"Our source was the New York Times."
Umenyiora Looks Beyond Next Sack, Wondering What It All Means
By SAM BORDEN
Published: October 13, 2012
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — One day last week, the Giants’ defensive linemen were discussing money in their meeting room at the team’s training center. Several players had watched a television documentary about seemingly flush athletes going broke after their careers ended, and a casual conversation quickly turned more passionate.
At one point, defensive tackle Marvin Austin recalled, it was as if Osi Umenyiora were in church. Umenyiora, a veteran defensive end, was confessor and preacher — first telling his teammates about all the mistakes he had made over the years, then imploring them to listen closely so they would never suffer the same fate. Umenyiora locked eyes with Austin, a third-year player, to emphasize his point; he turned to be sure the young star Jason Pierre-Paul could hear him.
To outsiders, the scene would appear incongruous. Justin Tuck, the unit’s captain, is the talker on defense. Chris Canty has a raw, unfiltered side to him, too. They are the emotional souls of the line. Umenyiora, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and All-Pro pass rusher, is supposed to be the sullen one, the standoffish one. He is the one who has continually engaged the team in contract disputes the past few seasons — to the point that, by his own account, he became known to fans as “the guy on the stationary bike” because that is how he often spent training camp workouts.
But this label, it seems, is lacking. Countless athletes have said they are misunderstood, generally as a way to explain mistakes, and several Giants even used that word to describe Umenyiora. The difference is that Umenyiora never did.
“It isn’t misunderstood,” he said in a rare extended interview here, drawing out his words. “That’s too easy. I think, maybe, it’s just — incomplete.”
In some ways, that mystery is by design. Umenyiora’s reticence with the public and the news media is not by accident. While Tuck and quarterback Eli Manning readily make themselves available in the locker room, Umenyiora generally stays away. Typically, he speaks to reporters once a week (on Fridays, when fewer are present) and when he does, he rarely ventures beyond the mundane.
“Look, it took me a whole year to get to know the guy,” Canty said. “When I first met him, I couldn’t stand him. I’ll admit that. But what people don’t realize is that he is incredibly smart, incredibly thoughtful and one of the most interesting people you could ever meet.”
Canty laughed, adding, “You just have to get him to talk to you.”
Umenyiora readily acknowledges his aversion to the spotlight.
“I won’t lie to you,” he said. “I’ve wished that I wasn’t in such a big market, that I could have just gone about my business and played football and been in a small corner somewhere where nobody knows anything.”
Yet his reticence is more philosophical.
Umenyiora spent his childhood in London and in his native Nigeria, then moved to the United States as a teenager. He did not play football until 11th grade, then earned a business degree from Troy University in Alabama, and developed an abiding appreciation for history, politics and religion. He recently finished reading the Bible and started the Koran. Tuck revealed that he and Umenyiora were in the midst of a long-running discussion comparing Clinton-era economics with the policies of President Obama.
Quite simply, Umenyiora said, he does not understand all the fuss about the N.F.L.
“That’s the thing,” he said, pointing two fingers at his own body. “Look at what I do. I put on tights and go out there and try to hit someone. It’s hard, but is it really important? Does it matter? Why should we get any attention at all?”
He was not being modest or feigning humility, but simply asking a question. Umenyiora will often raise broader points about a subject, regardless of how universally accepted it is, said Adewale Ogunleye, who retired from the N.F.L. in 2010 and is one of Umenyiora’s closest friends.
The two once spent an inordinate amount of time, Ogunleye said, debating the merits of flying first class when an exit-row seat offered the same leg room. Umenyiora, Ogunleye recalled, was trying to be sure that Ogunleye found some value in the first-class seat as opposed to simply wanting it because he thought that is where a professional athlete should sit.
“He just doesn’t accept things because they are what everyone else accepts,” Ogunleye said. “He needs to see the reason behind it. He needs to think about it.”
Along those lines, Ogunleye added that Umenyiora was seemingly immune to fads and trends. When a visitor recently chided Umenyiora for still having a BlackBerry in a locker room full of iPhones and Androids, he said defiantly: “I really love this thing. Why change?” Umenyiora also avoids designer clothes. He frequently wears dark gray Crocs sandals to and from team headquarters (to complement his gray sweat pants) and once, when Ogunleye and Umenyiora went out for a night on the town with friends, Umenyiora showed up in full Nigerian dress. Their companions were surprised, but “that’s just what he does,” Ogunleye said.
“He wears what he wants even if some people thought it was like something out of ‘Coming to America,’ ” Ogunleye added. “He doesn’t care.”
When Umenyiora bows to public pressure, it rarely goes well. He recently gave in and began reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” (“It was like you couldn’t get away from people talking about it,” he said) but quit after just a few pages because “the writing was just so cheesy I was like, ‘Come on man, you can’t do this.’ ”He added, “I didn’t even get to the good parts.”
Lately, Umenyiora has found himself thinking of the future more. He will be 31 next month. He has struggled along with the rest of the defensive line over the Giants’ first five games, and he is not signed beyond this season.
The notion that he is nearing the end of his career has changed his perspective. That was part of the motivation for his talk in the meeting room, he said, and he acknowledged that he now viewed his contract battles with the Giants differently.
The disputes — which involved public posturing by each side, occasional name-calling, aborted trade attempts and a holdout, among other tactics — dragged on acrimoniously. And when they finally ended, Umenyiora repeatedly said he had no regrets, even though he ultimately secured little in terms of money.
Now, though, his opinion has changed. He recalled a moment after the Giants won the Super Bowl last February, when a reporter approached him in the midst of the giddy celebration and wanted to know how he felt about his contract. Umenyiora’s face fell.
“It was like a cloud hanging over me,” he said. “It was terrible. It felt like it would never go away.
“Of course I regret it,” Umenyiora added. “Because nothing was really accomplished out of it. I didn’t really gain anything. The extra money I’m making this year? Even 10 times that wasn’t worth what I had to endure.”
He laughed. “I have a business degree, but I’m not a good businessman — you could tell that through everything I do,” he said. “That contract stuff — that was the worst thing I ever could have done.”
That is what Umenyiora told the other defensive linemen, he said, using those exact words. He believed in the principle that N.F.L. teams cut players in the middle of contracts, so players should be free to renegotiate as well, but he “never imagined it would get so ugly.”
It was hard to acknowledge his errors, Umenyiora said, but he is changing. Lately he has talked more about family, particularly with Tuck and Ogunleye. Umenyiora “has dated the most attractive women on the face of the Earth,” Ogunleye said, and has a 5-year-old son, Tijani, whom he wishes he saw even more than he does. But he has never married, choosing instead to “run around,” as he described it.
For a long time, Umenyiora said, he believed he might never get married. His parents divorced when he was an infant and that made him “not very easy to love,” he said. He almost never discusses his home life.
But for a moment, he opened up. “Your mother? Your family?” he said. “That’s how you learn to love. I used to think I didn’t need that, but now I know I do. I want that love someday, too.”
He smiled then, not sullen or surly or sour at all. Umenyiora’s public image may never fully recover from the arrows of the past few off-seasons, but that does not mean he should be defined by it. He made sure to remind his teammates of that in the meeting room, too.
“I told them, ‘It takes a genius to learn from other people’s mistakes,’ ” he said. “It’s true. Most people, they have to learn from their own.”