Interview transcript: Osi Umenyiora, two time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants

Liz: Welcome to the show, Osi. How are you?

Osi: I’m doing fine. I’m doing okay. How about yourself, Liz?

Liz: Yeah. Good. Yeah. Keeping well, it’s great to have you with us. So thanks so much for taking the time out. Now to me, you’ve got a fascinating story. You were born in London, you moved to Nigeria with family before moving later to Alabama. Was American football on your radar at this point or is this basically where you then discovered the game?

Osi: Yeah. I had never heard of American football before. It was nothing I’d even ever imagined. I do remember having a blanket in Nigeria that my stepmother brought from me and it was the guy with the, you know the Raider’s logo?

Liz: Oh yeah.

Osi: Yeah. It was that blanket. So I had that blanket in Nigeria, but I didn’t know what it was, only when I got to America. So the first time I actually ever saw football or even heard about football was when I got to Alabama and I saw these people running around playing what I thought was a crazy game. People kept on talking about it, telling me to go watch it. So I went to go watch a high school game and though I still thought it was craziness cause I didn’t really understand what was going on. There was only when I really started to get into it that I fully understood how great of a game it was or is.

Liz: Yeah, that’s really cool. And obviously you got to play at a high school obviously in Troy college and obviously you signed to the NFL.

Osi: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a crazy, crazy situation. Crazy story, how that all came about. I came to American for education, so football wasn’t really anything I thought I would ever undertake for, you know, started playing, got pretty good at it, got offered one scholarship which was the Troy State University. That was the only team that offered me a scholarship coming out of high school. So started playing there, eventually got drafted by the New York Giants, which was the last team I went to go visit. Because after you do like your pro days and the combine and all that stuff, the teams now want to bring you in to actually visit them. So I went to go see like maybe like 13 different teams and the New York Giants was the last team I went to go visit and they were the ones who ended up drafting me.

Liz: And how does it feel, I guess, going for that kind of process? Like do you get like a feeling when you get to that team, like, okay, do you know what, this is where I really, really want to go or is it just more that’s where you end up?

Osi: Yeah, that’s where you end up, man, you don’t really have a choice. The people that come out of college who are like free agents, that means they’re not drafted, they get to pick what team that they want to go to but you don’t really get paid that much money. So when a team drafts you, I think you just go there. I’m not really quite sure that anybody coming out of college has like a specific team that they want to go to. I think we’re just also broke and hungry that we’re happy to go wherever drafts us, that’s with most players anyway. And you have the odd, Eli Manning or guys like that who are like, nah, I want to go here, I want to go there and they have the ability to do that. But for most of us, we’ll go anywhere.

Liz: I mean, it works out well for you; two Super Bowl rings. You’ve even played at Wembley, you must know some amazing, incredible memories and stories to shout.

Osi: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s really weird how that worked out. I’ll often think to myself, you know, a lot of people, they get drafted to different teams, they get drafted to different situations, people who had more talent than me, but because they went to the wrong team or the one coaching staff or the wrong environment, they weren’t successful. But a lot of people who have talent, they get drafted and they go through the exact right situation and you know, that actually defines a career or makes that career. And I think I was one of those people. I don’t think if I would’ve gone to any other team, I would have had the level of success that I had because of the people I was around. And you know, my mentors, the Michael Strahan, the people of that caliber who actually moulded me to be the player that I was. So I think it was interesting.

Liz: Absolutely. And what are your favourite, I guess, memories from your time of playing?

Osi: My favourite memories would have to be…I have quite a few actually.  I remember my first sack that came in the very last game of my rookie year against the Carolina Panthers. I remember that. I remember the first time, well, the first Bowl that we won, I remember the first time I got selected for the Pro Bowl. I remember I was on the practice field and the coach came, he called everybody together and it was me and Michael Strahan, we got elected. That was one of the best moments of my life actually. And then I remember the second Super Bowl that we won. I just remember like basic little individual moments, man. But some of those are crazy. I remember the very last time I got selected to the Pro Bowl. I remember I was the only player from the Giants who got picked.

Liz: Which is crazy.

Osi: Yeah, it was crazy. And the Cowboys had like 15 players and so they like, you know, before the game they announced each player from each team and they had announced the Cowboys and it was like 15 of them and then, everybody clapped. And then after that, they were like from the Super Bowl New York Giant and it was just me standing back and the crowd went nuts. It was a good memory, but mostly the Super Bowls, the things that we did as a team, those are the things that I really remember most.

Liz: And how much did it mean to you to be able to sign a one day deal so you could retire in New York Giant?

Osi: Yeah, that was cool. That was crucial for me because I spent the first 10 years of my career with New York and that was where everybody knows me. Very few people even know that I played for the Atlanta Falcons. I mean, I don’t even remember that, you know, I barely remember it. But having the ability to go back there and sign that one day contract, I think it meant a lot to me and meant a lot to that franchise. Because they put me in their ring of honor, like as soon as I retired, which is something that they never do. But I think me going back there and signing that one day contract, I think that was huge. I always wanted to be remembered as a New York Giant, to be honest.

Liz: And you are. And how did you handle the transition from playing to be a media personality?

Osi: Yeah, that was quite simple, to be honest with you. Cause I think, early in my career, I think maybe five, six years then, I think it was June 2007 and it was my fifth year in the NFL, I remember we came out here to London and we played in the very first game of Wembley stadium and I met Mark Waller, who is the head of NFL international band. And just being here and in London at the time, you know, I was born here, but at the time I had no idea that there was a fan base, like a dedicated fan base of American football here in London so I had no clue. So when I came out here and I saw the stadium was packed, I saw the energy, I was like, man, this is crazy. And so I told him, I was like, listen, when I retire – mind you, this was eight years before I retired – I told him, I was like, when I retire, I want to move back to London. I want to help you guys. I want to do something with the NFL because I could see then that England or the UK was the future. I could see it. It was clear as day to me back then. And so I told him that. 

And throughout the years, I stayed in touch with him and when I retired or when I knew I was going to retire, I went to him and I was like, listen, Mark, remember the conversations we’ve had over these past eight years? I want to come out to London, I want to come to England to help the NFL grow out here. And he was like, all right, cool. So I retired and within like a week after I retired, I was in London, I was in England already working for the NFL, which was I think that really helped me with my transition. Because I think when you’re in America and you retire, there’s like a sense of I don’t even know how to explain it, but it’s like a real sense of loss over there because you were once there, this was like your whole life and then all of a sudden it’s not that.

So, moving away from all of that and coming here to England or to the UK, coming here was like brand new. It was like a brand new adventure. It was like a brand new chapter of my life. Nobody knew who I was. It was fun. And they came up with the idea for the NFL show and I was like, all right, cool, let’s do it. Let’s roll with it. I had no idea that it would be as successful as it has become or people would like it the way that they do, I didn’t have any clue about that at all. It was just something that I knew the NFL wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do and I’ve been happy to help them do it.

Liz: Okay. And you know what that show to me, like the relationship that you guys have on that just seem to like, you know, it electrifies you as someone watching it. Like I don’t think any other show that covers NFL in the UK kind of has that like electric feeling. Like what is it like for you to work alongside Jason and Mark to do that?

Osi: Yeah, it’s really, really cool, man. I think, Jason, the good thing about Jason is like me and Jason are really friends. Like we were friends, me and him played together on the Giants. And it’s not like we were just teammates, we were friends back then and so we’ve been friends the entire time. And so coming out here, I didn’t even know that, you know, he was in London at the time and I thought he was still in California, so I came out, they were like, Oh, we want to put you with a guy out here who’s here in London. Do you know a guy named Jason Bell? I was like, what are you talking about? That’s my guy. What is he doing in London? And so, me and him got together and then Mark, I didn’t know Mark at the time, but Mark is just a sports fanatic, a tremendous presenter and him just being around us, trying to learn more about the game. He already knew quite a bit about the game, but he’s trying to learn more all the time. And so, it’s us explaining it to him, but explaining it to the viewer, but being ourselves and having fun and just enjoying the fact that we’re doing something in a unique way, if you understand what I mean. I think putting all that together I think has made the show what it is.

Liz: Yeah, definitely. Cause you can tell like, first of all, that you all really enjoy it. And then, like the best thing about the audience point is like, especially with Mark, so you’ve got that appeal to the new audience, but then also you keeping the existing fans and hardcore fans like in it as well. So now he’s got that really, really good balance is really good. 

Osi: I appreciate that. Thank you.

Liz: And having retired from the game yourself, like what advice would you give to someone who’s coming to the end of their playing career? 

Osi: Yeah. Honestly, for me, it just hasn’t been tough because I was able to find something that’s exciting and something that’s new and something that’s kept me engaged for the entire time. But to be honest with you, Liz, I don’t know how I would have responded or how I would have reacted if I didn’t have this. It’s not even a matter of finances. It’s not a matter of anything. You just have to do something to keep yourself structured and disciplined. Because our whole lives have been about structure and discipline and taking care of your body and you’re being told basically you have to be here, you have to be there, you have to be, you know. When you don’t have it anymore, you don’t have the structure so people kind of tend to fall off the rails a little bit. So you have to continue to have something that keeps you motivated, that keeps you focused, that keeps you levelled, and keeps you grounded. Because most of us, a lot of us are retiring in our 20s, early 30s. And I imagine most people, that’s when their lives are essentially starting and you know, our careers essentially ending.

So you’re going to have 50, 60 more years to do something else other than football. And so, you have to have a plan as to exactly how you’re going to transition or exactly what you’re going to do next. And lucky for me, this was something that I started to plan or have conversations with the people who can make it happen eight years before I retired. I don’t think if had waited for my last year to go have a conversation with Mark Waller and be like, Hey Mark, I want to come to London. He would’ve looked at me like I was crazy. But the fact that I was telling him that for eight years, he knew how serious I was about it and we were able to make it happen. So have a plan, know that football isn’t going to be around forever, know it’s probably gonna end probably sooner than you would like, and have a clear and distinct plan as to exactly what it is you’re going to do afterward.

Liz: And when you look back at your days in the NFL now, was there anyone in particular that played like a huge influence on your life?

Osi: Yeah, 100%. Michael Strahan was his name. One of the biggest names in America right now. He’s doing Good Morning America and all kinds of stuff. He’s a huge star, but he was somebody who I think I really tried to mould myself after. And I mean that not as a player because we’re two different kinds of players, but as a person and he was so hardworking, so dedicated and he was always willing to help me, took me under his wing when I got there. And so, he’s been a massive influence on my life on my career continues to and he continues to do that. If I had gone to any other team, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the success that I had. I owe him quite a bit.

Liz: That’s so lovely. And there’s been some interesting moves despite a lockdown and obviously no one really knows kind of what’s going to happen with the season and what moves have caught your eye?

Osi: Well, obviously the big one, which was Tom Brady going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I think that was something I didn’t see coming. I thought for sure he was going to retire with the New England Patriots. But that’s the thing about the NFL, it never ends the way you would hope, man. It just never does. So that was a huge shock to me. I think the Carolina Panthers releasing Cam Newton, I wouldn’t say that was a shock, but that was unfortunate because I know what that man meant to that franchise and what he meant to that whole city so to see that happen was a little crazy. But those two, for me, are the ones that really stand out. Everything else, to me, is just been kind of business as usual.

Liz: Yeah, definitely. And for me, the whole Cam Newton thing like I just can’t picture him in any other kit than the Panthers one.

Osi: Yeah, I know. I know. It’s going to be weird.

Liz: Definitely. And then with Brady in the books now, like how would you see things panning out in New England and what impact you think he’ll have in Tampa Bay?

Osi: Well, I think he’s going to have a really good impact because of the team he went to. He’s gone to a team that is almost tailor-made for him. Defensively, they all should be outstanding because of the players that they retained. They have a really good defensive coordinator in Todd Bowles. And offensively, when you look at their wide receiver, if you look at Vincent Jackson and Godwin and then you look at their offensive line, which is, I think it’s going to be better this year. And then you look at their head coach Bruce Ariens, who’s known for being a tremendous quarterback guru of sorts. He’s gone to a perfect situation. So I think he’s he’s going to be just fine. The only problem though, the only issue I see with him is the fact that he’s going through a very, very tough conflict, man. That NFC South with the New Orleans Saints and the resurgence of the Atlanta Falcons. If you look at what they were able to do over the last couple of games last year, it’s gotta be really tough to him to come out of that division.

 So that’s the only place I see there maybe being a problem. But as far as the impact, you’re gonna have on that team is going to be substantial. When you talk about New England, I’m just a believer in Bill Belichick, man, I really believe that this was the best course that we’ve ever seen. I really believe that. And so, I think they’re going to be just fine. They’re not going to fall off the rails. It’s not going to be a disaster of a season that most people may be predicted for that team. I was there when Brady got injured in 2008 and they had a guy by the name of Matt Castle carry that team to an 11 and five record. Matt Castle was a terrible quarterback and they were able to go 11 and five with him at that position. So I think they’re going to be fine in New England. They’re going to be fine in Tampa Bay. Both of those franchises are going to win.

Liz: And my final question, Osi, if you had a message for the UK fan base, what would it be?

Osi: Listen, we love you guys. I mean, I really, really do. It’s hard to overstate the level of commitment that it takes to be a fan here. That’s not an easy thing to do. Do you know what I mean? So for you to be fans out here and to be that dedicated, you’re more dedicated than the fans are in America. Those are fair-weather fans, to be honest with you. Like the fans here, like real fans. And so we’re really happy; keep on supporting us, we’re going to keep on supporting you and let’s keep on growing, man. Maybe we’ll get a franchise out here sooner rather than later.

Liz: Osi, you’re a bundle of energy that’s brightened up my week.

Osi: Oh, excellent. No worries. Anytime. Thank you. 

Liz: Thank you so much. 

Osi: And you know, I follow you so I see what you’re doing. I see what you’re doing, man. It’s really appreciated.

Liz: Awesome. Well, listen, I look forward to seeing you back on our screens soon and yeah, take care. Look after yourself.

Osi: Absolutely. Will do.

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