Securing enough tickets to Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium to witness the next chapter in the Udoh family's American dream saga required some quick feet and strong-arming from the second of Benjamin and Rita's four children.
"There's kind of a running joke in the offensive line room that Oli has taken all the tickets," said Vikings center Garrett Bradbury, one of three linemen heading home to the Carolinas for Sunday's game against the Panthers. "Each player has the opportunity to buy four tickets. It's this whole stressful process from week to week. Dakota [Dozier] and I were asking guys for their tickets, and it was, 'Nah, sorry. Gave mine to Oli.'"
Oli Udoh, the Vikings' 6-6, 321-pound right guard, will make his sixth NFL start 140 miles west of Fayetteville, N.C. That's where Benjamin, a doctor, and Rita, a nurse, eventually settled as Nigerian immigrants to open Hanora Medical Center in 2011. It's also where Oli started a football journey that included the unlikely jump from little Elon (N.C.) University to sixth-round draft pick of the Vikings in 2019.
Rita said more than 50 friends and family members will be at the game. Oli said he landed 35 tickets and still can't quite believe he doesn't need one of them to set foot inside the place his boyhood NFL idol, Cam Newton, used to play.
"I've never been inside that stadium," Oli, 24, said. "The first NFL game I ever went to is the first one I played in."
Udoh talked about this day long ago, according to his older brother, Chiagozie.
"Yeah, Oli had bumps in the road, but he always believed he would be in the NFL," said Chiagozie, a realtor in Charlotte. "Especially in college. He made the NFL his goal and he's living that. It's surreal that he'll be starting against the Panthers."
Looking for a better life
Rita was 18 when her father, Oranekwulu Osakwe, sent her to the United States to get her bachelor's degree in nursing at the Brooklyn campus of the State University of New York.
"Nigeria is a country that even though we all try to succeed in terms of education, what ends up happening is you don't have jobs and you can't progress to where you want to be," Rita said. "I just wanted to have a better life."
Years later, Benjamin, already a doctor in his early 30s, moved to New York from Nigeria. He met Rita. They were married.
"I was born in New Jersey," Oli said. "Lived there for a little bit. Our house got robbed and my parents were like, 'Uh, we really don't like that kind of scene.'"
They moved to Centerville, Ohio, near Dayton. They weren't fans of the Buckeye state.
"Living in New York, New Jersey, it's cold, but they plow the snow," Rita said. "In Ohio, it was cold, but they don't plow the snow."
Carolinas, there they went. Benjamin is the sole practitioner at Hanora Medical Center and sounds like he has a lot more on his plate to worry about than the Panthers' No. 2-ranked defense.
"I work more hours than Oli," Benjamin joked. "I do primary care as well as walk-ins. We're an urgent care as well. That's what keeps us busy Monday to Friday. We love it. It's our baby. We know every patient by name, and we don't leave until we've seen all of them."
Changing Mom's mind
The fear of head injuries caused Benjamin and Rita – especially Rita – to squash Oli's initial desire to play football for Terry Sanford High School. Oli at first appeased Rita by trying basketball, which he hated. So he made another run at Rita.
"I said, 'Mom, I'm 13 and I'm 6-3, 290 pounds,'" Oli said. "I'm not really going to get injured."
Oli played defense his junior year before moving to guard as a senior.
"He was huge," said younger brother Ezemdi, now a tight end at N.C. State. "He would drive-block defensive linemen 50 yards down the field."
It wasn't long before Rita's football fears shifted.
"I turned around from saying they were going to hurt Oli to, 'Oh my gosh, Oli's going to hurt someone,'" Rita says with a laugh. "I had no idea what was going on. Sometimes, I cheer for the wrong team because I think it's our team. But I used to say to Oli, 'You should be easy on those boys.' He'd say, 'Mom, they want us to be hard.'"
Oli laughs at the memory.
"The lessons my mom and dad taught me growing up was, 'Hey, if you ever get in a fight, you can't be the first person to throw the punch,' " Oli said. "I'd say, 'Mom, it's football. I have to strike first in this sport.' "
He did that for four years as Elon's right tackle.
"He was just different," said Elon offensive coordinator Drew Folmar. "You could run power behind him, or he could pull like a guard. His ability at that size was incredible."
Udoh was 384 pounds when he showed up at Elon. "I was sloppy," he said.
His freshman year, he was in the weight room when a scout from an AFC team spotted him. The scout, who was in town to see an older Elon player, told him he'd have an NFL future if he got his weight under control.
He did. Udoh's senior season, Sean Gustus, the Vikings' southeast area scout, put a draftable grade on Udoh. That's saying something since there's only one other Elon player in the NFL — Marcus Willoughby, who's on the Saints' injured reserve list.
Udoh turned heads at the East-West game, where he was coached by Vikings assistant Andrew Janocko. He impressed at the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine, and aced all the Vikings' analytics for psychology, intelligence, character, etc.
Three years later, there's a strong feeling within the Vikings organization that the team finally has found a long-term solution at right guard.
"Oli's a brick house with athleticism," Bradbury said. "I think the line was a little too tentative in Week 1. But we got going. I think when we're rolling, we can be as good as any line in the league."
Oli, who's been to Nigeria multiple times, said he sometimes thinks what might have happened if his parents had met there and stayed. So does Benjamin.
"I came to the United States for the opportunities America has," he said. "The idea was to look for a better place for my future family. And here we are."