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The odyssey of Samson Ebukam: From Nigeria to the NFL playoffs

It's a road less traveled, for Ebukam. He spent his youth in Nigeria, his teens in Portland and now loving the NFL and the Rams -- and the Rams loving him. AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo

Samson Ebukam recently walked into a hip pizza spot in Thousand Oaks, California, for lunch and no one noticed.

Just a few hundred yards from the Los Angeles Rams' headquarters, there were no requests for his autograph, no Snapchat stories or Instagram selfies.

Though he's six weeks removed from one of the great individual defensive performances of the season -- coming in one of the ritziest offensive matchups in regular-season history -- the Rams' second-year linebacker is still able to grab a slice and enjoy a trip to the salad bar to pile his bowl high without interruption.

Yes, Ebukam is enjoying the anonymity. For now. Maybe soon enough, perhaps after a long playoff run, everyone will know his name.

His full name, if he has anything to say about it.

'Like going to another planet'

He'd go by Nnamaka, if they let him. And if only they'd pronounced it right.

Samson is Nnamaka Samson Ebukam's middle name -- and is such a strong name, so easily identifiable, that the Rams have suggested he stick with it. And Ebukam winces each time an announcer or coach or fan mispronounces Nnamaka, and so it's Samson.

But Ebukam is filled with pride in his name, his roots, his family and his homeland of Nigeria.

He was born to Tobias and Stella Ebukam in Onitsha in 1995, on the banks of the Niger River, the third-largest river in Africa, behind the Nile and the Congo. Onitsha is a crowded city, with an urban population of more than 7.4 million, home to the Onitsha Main Market, the largest market on the continent.

It rains often, Ebukam said, and he described his hometown as "gloomy." His was a rather normal childhood; they lived on Franklin Street near his school and church, and his childhood was full of soccer and schooling.

Education was a top priority in the household. Tobias Ebukam left for America when Ebukam was just a young boy, seeking better education and opportunities for his children. When Ebukam -- the youngest of seven children -- was 6, his two oldest siblings left to join their father in Beaverton, Oregon, near Portland, which at the time had a growing Nigerian population. A couple years later, two more Ebukam siblings made their way to the Pacific Northwest, leaving Samson and his mother and two siblings still in Onitsha.

"I wasn't mad about it or sad about my family leaving. I knew my time was coming eventually," he said. "But when you live in Nigeria, hope was not a thing you had the luxury of having every day."

When Ebukam was 9, Tobias sent for him and his two siblings closest in age, sister Adaeze and older brother Bruno. It would be another four years until Samson's mother, Stella, joined the family.

The years in Oregon were difficult for Ebukam, the youngest in his family by four years. Being away from his mom was painful and English just wasn't clicking, he said. "It was," he says, "like going to another planet."

He got in fights often, and on the soccer pitch, he picked up countless red cards for physical play. It was while he was in the eighth grade that a youth American football coach saw his raw ability.

The next year, when he entered David Douglas High in Portland, where his family eventually settled after moving from Beaverton, he looked nothing like the formidable young NFL linebacker he'd become. The full-on collisions inherent to football were a departure from the lesser physicality of soccer.

"He didn't understand the game at all, and he was not a real collision-oriented guy," said Dan Wood, his high school coach. "Plastic-on-plastic, that wasn't his cup of tea. We had a couple low-level assistants say, 'I don't know if he'll ever be able to do this.'"

American football was so new to him, but there was something there: pure explosiveness.

Back in Nigeria, soccer was his only sport.

"I didn't even know what basketball was," he said. "I didn't know what football was. I knew about track and field, but that was just called running."

His parents took some convincing. They feared injury. Ebukam's father questioned the time commitment and the injury risk -- he was busy working sometimes as many as three jobs to make ends meet, and he didn't understand his son taking time away from his studies.

Coach Wood begged Ebukam to see it through, sensing his potential. By Ebukam's junior year, after he had blossomed into a starter, the possibility of college football -- and free education -- became a reality. That's when the Ebukams came to understand their son's gift, even if it took them even longer to embrace the sport.

"Sometimes they say it takes a village to raise a child," Wood said. "In this case, it took a village to get him to continue to play."

"At first it was a culture shock, definitely. It was great when we finally found that community. It felt like we belonged again." Bruno Ebukam, Samson's brother on settling in the Portland area

What kept him going during those teenage years, when his issues with a new language had him down, was football and the community that surrounded him.

"At first it was a culture shock, definitely," said Ebukam's brother, Bruno. "It was great when we finally found that community. It felt like we belonged again. We weren't just in a foreign land. The first familiar face we saw, everyone was ecstatic."

At that time, an Oregonian article cited a 90 percent increase between 2000-07 in the African-born population of Portland, which then made up more than 12 percent of the black population of the city. Ebukam recalled going to Nigerian parties and meeting uncles he never knew he had, uniting with other members of the Igbo tribe he'd never met.

"At a party, a regular Nigerian gathering, you're looking at somewhere around 50-plus families," he said. To this day, he favors his mother's cooking -- the fried plantains and jollof rice, the egusi soup and fufu bread.

"He's a very prideful dude," said Jacque McClendon, the Rams' director of player engagement and a former NFL lineman himself. "You talk to him about his native country, what that means to him, he takes that very seriously. We were in Baltimore this year, and we drove by a Nigerian restaurant, and you could just see him light up. He loves his country, his people, and he's very proud of having that culture."

'Jackie Slater called my name'

If any player is a fit for the Rams' budding culture in Los Angeles, it's Ebukam.

Just as Los Angeles linebackers coach Joe Barry is about to describe how the Rams discovered Ebukam in the first place, the man who made that discovery -- general manager Les Snead -- walks by.

A California dusk is making its way over Rams' practice facility, but Barry is eager to discuss his prized pupil, and when he yells over to Snead that he's talking about Ebukam, the Rams' GM stops in his tracks.

"We love Samson!" Snead yells back. "Tell him about the visit."

After a stellar high school career at Douglas, Ebukam fell in love with regular FCS playoff contender Eastern Washington, which accounted for one of his two scholarship offers (the other came from Portland State). The nearby Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers had deemed him too small, Wood said, and Ebukam was largely unknown.

"Never too high, never too low. He has full humility." Jacques McClendon, Rams director of player engagement on Ebukam

That changed in Cheney, Washington -- to a point.

Despite freshman All-American status, a terrific junior year for the Eagles and a standout senior season, Ebukam was an NFL Combine snub. The Rams were familiar with the red turf of EWU -- having scouted Ebukam's teammate, wide receiver Cooper Kupp, whom they would select in the third round with the 69th pick in the draft -- and the linebacker intrigued them. They intended to sign him as an undrafted free agent.

But when Ebukam absolutely beasted his Pro Day at Eastern Washington -- turning in a mid-4.4 40-yard dash, a 10-foot, 10-inch broad jump, a nearly 40-inch vert and 25 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press -- the Rams went from intrigued to enamored.

Ebukam expected Kupp to get drafted, but he wasn't optimistic about his own odds. Even when his agent told him to get ready to be drafted, he wasn't buying in. On draft day, he managed to watch 10 picks before growing bored and grabbing the Xbox remote to play Destiny. Then came a phone call from a strange area code -- it was the Rams -- and Ebukam had to go diving through the couch for the TV remote.

He turned on the draft, and he listened to Rams hall of famer Jackie Slater announce his selection.

"Jackie Slater called my name," he said, beaming. "This living legend."

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'Moldable ball of clay'

Because of an NFL rule that does not allow rookies to practice until their class graduates, Ebukam was not able to join the rest of his rookie class for introductory activities. That put him behind. Then, on the second day of training camp, he injured his hamstring.

Still NFL raw and untested, Ebukam appeared in the Rams' final 2017 preseason game against the Packers after consistently impressing his coaches during the week -- "He did something every day in practice that made you say 'Oh, s---,'" Barry said -- and made an immediate splash on special teams.

Ebukam really got his chance when, in a Week 10 win over Houston in 2017, teammate Conner Barwin suffered a fractured arm. In the absence of Barwin -- who, Barry said, was a "huge part of Ebukam's development" -- the rookie stepped in with a sack against the Texans and then another against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints two weeks later in a six-point win.

"When we knew Connor was out, I didn't even flinch," Barry said. "But [Ebukam] proved it. The big sack against Drew Brees when we beat New Orleans -- I knew then that this wasn't going to be too big for the kid."

With Barwin on a one-year deal last year, the Rams had the option to bring back the veteran, who had started 15 or more games each of the previous six seasons. Instead, they handed the job to Ebukam. They felt he was ready.

"When you saw our offseason acquisitions, one thing we didn't do was add in that room," McClendon said. "When he saw what he did in Year 1, he attacked the offseason. This thing was earned, not given."

He spent the first 10 weeks of this season proving the Rams right, steady if unspectacular.

Then came the Monday Night marquee matchup with the high-flying Kansas City Chiefs, the most anticipated regular-season showdown in years.

In the second quarter, Ebukam scooped up a fumble by Patrick Mahomes on a strip-sack by Aaron Donald and carried it into the end zone from 11 yards out to put Los Angeles up 23-17. Then, in the third quarter, Ebukam hopped in front of a Mahomes pass and returned the interception 25 yards for a score.

In the midst of an offensive battle for the ages, it was Ebukam's two defensive scores that changed the game.

And it did nothing to change him.

"That next day, he was still one of the earliest in the building and one of the last to leave," said McClendon, who calls Ebukam a "moldable ball of clay."

"He's a very process-driven guy. He doesn't get off of it. Never too high, never too low. He has full humility."

His coaches appreciate his attitude.

"They were trying to do an interview with Samson after that [Chiefs] game -- I don't know if this was in-house or local TV -- but our media relations person said they wanted to use the linebacker room to go through the game with him," Barry said.

"I said sure, and we get done ... and Samson was nowhere to be found. He almost was avoiding it. I don't know if they ever got him and sat him down. He wanted no part of it. Most guys would bask in that. Samson wants to be great, but not because it will give him an interview with ESPN or the cover of a magazine."

For all the coaches who rave about Nnamaka Samson Ebukam, the same football cliché keeps appearing: high ceiling.

"The type of kid he is, he will will himself to improve," Barry said. "I envision Samson in Year 8 still wanting to learn, to get better. It's just the way he's wired."

Barry adds one more thing.

"You're going to remember his name."