New name, new football chapter: Former Penn State, current Ravens player explains change
When Baltimore Ravens rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh met with local reporters for the first time, shortly after being selected No. 31 overall in the NFL draft on April 29, he was introduced by his first name — unbeknown to many — instead of his middle name, Jayson, which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced off the selection card.
A few minutes into the virtual news conference, Oweh made a statement that sent shock waves through social media.
“People were having trouble pronouncing Odafe, so I went to Jayson my earlier years. But I don’t care anymore; you’re going to have to learn how to pronounce it,” he said with a grin.
To Oweh and his family, he was setting the foundation for a new chapter of his life while also embracing a culture that played a pivotal role in his journey.
The power of a name: Odafe’s father, Henry, and his mother, Tania, both grew up in Nigeria. Henry was born and raised there, while Tania moved there from London as a preteen. They both schooled in Nigeria and then went to college in London, where they met, before settling in New Jersey in the late 1990s.
Behind every name is a story, but in Nigerian culture it often carries a deeper meaning.
Odafe (pronounced uh-DAH-fay) is a name with roots in the Urhobo tribe, Henry’s ethnic group, which primarily resides in Southwest Nigeria (Tania is from the Igbo tribe, another Nigerian ethnic group). The name’s meaning: A wealthy individual.
“Usually when Nigerians name kids, it’s either something that’s being projected on a kid or something that is indicative of the current situation,” said Tania, who runs a medical equipment business with Henry. “Obviously, this was more a projection, like, ‘You’re going to be a wealthy man.’ Wealth, not just monetarily but holistically. And that was the proclamation on him.”
Odafe’s family, which includes his older sister and two younger brothers, typically calls him by his first name. His cousins in London, wondering when their relative’s name was going to be called, even frantically texted his mother as the first round of the draft drew to a close.
“Then we realized, ‘Oh, they’re looking for Odafe,’” Tania said with a laugh.
Odafe grew up in Howell, a town about 90 minutes from New York. The area is made up of a small percentage of minorities, but his Nigerian values and customs — from the food to tenets such as faith and education — were the focal points of his upbringing.
Tania and Henry both recall omens and declarations of greatness from others onto their son. When Odafe was 2, a woman who had no knowledge of the meaning of his name told his parents that he would be a “wealthy man,” which they laughed off as a coincidence. Similar encounters occurred as he got older, whether it was in church or elsewhere.
“Whoever meets him ... that pronouncement has always been on him,” Henry said.
In grade school, some of Odafe’s classmates had trouble with the pronunciation of his name. Others were “immature” and would “play around with the name, just try to embarrass you, try to make you feel little of yourself.”
“Plus, I grew up in an area where there weren’t a lot of Africans,” he said. “Everyone had a name like a Nick or a Paul or something like that. Odafe was just unheard of.”
To simplify things for his peers, he pivoted to his middle name.
Odafe transferred to Blair Academy for his final two years of high school, a move that ushered in his introduction to football. He quickly made a name for himself as a raw but athletically gifted defensive end. He rose up prospect rankings, picking up offers from over two dozen programs, including Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan. He ultimately chose Penn State, where the mindset on his name began to shift.
"I really found myself:" With an undergraduate enrollment at University Park of about 40,000, which was overwhelmingly composed of white students, the African population was by no means ubiquitous in State College. But the campus’ African Students Association was active — and Odafe took note.
“You can definitely see it. You definitely know who are the Nigerian ones,” he said. “And there were a lot of Nigerians. As you get older, you start to see a lot of people are Nigerian. We definitely had that culture there.”
Odafe befriended some fellow Nigerians on campus and as Tania watched from afar while he developed into a star at Penn State, she saw him “grow into that manhood, and I think at that point, he started to understand who he is as a human being. His belief, his connection to his roots.”
At one point when Tania was on campus, she called Odafe by his first name while he was with his friends. They all wondered where the name had come from.
Odafe and his mom explained that it was his first name and “they loved that name,” said Tania.
Said Odafe: “As I got to college, I really found myself. I really understood that I’ve always loved to be Nigerian. I’ve always loved to be African ... I started really embracing my African culture as I got older. I understood it was good to be different. It was good to have culture.”
A new chapter: Going through the draft process, Odafe and his family had their sights on Baltimore. The Ravens fell in love with his athleticism and versatility. Through film sessions with the team’s coaches, Odafe saw a fit with an aggressive, defensive-minded team.
Odafe had conversations long before with his mom about going by his first name only. But she had no idea he would announce it all of a sudden on draft night.
So when Tania heard her son’s name called on TV, then witnessed his confidence to say that he was returning to his first name, as a person of faith, she saw a connection to stories in the Bible such as Abraham, when God would change someone’s name before they embarked on a new journey.
It was more than just a name change to her.
“It’s so funny that this new season in his life, he made that announcement that he wants to go back to the name where it all began,” she said. “He may not understand it now, but it has some spiritual implications, also. And so, it’s a very exciting time.”