Ifeadi Odenigbo hopped into a car and told the driver to find a protest.
Odenigbo didn’t wake up May 31 planning to march in Chicago, where the Vikings’ fourth-year defensive end attended Northwestern, but he wanted to take action just six days after George Floyd was killed while in Minneapolis police custody. Odenigbo quickly found himself in a crowd of strangers unaware that an NFL player was walking with them.
“I just quietly joined in and didn’t say a word,” he said. “Marched with them for a good two miles.”
Speaking up is what Odenigbo, the first member of his Nigerian family born in the United States, encourages most in the fight against police brutality and social injustice.
“It was cool to see people all skin colors,” Odenigbo said. “To the people who weren’t black, I said, ‘Hey, thank you. This wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for you marching or protesting or speaking up.’ I’m really grateful for that.”
Odenigbo shared his personal experiences, why he believes education is a root for change and more in an interview for the Access Vikings podcast. This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview here.
Q: What led you to jump into that car on a Sunday morning?
A: You watch that footage and you see a man begging for his life. Asking for some pity. The fact that officer did not give him any type of pity. I’m pretty empathetic, but I think every black person watches that footage and says that could’ve been me. It’s almost like a moral responsibility I have to do something. Hopped in an Uber and said, “Hey driver, I want to go protest.” He was a cool Jamaican guy; he was like, “I’m with you, mon.” He ended up dropping me off in the middle of downtown Chicago. Ten minutes later, by the grace of God, I was able to see a bunch of people protesting perfectly peacefully. Then I just quietly joined in and didn’t say a word and marched with them for a good two miles.
Q: What was your emotion like seeing the video in Minneapolis?
A: It didn’t really hit me hard like that, because I was almost thinking like, “Man, another black person dying in America.” But I called my mom about it and when I was talking to my mom, I broke down and started crying. This man was calling for his mom. You take everything away from him. For a grown man to call for his mom and you still didn’t let up? That was devil’s work right there.
Q: How have you taken in the way protests have spread across race and nationalities?
A: The murder of George Floyd really opened everyone’s eyes, like yo, this has been going on for a while and we just live in an era where we have cameras now. So now we have proof this is happening. The ‘90s, ‘80s, you have musicians that rap about it and talk about it and say this is what the police do, but nobody really believes you. But you see footage of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a man pleading for his life, it kind of just tells you, man, there’s probably other people you don’t know about and probably died in vain and you have no idea. My prayers out to the families.
Q: You’ve said education can create change and you want to talk with Northwestern about solutions. How can that help?
A: I have a platform and I want to do whatever I can to try to educate people – the people who say they don’t understand. Segregation wasn’t just 150 years ago. The way people talk about segregation and racism and different bathrooms stalls as if it was 150 years ago, but your parents may remember when there were colored bathrooms, and that doesn’t get talked about at all. How you can help is educating yourself, the history of why this has been happening. Once you have the education, you can be empathetic.
Q: How have your experiences shaped your perspective?
A: I was arrested when I was 18 years old in Chicago for hopping the turnstile. At the time, I was wrong. Not saying I wasn’t wrong, but at the time they didn’t accept credit cards so I needed $2.25 and I simply didn’t have $2.25, and I hopped it. Usually a citation, but an undercover cop saw me, put me in handcuffs immediately, read me my rights and asked me if there was a warrant for my arrest. I had a Northwestern jacket and he’s asking me, “Where did you steal this jacket from?” I remember just being mindblown by that stuff. I’m just an 18-year-old college kid who didn’t have $2.25 on him.
Q: What do you think about the way the Vikings and your teammates have reacted?
A: The owners came in on our Zoom meetings and addressed us. They were very empathetic and shared our passion. That was moving. And the guys we have on our roster, the Eric Kendricks of the world, these are great football players but better people. Seeing the Vikings take a stance, seeing teammates speak up makes me proud.
Q: What about the NFL changing its rhetoric about protests during the national anthem?
A: It’s the right steps, but I think they were kind of late. Obviously, my teammates like Eric Kendricks had to speak up and let the NFL know like, “You guys were late.” We’ll find out in the years to come how authentic it is. I did economics, and the thing you got to realize is people have incentives. Obviously from the NFL standpoint, they were getting a lot of heat so they had to speak up. We gave them no choice but to speak up.
Q: What else would you like to add?
A: People in privileged positions should speak up and have their voices be heard. As a minority, I can only say so much. We need the majority of people to speak up and put those people in check that are doing these racist things or forms of racism.