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Odafe Oweh: Laser-Focused on NFL Success

After a late start in football, rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh is determined to maximize his enormous athletic ability.

By: Clifton Brown

Odafe Oweh sketches portraits during his spare time. He draws with meticulous detail, patiently working to create something special.

"I don't sell my sketches," Oweh said. "I'm a visual person. If I see something that looks cool or that I admire, I just want to sketch it. It relaxes me. It brings out my creative side."

There are similarities between Oweh the artist and Oweh the athlete. Whether using a pencil or wearing pads, Oweh has a clear vision. He is never satisfied until the picture is complete.

Sketches created by Odafe.
Sketches created by Odafe.

A first-round draft pick with enormous athletic talent, Oweh is beginning his NFL career with a blank canvas. He is passionate about creating another work of art, driven to become a dominant NFL outside linebacker though he didn't start playing organized football until the 11th grade.

Oweh plans to chase his dreams with an overachieving work ethic instilled by his family. His father, Henry, and mother, Tania, who own a medical equipment business, grew up in Nigeria before moving to New Jersey to chase the quintessential American dream. Odafe, who was born in Hackensack, N.J, has an older sister and two younger brothers, and they were all raised to be confident, determined to succeed no matter what stood in their way.

Whatever the Ravens expect from Oweh, his personal expectations are higher.

Oweh's chiseled 6-foot-5, 251-pound frame screams that he's athletic when he walks down the street. But the mental side of football often separates potential from results. Because of his late start in organized football, it may be fair to speculate on what kind of impact he will make as a rookie and beyond. But never question his desire. He believes both his mind and body have been built for success.

"From a young age, I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did," Oweh said. "I don't know if it was my father drilling that into me. But he'd call me a lion. To this day, I hate being second, I hate being inadequate. I hate losing. I hate that more than I love winning. Even when I win, I feel like there's things I could've done to be more dominant."

Claiming His Name

Some insight into Oweh's fierce pride was revealed on draft night when he announced to the world that he wanted to be called by Odafe, using the Nigerian first name given to him at birth.

Oweh was known as Jayson at Penn State and through most of his adolescence, though his family called him Odafe. It wasn't always easy for Oweh to fit in growing up in Howell, N.J., a town in central New Jersey which wasn't ethnically diverse and where some had trouble relating to his Nigerian heritage.

"Being the only tall, big black African kid, it was tough," Oweh said. "You have to maneuver, make sure you keep your identity but try to make friends. It was tough. I was determined to make something of myself. People were always looking at me like I was different. I didn't see anyone else that looked like me, anyone who talked like me, anyone who had a name like me. So, I just decided to embrace being different."

Left: Odafe at the 2017 Under Armour All-American Game (Photo via Land of 10_)_; Right: Odafe at the 2018 Under Armour All-American Game (Photo via Intersport )
Left: Odafe at the 2017 Under Armour All-American Game (Photo via Land of 10_)_; Right: Odafe at the 2018 Under Armour All-American Game (Photo via Intersport )

Many friends and classmates had trouble pronouncing Odafe (uh-DAH-fay), So for years, he told people to call him Jayson, largely because he got tired of hearing his name mispronounced, or in some cases mocked.

However, Oweh wouldn't allow people to play with his name as he entered the NFL. Draft night was a surreal experience for Oweh, surrounded by family and friends, engulfed by love and congratulatory hugs. But when he saw the name Jayson Oweh on the television screen after the Ravens drafted him, something powerful came over him. He hadn't planned to talk about his Nigerian name. His announcement that he no longer wanted to be called Jayson was not premeditated.

But in that moment, Oweh realized his future should belong to Odafe Oweh. He claimed the name that was already his.

"People think I was saying, 'When I get drafted, I'm going to make people call me Odafe,'" Oweh said. "It wasn't like that. I was just caught up in so much emotion. I was surrounded by my family. People were calling me Odafe. All this time, people had been calling me Jayson...."

"...But at that moment I was totally in my culture. I just wanted to be me, be who I am, embrace my Nigerian culture. It just came out."

Oweh's decision about his name was emotional for his family. In Nigerian culture, names often carry a message, and Odafe means "A wealthy individual." If Oweh realizes his potential to have a long and successful NFL career, finances should not be a problem. But for Oweh and his family, there is deeper meaning to his name.

"In the Nigerian culture, wealth is not just monetary," Tania said. "Wealth is human support, it's wellness, it's more of a holistic view to wealth."

Tania has watched with pride as her son has grown from adolescence into adulthood, embracing his Nigerian heritage and gaining confidence in his identity.

She remembers arriving on campus at Penn State looking for Oweh one day when he was in college. She spotted him walking with a group of friends that included teammate Micah Parsons, the No. 12-overall pick in this year's draft by the Dallas Cowboys.

Oweh didn't see his mother approaching from behind, so she yelled out his name, "Odafe." Everyone in the group turned around with strange looks on their faces. Tania quickly realized his teammates had never heard their friend "Jayson" called Odafe before.

"Micah Parsons was like, 'Who's Odafe?,'" Tania recalled. "Then Micah was like, 'I love that name.'

"At some point, Odafe decided to embrace all of who he is. He hasn't discussed it much with us, but I sense a coming of age with him. To me, it's significant what he did regarding his name, because I'm a very spiritual person. When God wants to do something in a person's life, you can see places in the Bible where he'll change a person's name. I think it's symbolic. I mean, he didn't even wait to play one game in the NFL before he wanted to be called a different name? I think it's a statement. He may not totally understand it now, but he will later."

There was another emotional moment for Tania when Oweh saw his No. 99 Ravens jersey for the first time, hanging in the locker room at the Under Armour Performance Center. Penn State does not put its players' names on the back of jerseys, so this was the first time Tania had ever seen Oweh on the back of her son's football jersey. Oweh called his mother immediately and showed her the jersey over his cellphone. It was a moment they will remember.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Odafe Oweh (99) poses for a photo on Monday, June 14, 2021. (Jennifer Pottheiser/NFL)
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Odafe Oweh (99) poses for a photo on Monday, June 14, 2021. (Jennifer Pottheiser/NFL)

"She was just the first person I decided to call," Oweh said. "Her reaction made it even more special for me."

Tania had not thought about Oweh having the name on the back of his jersey until she saw it. But she understands her priceless reaction.

"It was a combination of many things," Tania said. "I thought about all the work he's put in, yet it some ways, it seems like it's happened so fast. Odafe didn't cut corners, but we know he's fortunate.

There are people who have played sports their whole lives, dedicated their heart and soul, who haven't made it to the top. He's only been playing football for a short time, yet he's been able to reach this level."

The Rapid Rise

To describe Oweh's development in football as meteoric is not an overstatement. Six years ago, he was not even playing organized football.

Basketball was his love growing up, and for most of his youth, his athletic focus was on getting a scholarship to college and making it to the NBA. He played on elite AAU teams in New Jersey and never imagined football might be in his future until he transferred from Rutgers Prep to Blair Academy in the 11th grade. Rutgers Prep didn't have a football team, but Blair did. For Jim Saylor, the former head football coach at Blair, Oweh's arrival at the school was like someone giving him a winning lottery ticket.

"I was told there was a kid in the office who was coming in who had some size to him, who I might want to talk to about playing football," Saylor said. "I walked in and introduced myself. When he stood up, I was like, 'Oh my God.' He's 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, maybe 230 pounds at the time. When I asked if he had ever played football before, his family all laughed at me. I said, 'Maybe you should give it a shot.'"

Oweh wasn't convinced. Saylor kept calling, but Oweh kept ghosting the football coach, an avoidance dance that went on for several weeks. Someone with Oweh's pride doesn't change his goals easily. If he was going to play football, he was going to be all-in, and that took some soul-searching.

"I had put 16, 17 years of my life into basketball, and now people were telling me I should focus on something new?" Oweh said. "As a 16-year old, that's disappointing. I had to switch my body, my mentality. I had doubt I was making the right decision.

"But coach Saylor kept calling and calling. Finally, I answered the phone and we had a heart to heart. He told me it was okay if I played basketball, he wouldn't step on my toes with that. But he really thought I should give football a try. He thought I might be able to be special. I trusted him, and he took me under his wing. He made me look inside myself. I owe a lot to him. He gave me confidence when I didn't believe that I could make that jump and be dominant."

Oweh's introduction to football was not without painful moments. In his first high school game, the inexperienced Oweh was blindsided on kickoff coverage and it felt like he was knocked into next week. It was feared Oweh had suffered broken ribs during the violent collision. Saylor feared Oweh might quit football after one game and return to basketball.

"He ran down on that kickoff and got demolished," Saylor said. "I figured I see him Monday and he'd say, 'Coach, here's my gear. I tried it.' But he came back and kept getting better."

By the time Oweh was a senior, he was being heavily recruited and chose Penn State. He became a starter as a junior and playing a full 11-game schedule for the Nittany Lions in 2019, made 21 tackles, five sacks and five tackles for loss. In the 2020 season that was interrupted by COVID-19, Oweh had 38 tackles in just seven games and was a disruptive force as both a run defender and pass rusher.

His quickness off the snap was lethal, he was often double-teamed, and though opponents often ran away from him, Oweh displayed the quickness to chase down ball carries from side-to-side. Yet, Oweh did not have a sack last season, which was the major knock on him before the draft, a criticism that fuels him as he embarks on his rookie season.

The Prolific Pro Day

Oweh's freakish athletic ability was memorably displayed during his Pro Day performance in March prior to the draft. Ravens Outside Linebackers Coach Drew Wilkins called it the best pre-draft workout he had ever seen.

Listed at 6-foot-5, 251 pounds, Oweh ran an unofficial 4.39 in the 40-yard dash, matching what Ravens wide receiver Rashod Bateman ran at his Pro Day. Consider that Oweh outweighs Bateman by about 70 pounds. Oweh's 39 ½-inch vertical leap was in the 96th percentile among edge rushers, and his 134-inch broad jump would have tied him for fifth best among all athletes at the 2020 NFL combine.

But nobody at Penn State was surprised to see Oweh rise to the occasion. Coaches at Penn State never had to push Oweh to work harder, to focus more, to get in better condition. He was self-motivated, someone who acted older than his age.

A former linebacker with the New York Jets, Deion Barnes is now on Penn State's coaching staff and shares a close relationship with Oweh. He has the kind of approach that Barnes believes will take Oweh far.

"He listens to everything you say, and it doesn't take long for it to show up on the field," Barnes said. "He knew I played in the NFL and whatever knowledge I could give him, he wanted to absorb."

Oweh and Parsons pushed each other prior to the draft to get in the best shape of their lives. They are close friends, yet they are competitive. That's a constant theme with Oweh. Don't hang out with him unless you're ready to compete. Order a milkshake with him, and he may race to see who can drink it the fastest.

Former teammate Micah Parsons and Odafe (via _micahparsons11 on Instagram)
Former teammate Micah Parsons and Odafe (via _micahparsons11 on Instagram)

"Me and Micah's relationship has always been like that," Oweh said. "We love each other, but we really grew closer when we saw that we were athletically gifted. He wasn't going to get better going against just anybody. I wasn't going to get better by going up against just anybody. We'd get better by going against each other.

"We competed so hard that we exceeded what we started out to do. We were both trying to get to the same place, getting to the Pro Day, getting the NFL's attention. In the weight room, who can do the most reps, who could run the fastest. Whoever lost would get mad. That helped me get ready for the draft, and what we're about to face in the NFL."

Odafe (center) and teammates after winning the 2019 NY6 Cotton Bowl.
Odafe (center) and teammates after winning the 2019 NY6 Cotton Bowl.

Primed For His Rookie Test

Oweh and fifth-round pick Daelin Hayes have already bonded, two rookie outside linebackers helping each other adjust to the NFL. Oweh calls Hayes "Twin," not only because they play outside linebacker, but because Wilkins often talks to them simultaneously during meetings and practices.

Left: LB Daelin Hayes; Right: OLB Odafe Oweh
Left: LB Daelin Hayes; Right: OLB Odafe Oweh

"Whenever Coach Drew talks to us, it's like – 'Odafe-Daelin, Odafe-Daelin,'" Oweh said. "I've learned that there isn't a second that you're on the field where you're not running. Run to the ball, chase somebody to the end zone. It's the nature of competing like you're competing in a game.

"If you practice like that, there shouldn't be any falloff in the game. We do everything at 100 miles per hour. In rookie camp, OTAs, I saw progression. It's a pride thing. I'm going against the best players I've ever seen, the best offensive linemen I've ever seen. But I just love the challenge. I just love this chance to get better."

Doubters fuel Oweh, but he doesn't need outside motivation to drive him. He has soaked up the individual coaching he has received from Wilkins and the entire staff during rookie camp, OTAs and training camp. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale loves having versatile players like Oweh who can morph into a pass rusher on one play, a run defender on the next play, set the edge or even drop into pass coverage.

Losing Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency drastically changed the dynamic of the outside linebacker room, but the Ravens' acquisition of Justin Houston gives them a proven pass rusher to join Oweh, Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson and Hayes in a deep outside linebacker rotation. Oweh is looking forward to Houston's arrival and knows he's another player who can help him and the Ravens get better.

"We got better – that's how I can take it," Oweh said. "It's an opportunity for me to learn from a guy that has [97.5] sacks; that's always great. I'm learning from Calais [Campbell] every day, and now you just added another guy that has a history of just getting to the quarterback. I can use help, every angle I can get. We just added another nice outside linebacker, so I just see it as competition, as well, but we got better. So, I'm good."

Oweh seems to be feeding off the intensity of training camp, and there have been times when he has whizzed past defensive tackles like a blur into the backfield. He's working on developing a signature spin move in practice that has already been effective.

"I have a lot of twitch, so I can do that pretty fast," Oweh said. "So, that's something that I'm going to try to keep on perfecting and getting better at."

Ready For the Present and Future

Saylor said that Oweh has talked about starting a youth football camp in Nigeria, where American football continues to grow in popularity. Oweh is that type of person, often thinking about giving back to others. Saylor doesn't expect Oweh to ever change much, because his family background is so solid.

"I don't think success is going to change the person he is," Saylor said. "He's so new to football and he's still learning the game. I could see him being a pro-Bowler in four years, that's the kind of talent we're talking about. He's going to have some great coaches in Baltimore. Their system seems like it's a perfect fit for him, and I know how hard he's going to work."

Harbaugh has only coached Oweh for a few months but he has been impressed by his all-business demeanor. Oweh loves football, but it's not just a game to him. After the Ravens were just four days into training camp, Harbaugh said he loved the rookie's mature approach.

Odafe during his first time at the Owings Mills Training Facility.
Odafe during his first time at the Owings Mills Training Facility.

"It'll be interesting to see over the long haul what kind of career he has," Harbaugh said. "I think you try to form a first impression in terms of how does his skillset translate for any player – how does it translate from college to the NFL. The way he moves, I think, has translated very well in the first four days. So, I'm very excited about that, but also the way he works. He's a very serious guy, every day. He's into the playbook and he works really hard at it."

When Oweh hears people call him raw, or a project, or having a high ceiling, he takes it as a compliment. But it's also a challenge. Will he realize the potential the Ravens see in him? How quickly and how completely will he harness his talent?

Those are questions Oweh is determined to answer, and he wants to make an impact as quickly as possible. When Oweh entered the NFL, he wanted people to know his name. When he's done playing, he wants people to remember it.

"I hate when people think that because I'm new to football, I'm not true to it," Oweh said. "I'm true. I'm as dedicated to this as people who've been doing it their whole lives. Football is now my craft."

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