
Benwikere, Sr., was also business-minded. A self-made entrepreneur, he encouraged Bené to learn the value of earning money by selling candy at school.
Bené looks up to his father, who has been successful as a restaurant chef, a writer and ran his own comedy club in Los Angeles. Olisaemeka’s parents both work in the medical field, and Linda and Thomas Odenigbo are a highly respected physician and engineer, respectively.
Ifeadi’s voice swells with pride when he speaks of his parents, whom he describes as “the best of the best” in their fields and relays the challenges they faced in order to give their family the best life possible in the States.
But he loses the serious tone when describing his own venture into football, instead smiling and slipping into the heavier accent of his father.
“It just bewildered my father, like, ‘What do you mean you want to play football? What do you mean you want to run track? Instead of that track and football time, after school you could be studying,’ ” Ifeadi said, drawing out the words and re-enacting a childhood scene in animated fashion.
Ade experienced a similar reaction.
Having originally come to America to play basketball but being drawn instead to the football field, it was difficult to communicate a passion for the sport that his father knew only through ESPN highlights.
“I remember the first time I told my dad. It was a shock to him. He was like, ‘You’re playing American football? Is that the sport we used to watch?’ ” Ade recalled. “My dad would say, ‘How are they just falling on top of each other, and they just got up again like nothing happened to them?’ So, the first time I told him I was playing football, he was kind of scared.”
Benwikere, Sr., also was uncertain when Bené began playing football in elementary school.
“He was OK with me playing basketball – to him, it was fewer injuries,” Bené explained. “I don’t think he really, really accepted me playing football until about college.”
But their families have come to embrace the football life and are proud of their sons for playing at the highest level.
Tito commented on the increasing number of NFL players who share his heritage. He pointed to the large number of Nigerians who immigrated to the States in the late 80s and early 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union, during which time it became easier to get a visa.
“Now there’s a generation that has grown up here, and they’ve become kids our age. Boys that are just freaks of nature,” Tito laughed. “I didn’t know a lot of Nigerians in the NFL when I was growing up, but I saw a lot of guys who were really good at football in high school and early on in college.”
Interestingly, Tito and Ifeadi grew up near Oli, and the three often spent time together at the Odenigbo residence. When the Vikings drafted the tackle out of Elon University this spring, Oli received a good-natured message from his friend.
“I was like, ‘Hey, man, they love their Nigerians out there,’ ” Ifeadi laughed.
Oli said that Ifeadi and Tito are “pretty much the same” as boys he knew growing up.
“We used to hang out in elementary and middle school,” Oli said. “It’s a pretty small world and crazy how that works, how all three of us are on the same team now. It’s pretty awesome.”
What’s in a name?
In Nigeria, Ade explained, parents don’t just pick a name to pick a name.
Nigerian names often are weighty both in significance and in syllables. In fact, six of the seven Nigerian players on Minnesota’s roster conversationally go by shortened versions of their full names.
Kaare is the American spelling of his given Norwegian name, Kåre, and his full name represents both sides of his heritage: Kåre Oladapo Babajide Vedvik.
Ade was named Adetarami by his grandfather, meaning “the crown that the king puts on their head.” The A-D-E signifies royal lineage in Aruna’s tribe.
Bisi also was named by his grandfather, an elder in Nigeria; he called his grandson Olabisi, which means to bring prosperity to one’s family.
“Being successful and supporting my family, that’s definitely my goal,” Bisi said. “My grandpa gave me that name, so [the culture] is definitely something I embrace.
Olisaemeka translates to “God is good.” Otitodilinna (Tito) is named after a Nigerian prayer, and Ifeadikachukwu means that “nothing is greater than God.”
Ade pointed out that many parents choose middle names connected to their belief system (often Christian or Muslim). Tito and Ifeadi’s middle names are Thomas and Anthony, respectively, for their Catholic significance.
“It’s pretty fun to have Otitodilinna Thomas Odenigbo be your name,” Tito said with a grin. “It’s pretty hilarious, actually.”
Representing their roots
But what the seven teammates focus most on is the name on the backs of their jerseys. Each one cares deeply about well-representing his family and the country of Nigeria when he steps onto the football field.
“[Living in] this country and having a different last name, I can distinguish myself from others,” Ifeadi said. “At the end of the day, I may have a funny name, you may have a hard time remembering my name, but you’re going to remember me.”
Added Ade: “I’m representing my country, my father’s name, everybody from my tribe and all over Nigeria.”
Social media has presented an opportunity for the Nigerian Vikings to connect with others who share their culture, experiences and backgrounds, and the NFL is a platform that they don’t take lightly.
Tito is especially passionate about inspiring and encouraging young Nigerian-Americans who weathered the same conflict of identity growing up cross-culturally.
“Because even though I was born here, my heritage still lies in another country,” Tito said. “So having that first-generation mentality … [it’s important to] represent that group of people.”
Ade was sidelined for the Vikings preseason game in New Orleans but celebrated Bisi’s first NFL touchdown by tweeting about the impressive grab.
Touch down from another brother from the motherland. #bisijohnson🇳🇬🇳🇬🇳🇬🇳🇬✊🏿— Ade Aruna (@areuready4dis) August 10, 2019
After the Twitter post, Ade received several messages from other Nigerians who follow the defensive end.
“ ‘Hey, good job, guys. We’re glad you guys are making us proud playing American football,’ ” he recalled of the notes.
“Now to be doing what I’m doing, everybody’s happy,” Ade said. “My family, friends, even people who don’t know me. They figure out I’m from Nigeria, and everybody is always happy. They’re so proud.”