Ifeadi Odenigbo woke up Sunday and felt like he needed to do something. He jumped in an Uber, but didn’t have a plan. He just told the driver he wanted to find a protest.
“The driver I had was a black man like me. He understood me,” Odenigbo said. “He was like, 'Hey man, I don't know where the protest is. Let's find it. Let's do this.'”
But with the bridges on the Chicago River closed, they failed to find a protest downtown. Odenigbo decided to get out of the car and just walk around, hoping to find a group to join.
“By the grace of God, 5-10 minutes later, I saw a bunch of people marching and protesting,” he said. “I walked their way and just joined the march. I marched for a good three-and-a-half hours for a good 12 or 13 miles.”
Odenigbo didn’t know anyone he was marching with. And they didn’t know they were walking alongside an NFL player. If not for a selfie posted to Instagram, which was then pushed out on Twitter by the Northwestern football team’s account, the public wouldn’t have even known the Minnesota Vikings defensive end spent Sunday afternoon peacefully protesting in Chicago.
“It was a pretty peaceful, quiet march. It was pretty cool to be part of that march,” Odenigbo said. “I didn't know anybody in that group. The people that came in, especially the people that are white, I said thank you. Like, you don't have to do this. You could take the easy route and be silent. But thank you for marching. It means a lot. Thank you for showing compassion and having empathy.”
Ifeadi’s full name is Ifeadikachukwu Anthony Odenigbo. He’s the first member of his proud Nigerian family to be born in the United States. Raised in Centerville, Ohio, he came to Northwestern in 2012 as a highly-regarded recruit. After a slow start, Odenigbo left Northwestern in 2016 with 23.5 career sacks, which currently ranks third in program history. A seventh-round draft pick of the Vikings in 2016, he bounced around the league a little bit before enjoying a breakout season in Minnesota in 2019. In his final 10 games last season, Odenigbo racked up seven sacks and is now penciled in as a significant piece of a new-look Vikings defense this coming season.
But frankly, football seems trivial right now. As a black man in America, and as an NFL player who plays in Minnesota, George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin hit Odenigbo hard. Like the rest of the NFL, the Vikings have virtual meetings this week, but Odenigbo took time Tuesday for a lengthy chat with NBC Sports Chicago. The conversation was powerful and occasionally intense. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What are the feelings and emotions you’ve experienced in the last week or so?
With the George Floyd death, this really hits home. Just the fact that I play for the Minnesota Vikings and I've probably driven on that street where he died -- where he was tortured to death. Obviously a lot of the black community is hurting. When you see that footage and you see that eight minutes and 46 seconds of a man just saying, ‘Hey man, cop, you got it. I surrender. Can you please... I can't breathe, my stomach hurts.’ It really hits home because when you watch that footage -- just as a black person, like, for all the people that are just kind of confused or bewildered of like what's going on or why people are acting this rash -- every black person that watches that video, they think, that could have been me. When you watch that footage, he's begging. He's not being rash or hostile. He's begging for his life. And what's kind of weird is that usually when somebody is recording you, people stop what they're doing. It was just weird for an officer -- it kind of turned him on from a power struggle. Like, ‘Hey man, I'm the authority.’ It's just unfortunate. Prayers for George Floyd's family and everybody else that is hurt by this -- traumatized by this.
It really strikes me that you went down to protest by yourself, not with a group of people and you were marching with people you didn't really know. They didn't know they were walking with an NFL player.
No, not at all man. Didn't say a word. It's cool man because I'll stick to myself. I'm watching the news, I'm doing all this stuff, I'm posting and I'm thinking to myself, I'm going to have kids someday. I'm going to be a grandpa someday. And right now, this is a historic time. This is a weird time in our lives with COVID-19, with the whole recession, with people getting laid off and now just with this George Floyd case -- and I want to be able to look my kid in his eyes and say, 'Hey son, or daughter, your pops did something.' I didn't go on social media, I wanted to go and march with these people because actions speak louder than words.
Northwestern tweeted out a message of support. Pat Fitzgerald retweeted it. What did you appreciate about that support from your former college football team?
It means a lot to me. Just the fact that like, I'm not in this by myself, you know what I mean? It's very nice that people are acknowledging that this is an issue. Because people say, 'We had President Obama. There's no such thing as racism.' That was a long time ago. And when you see that footage, there's no way if (George Floyd) was a white man (the police officer) would put his knee on his neck for that long. Or if it was a dog, to be honest. If that was somebody else's dog and it was barking and yelling for help, somebody would have helped it out. But unfortunately, it was a black man and that's a lot of the struggle that a black man has to face in America and a lot of people just really don't understand. They'll say, 'Hey man, you're making excuses,' all that. But at the end of the day, from my personal experience, I think the protests are so vocal because every black person that watched that footage was like, 'I've had some type of encounter with a police officer, and man, that could have been me.' So you see that stuff and it ignites some rage, like yo, that's not all right. I got to do something about this. This is not a norm. This is 2020 and we have police officers still murdering people. This is not the 1800s. This is modern day, with camera phones and technology. And just the weird part about that whole situation is that the fact that report came out that all their body cams were turned off. And I'm like, what? If you're such a good police officer, why don't you keep all your body cams on? If you have nothing to hide and your job is to enforce the law to uphold the law, why don't you have your body cams?
Have you been in situations where you felt scared around police?
When you get pulled over by police, just as a black man, every black person can relate, you get that kind of unease. I don't want to say nervous, but you just know you got to be on your Ps and Qs. And from little situations where people don't understand what life is like for a black man -- I drive a nice car. So when I get pulled over, the first thing a cop asks me is, ‘Is this your car?’ Every single time. And I've gotten so used to that, I don't want to make a big scene of it, but when I tell people about it, it's like "Oh my God, that's unfair man, you got to do something about it. I'm like, yo dude, if I told you the things that I go through, you wouldn't believe it and at the end of the day, it's just kind of the burden that we have to go through.
How have the Vikings handled these conversations with players?
They've done a remarkable job. The Wilf family, our owners, they're Jewish, so they've obviously gone through their discrimination through the Holocaust. So from that standpoint, they did a really good job of talking with us and empathizing with us, saying, ‘What happened is not okay. We're happy to lend our support.’ So it was pretty awesome to hear from the coaches. (Head coach Mike) Zimmer just kind of spoke on the fact that it's hard for him to relate to us at times, just the fact that he's never gone through this. I guess when you're white, you have it kind of easy. When you do certain things, no one is ever discriminating against you. I think it was an eye opener for a lot of people. It's one thing if an officer is shooting him in the heat of the moment. But a man was tortured. If you were to ask me, ‘Hey Ifeadi, which would you rather do? Die of suffocation from a knee to the neck or be hanged?’ I think I would have chosen the hanging. A hanging would have been a shorter death. So when you really put that into perspective and you watch that footage and after he had died, the officer still had his knee on him for two minutes on a body that went cold. Man, what a monster right there. And the fact that he doesn't get arrested (right away). I think the reason there is such an uproar -- because obviously most police officers are not bad. Evanston, Northwestern, I know a bunch of police officers. They are great people. But just from a standpoint, those three other police officers that saw that happen and didn't do nothing, that's the problem right there. Because if you were to replace those three officers and put in another three officers, they most likely would have done the same thing too. You're just as guilty by being a bystander. Your job is to uphold the law. Like, for football, when your teammate is out of line, you keep him in check. And from a police officer's standpoint, they all have uniforms, it's a brotherhood, teammates -- and when your teammate's out of line you speak up. You don't be a coward and not say anything and let a man get tortured to death.
Your Vikings teammates Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks were vocal Tuesday on social media, asking for action from the NFL, not just statements. What is your reaction?
I 100 percent support what they're doing. Because at the end of the day, we're a capitalist country and how you make the most money is by not offending anybody. It's kind of the easy way of going and taking a neutral stance. You're not pissing anybody off. You say a vague statement and you want to keep all that money in. But obviously you have your patriots who are strong advocates of police officers and they're saying not all police officers are like this, but at the end of the day, from an NFL standpoint, a majority of the guys are black, you know what I mean? When you guys watch football, we understand it's uniforms, the team, all that stuff, but a lot of those guys are black. And from the standpoint of the NFL, we black players help you benefit and profit. And for you to really not acknowledge or really stand against (racism) is kind of a slap in the face to a lot of people. So I can empathize with where Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are going. Because at the end of the day, what we saw was unacceptable and it's just tragic.
I covered the events that went down in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick knelt. That was your senior year at Northwestern and I know it was a story with you guys too on your team and how that was going to be handled. What I find interesting right now is that it felt like in 2016 that there was a pressure to stay silent and we saw Colin Kaepernick end up out of the league. I have to say, it seems different. It seems like teams are speaking up, more players are speaking up right now. Do you feel that as an NFL player and are you hopeful that it is different?
Hopefully it is different because with George Floyd, everyone saw the film, you know what I mean? To be frank, if anybody would have told me about George Floyd, of him being tortured to death and there were no cameras, I wouldn't have believed it. Like being a black man, if somebody would have told me that, I probably would have been like, hey man, chill out, he probably did something to instigate the cops. And dude, the cop probably didn't have his (knee on his neck) for eight minutes, maybe he had it on for a few seconds and you're exaggerating. But to really watch that footage and to see a man in his last breaths call for his mom and for him to slowly fade away from the Earth, that's just very, very terrifying. And just to be honest, George is just one person. There's many people we don't know about in the 90s, 2000s, whatever. I don't know anything about those people. They died and they swept it under the rug and my heart goes out to those families. They probably told a bunch of people about it, but there was no footage and those people were never brought to justice. So it's just a very sad moment. And I think the strong thing about that is that racism has been going on for a while and I think from a children's standpoint, from the youth, they don't really see that side because social media wasn't a thing and they kind of ignored it. I think what's going to be very powerful is the fact that you have so many young kids that are on social media now -- 12, 13, 8, 9 years old -- that are on the internet. And they've all seen the footage. They all have to ask their mom and dad, like, why are people being violent? What are these protests going on? I don't understand this. And the parent has to sit down and explain that something bad happened. A police officer tortured a man to death for really no reason and it was most likely because of the color of his skin.
How we move as a society is by promoting awareness, by educating people and promoting awareness. And I just think a lot of people just aren't educated. One idea, maybe as I talk to Coach Fitz and talk to the president of Northwestern, Morty Shapiro, is just saying, hey, I think people should really take one or two African American studies classes. And really just learn about the history. Personally, for me, I thought I knew about black history just being a black man myself, but you know, you go to schools and they really just erase a lot of people's history. There's only a short part where they talk about it. They don't talk about it much. Maybe taking an African American studies class, you take 10 weeks of it, and you're like wow man, a lot of crap's been going on that people don't really remember. Like you could talk to your parents right now, they remember when it was colored bathrooms. People don't talk about that now. It's a crazy concept, but parents who are 60 years old, they remember when they were 8-9 years old when it said 'whites only.' Racism, this wasn't so long ago. It still happens every day and I think people are kind of naive. And I think this was a wakeup call for a lot of Americans.
You’re probably hearing from white people like me saying, hey we support you, what can we do to take action? We can't feel the pain the same way. We haven't lived it, but what would you say to someone like me that wants to do something?
Man, I think for the most part, I just think people need to be educated and learn the history of black culture. People see black music, they see athletes. Their favorite athletes a lot of the time are black. But you gotta really understand what it means to be black. So if you don't know the history, it's really hard to empathize. And so if anybody has black friends or you're curious, you should search on black history. From slavery to modern to the 80s to music to now and see what people have gone through. Because to be honest, like, in the grand scheme of things, it's really just unfair. People say, ‘Hey man, I disagree with rioting. I'm all about peaceful protesting, but I disagree with the rioting.’ And I try to tell people in perspective, I'm not a firm believer in violence or anything, but at the end of the day, man, this whole COVID-19 that's going on in Chicago, 70 percent of the deaths that have happened here are African Americans, while Chicago is (30) percent black people. Then on top of that, you can't work, so 1 out of 5 people right now don't have a job. For the black community, it's probably 1 out of 3 people that don't have a job. A lot of the times, these black people are essential workers, so on top of that, they're forced to go to work because they have to. And so all this that is stirring up and stirring up, with this George torture, that was kind of like the final straw that broke the camel's back. I just think people need to be educated and learn the history of things. And when you can truly be educated and learn the history behind black culture and the tension between blacks and whites in America then you can truly empathize.
Any other message that you want to make sure gets out there?
I just want to say, obviously people are just kind of bewildered and confused and they don't know how to respond and it's kind of easy for a person of privilege to keep quiet, but I really promote or recommend that it's OK to speak up. What happened was wrong and it shouldn't happen again. Unfortunately, this whole movement has everybody's attention and we just need to unify and be like, hey America, we're the land of the free, we're better than this. Like at the end of the day with this whole protest and everyone is getting mad about the violent protesting, you guys don't remember, America itself was founded off of protesting. The Boston Tea Party, the saying was, 'No taxation without representation,’ and the American people felt like they weren't being heard. So in a way, with African Americans right now, it's kind of like, enough is enough. They want to be heard and you can't be mad at that. When you feel like a second-class citizen in your own country, it's just not a good feeling.