Exclusive: Osi Umenyiora on Odell Beckham Jr, Donald Trump and Super Bowl 2017
Osi Umenyiora once brought wrecking-ball energy to the playing field as a two-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants, a six foot two, 250 pound monster tasked with bringing opposition quarterbacks to earth with a thud.
Three years on from his retirement, London-born Umenyiora has a quieter, less smashmouth role as a pundit on the BBC’s The NFL Show, imparting lessons learned from over a decade in American football to a British audience.
Tucked away at five to midnight on a Saturday evening, with a sister highlights package on Tuesday nights, the BBC’s weekly round-up has more of a cult feel than Sky’s glitzy live programming. For those in the know, though, it is compelling viewing, not least for the naturally comedic relationship between the British presenter, Mark Chapman, Umenyiora and his ex-Giant team mate, Jason Bell. Here, Newsweek quizzes Umenyiora about the show, life as a NFL star and his pick for Super Bowl 51 in Houston on February 5.
How did this presenting opportunity come about?
I came to work for the NFL. I’m an employee of the National Football League, but the NFL had a focus on trying to expand the game, they felt I’d be a great personality to put on TV. And they had the show on the BBC. As soon as I retired, it happened to be the time they wanted to do the show on the BBC. And so they put me on the show. We also have Mark Chapman, an outstanding talent himself. They put the three of us together and, you know, I think things have been going pretty well so far.
What do you put the show’s bubbly dynamic down to?
What I learned, especially watching the way it’s done in America and watching the things I would like, is that people want to be entertained. The same way you would go to watch a soccer match, nobody wants to watch a 0-0 boring draw over and over and over again. I think that’s the same with anything—broadcasting, commentating… viewers don’t want the same boring, monotonous talking about the same things over and over. You have to entertain them, keep it light, keep it fun. And I think that comes through on the TV screens. People are reacting to it.
Have you been surprised at Mark Chapman’s knowledge of the game?
He’s a talent. In order for them [BBC] to even consider him doing that, he had to have some sort of knowledge of American football. I think they picked the perfect guy for the job. He understands us, we understand him. We just find a way of playing off of each other very well.
Has communication with a British audience been a challenge?
The producers let us say what we want. To be honest, we know that the audience we are talking to might not be quite as informed about the game. I think we knew that going in. We don’t want to be breaking down the very little intricacies of football because quite frankly, I don’t want to hear that myself. We try not to do that. We’re just ourselves.
How have you seen the NFL’s development in the UK?
Even from when I came here in 2007 to play—we were the first people who played here in the international series—the increase in knowledge and growth has been ridiculous. The NFL has made a true commitment to the United Kingdom. They have poured a tremendous amount of resources in and it’s paying off. It’s a fantastic game, an exciting game that has something for everybody. The more you show it to people, explain the rules and what’s going on, they are going to understand it better and love it.
Is the idea of a permanent UK franchise viable?
Of course it’s viable. I always like to say that human beings, they figured a way to put men on the moon. As long as you’re able to figure that out, you can figure out how to relocate a franchise here if that’s what you truly want to do. Now the question is, is that really what we want to do? I think all signs are pointing towards that because of the time and money being spent here.
How does a locker room change during a play-off run?
You realize that you’re one of the elite teams in the NFL, and that there is no tomorrow. The minute you lose you are absolutely done, you are going home. And you fight all season to get to a certain point, and you don’t want to go home. Everything is heightened, the intensity of practice, focus. Everything just goes to a completely different level.
What were your Super Bowl runs like to be a part of, and how often do you reminisce?
Magical. I don’t do it too often, but when I do it definitely sends a chill down my spine. Because you kind of realize the special thing that happened that particular day. Very few people get to experience that. Especially the way we were able to win it. It’s not like we were favorites going into any of the play-off games. We were underdogs the whole way through. So being able to win like that is a completely different animal, and it’s special.
Do you miss the game?
[Laughs] Not at all. I think what I do find myself missing is the guys in the locker room, the way we interact with each other. You know, those kind of friendships that you have. You’re not going to have those anywhere else. You are put into an environment where you’re with each other sometimes 24 hours in a day, five months straight. You form bonds and relationships with people that are really hard to replace in the outside world. But actually playing the game, I had my fill. I played for a long time.
How do you know when it’s time to quit?
With me it was gradual, with most people it’s a gradual thing, most people who get to walk away from the game on our own terms [anyway]. Because a lot of us don’t get that opportunity. Once we do, it’s gradual. I remember, I think it was in my eleventh year I started thinking I really don’t want to go to practice. And I loved practice, it was my thing. I felt like I had to practice in order to be a good player. I remember going and feeling, I don’t really feel like doing this. The injuries take so much longer to recover from. All the things you have to do to be an elite football player, I didn’t want to do any more. As soon as you get to that point, if you have any integrity you know it’s time to walk away.
What do you make of the reaction to Odell Beckham’s much-publicized boat trip the week before the Giants’ loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC wild card game on January 8?
The thing you have to know about life is, perception is reality. What people think is the actual truth. Did that boat trip affect his game? Probably not. He could have gone out there and played terribly whether he went to Miami or not. The fact he did do that, and all those receivers did do that and posted pictures of them enjoying themselves, people saw that. Then they didn’t perform, they came up small. Did I think that was the right thing for him to do? I don’t know whether it was right or wrong for him to go to Miami and enjoy himself. What I do know was the actual broadcasting of it was quite a stupid thing to do.
Would you have said something to him, had you been a member of this Giants team?
I’ve had the chance to be around the guy. A fantastic young man, a lovely young man. When I see some of these things that he does that are quite silly, I just wish that somebody was there who could sit him down and be like, “Listen, you’re the most famous athlete probably in the world, the most famous football player by far. You don’t need to be doing these things.” Fantastic football player, fantastic person. Just continue being who you are, you don’t need to be doing that other stuff, drawing unnecessary attention. The guys on the teams I have played on, myself included, we would have handled that a year or two ago. But it’s a different league now, a different time and place. The veteran leadership on that [offensive] side of the football, outside of Eli Manning, is just not there.
We have seen some nasty hits so far these play-offs, notably on the Miami Dolphins’ Matt Moore. How is the NFL’s drive towards player safety changing the game?
They [safety measures] are good things. We all have the information now about what these violent, repetitive head traumas are doing to players. For the NFL to not take steps to prevent that would be ridiculous. It would be a grave error on their part so they have to do it. You have a lot of people complaining, “Oh you want to take away my football, the way my game is played.” Well, you’re an idiot. Because you know what this is doing to your head. If you can find a way to, not eliminate it but at least reduce the risk of those type of things happening, why wouldn’t you do that?
You said in a 2012 interview you thought you would end up in a wheelchair. Do you still worry about the effects of the game on your health?
As far as the brain injuries are concerned… I never had a concussion, I never was a “lead with my head” guy. I didn’t worry about that. But I had multiple surgeries on my body: on my hips, my knees. There are going to be repercussions from that. If not now then later on in life. This is the world, there is always going to be a trade-off. I’m 35 years old, and I can do pretty much whatever I want to. And that’s all because of the National Football League, the things playing in the league has allowed me to do. Would I go back and do it again? 101 times out of 100. No question about that, I have been very very lucky.
As an American citizen born in London, raised in Nigeria and schooled in the U.S., what did you make of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory?
I don’t think it will really have [as much of an effect] as people like to think. America is of the greatest countries on earth—if not the greatest. It’s that way because not one person runs the country, much like here [the UK]. People thinking that Donald Trump is just going to blow up the world… he can’t. Because there are checks and balances that are not going to allow him to do that.
I think he said some hateful things. I also think he said some things which were completely accurate. He was appealing to some people who were ignored when they shouldn’t have been. They came out and voted for him. It’s all a matter of perspective, man. I’m not going to be one to bash Donald Trump and say he shouldn’t be president of America. Because the people voted for him. He didn’t vote for himself, this is what they wanted and this is exactly what they got. I say give him a chance, to see what happens and what he does. He might actually be a good president, who knows? Hillary Clinton could have come in and sent the world into World War Three.
Who do you pick for Super Bowl 51?
Green Bay [Packers] have a wealth of playoff experience. The way Green Bay is playing right now, I think it will be really difficult [to stop them]. The play-offs are all about momentum. Green Bay has been on this incredible run, they have been gaining momentum as the weeks have gone on. So I think it’s going to be really difficult for anybody to beat them. If anybody can do it it’s the Atlanta Falcons [who play the Giants in the NFC Championship game on January 22], because they are such a gifted, well-coached team on the offensive side of the ball. They can go toe-to-toe with Green Bay as far as scoring points and moving the football. But I’d like Green Bay to at least make it to the Super Bowl.
The NFL Show airs at 11.55 p.m. Saturday night throughout the American football season, including the play-offs. NFL This Week screens Tuesdays at 11.15 p.m.