David Onyemata introduced himself to Cam Newton last Sunday.
Onyemata, a second-year defensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints, put a colossal hit on the Carolina Panthers quarterback in a first-round playoff game. The collision was so violent, Newton had to briefly leave the game, even dropping to a knee before getting to the sideline.
“That was a big-time hit,” fellow Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins would say later. “It was in a crunch-time situation when we needed it.”
Teammates call Onyemata “Big O” — and that’s precisely how much he knew about football when he was coming out of high school: 0.
It’s remarkable to think that in 2011, when Newton was the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick and offensive rookie of the year, Onyemata had just discovered football. Before that, he had never as much as tried on a helmet or shoulder pads.
That was the year that the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Onyemata (pronounced own-yay-MAH-ta) finished high school in Nigeria and started at the University of Manitoba, where he studied environmental science with the idea of eventually going back home to start a recycling business.
Football changed those plans, even though he picked up the sport on a lark. He knew almost nothing about it when he was growing up in Lagos, where soccer is king.
“I didn’t know they had different plays and all that [in football],” said Onyemata, 25, whose team will play at Minnesota on Sunday in the divisional round. “To me, it just looked like a bunch of guys running around.”
It probably still looks like that to his parents, who have never seen him play. Onyemata is the youngest of six children, and nobody in his family has made it to the U.S. for a game. They’re all outfitted in Saints gear, though, as he once brought a suitcase full when he went home to visit.
“Now they have more of a better understanding because they’ve been hearing about it for six years or so,” he said. “They just show highlights back home, not the games. They usually just see highlights and check the scores.”
So the Onyematas might not fully appreciate the defensive reversal the Saints have done this season. In recent years, that has been a historically bad unit. This year, New Orleans has a stout and respectable defense that’s helped get the franchise back to the playoffs after three consecutive 7-9 seasons.
In 2016, Onyemata was selected in the fourth round of both the NFL (Saints) and Canadian Football League (Saskatchewan Roughriders) drafts, even though he wasn’t invited to the scouting combine.
Gregarious off the field, Onyemata plays with an irritated edge. He doesn’t shy from a skirmish. Although he’s a rotational player more often than a starter, his playing time has been ramped up since the Saints lost Nick Fairley for the season because of a heart condition.
“If you’re going to build a D-tackle, they’re going to look like [Onyemata] at the end of the day,” said Rankins, a first-round pick of the Saints that same year. “With his explosiveness, with his power, his ability to move, his agility, being able to tackle guys outside the box. Those are things you can’t teach. I look forward to not only to play with him but help him reach every goal, every dream that he wants to playing defensive tackle and in the NFL.”
Saints coach Sean Payton told the New Orleans Times-Picayune of Onyemata: “We saw growth last year while he was playing. With the limited amount of snaps he had — maybe high school through college — we knew when we drafted him that we were getting someone that we felt had a high ceiling.
“He has continued to improve on his technique, recognizing certain combination blocks and what the offense is trying to do. He is certainly going to be in that rotation and a guy that we are counting on.”
Technically, Onyemata started playing football in 2011, but he really wasn’t playing it then.
“My first year was pretty much getting used to my helmet and shoulder pads and kind of just not even practicing, just doing things on the side for a whole year,” he said. “You watch a couple games, and once you’ve been around the game for a year, you start to understand what should be going on.”
As Newton was so rudely reminded, it’s been a crash course ever since.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer