RENTON, Wash. — The Seattle Seahawks‘ headquarters and practice fields could pass for a luxury resort, bald eagles nesting above one far end zone, and the shore of scenic Lake Washington barely the distance of a shanked punt away.
It seems a cushy environment for the kind of player Seahawks general manager John Schneider likes to bring in: guys with a trait he calls “grit.” It’s about a prospect’s capacity to persevere, and whether he has developed a degree of inner steel and determination by living through challenging experiences.
Recently, Schneider has been finding that grit in players born in Africa.
“It’s staying in tune with our philosophy of acquiring players who have had big obstacles to overcome in their lives,” Schneider said. “These are guys who know how to handle adversity.” The theory, shared by head coach Pete Carroll, is that someone who has been through difficulties, or even life-threatening circumstances, is less likely to come unglued when challenged by comparatively trivial hardships on the football field.
Darboh and Odhiambo are part of a growing diaspora of African-born athletes across the NFL. The league’s 2017 media guide lists 16 African-born players starting training camps. Nigeria leads with seven players.
Darboh (Michigan) and Odhiambo (Boise State) were third-round draft picks for the Seahawks in 2017 and 2016, respectively. In 2015, Seattle used a sixth-round pick on Oregon State defensive end Obum Gwacham (a Nigerian-born lineman now with the New Orleans Saints).
Tackle Germain Ifedi, the Seahawks’ first-round draft pick in 2016, was born in America as the son of immigrants from Nigeria. Their work ethic, Ifedi said, has been an inspiration for him every day in the NFL. And he can see those qualities in teammates Odhiambo and Darboh, too.
“One thing I do know about Africans, as a whole, we’re grateful for the opportunity [to be in the NFL],” Ifedi said. “[They’re] some of the hardest-working guys you’ll ever see. You really appreciate how hard they work.”
“Both Rees and Amara have had a rough go,” Schneider said. “That gives guys another level of maturity, coming to a different country, [both lost their] folks. They’ve made it through a lot in their lives.”
When asked to recount the path that brought him from impoverished Sierra Leone, Amara Darboh politely steered an interview from the civil war that cost the lives of an estimated 50,000 — including his parents.
“Right now, I’m in the moment,” Darboh said recently after a Seahawks practice. “There are goals I haven’t reached, things I have yet to accomplish. And I’m driven to be the best.”
Darboh has more than just an interesting backstory. He led Michigan in receptions last season, and has all the size (6-2, 214 pounds) and speed (4.45 in the 40) to give him a strong chance to make the team. After the Seahawks drafted him, Carroll cited Darboh’s impressive drive and tenacity. “The guy has such a great story; he went through a lot,” Carroll said. “He just came through as such an amazing kid. That tells you a lot about a guy.”
Darboh’s family walked from Sierra Leone to Gambia and finally to Senegal, a distance estimated at more than 400 miles, where a charitable group arranged for their relocation near Des Moines, Iowa. He doesn’t downplay the experience, but doesn’t want his family to have to relive it with every publicized iteration.
“I was so young  when I went through it, I don’t remember much,” Darboh said. “I want to respect my family and their part of it. I know the media wants to use it to inspire others, but I also know it brings back memories for my family, and I don’t like to put them through that.”
His assimilation to Iowa quickened when Darboh made friends with youth-sports teammate Max Schaefer. Eventually, he was adopted by the Schaefer family.
“It’s a really inspiring story, but it’s a really sensitive and private matter for them,” adoptive father Dan Schaefer said. “They don’t want people to feel sorry for them, or think they’re trying to get attention. I just know they went through a lot and they took good care of each other through quite a bit.”
Seahawks rookie safety Delano Hill was a Michigan teammate of Darboh’s. “He’s so humble and quiet, but he’s my guy,” Hill said. “He knows where he’s from and still has that strong family connection.”
Darboh’s maturity and giving nature were contagious at Michigan. “He’s all about helping others,” Hill said. “You can really tell he’s been through something in life that shaped him well. He’s helped me a lot, by how he acts. He’s somebody who is very, very appreciative of everything he gets.”
At age 7, Rees Odhiambo moved with his mother from Nairobi, Kenya, to a suburb of Dallas. His father had died in Kenya, and his mother, Evelyn, came to America on a student visa. Evelyn lived only 10 more years, succumbing to a brain disease at age 38. But she left Rees something he uses every day — the knowledge of how hard she worked to provide a life for her family.
“She just kept working hard, telling me that things would work out,” Odhiambo said. “She would work 12-hour shifts [at a Texas Instruments plant] while she was going to school, taking 16 to 18 credit hours. She always got her job done and she always had a smile on her face.” Evelyn Odhiambo brought to America her goal of becoming a pharmacist.
“She graduated at the top of her class in chemistry,” Odhiambo said. She never got to see him accept his scholarship and play at Boise State. But he honored her with his own academic discipline. He majored in exercise science and for three seasons was named to the Mountain West Conference All-Academic team.
Chris Peterson, Odhiambo’s coach at Boise State, now leads the University of Washington. Before drafting Odhiambo, Schneider asked for a scouting report from Peterson.
“Coach Peterson cares about kids as people first, more than as prospects,” Schneider said. “And he told me several times that Rees was really one of the top guys because of his intelligence and his make-up and that perseverance of getting through all the things he went through.”
With his mother’s passing, Odhiambo became even more involved in his role as big brother to his younger sister, Evette, who studies biological chemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“That, alone, shows a lot of maturity,” Schneider said.
When a season-ending knee injury sidelined George Fant in the preseason, Odhiambo earned his shot at the starting left tackle position.
In 2015, Darboh became an American citizen. In preparation for his test, he studied the principles of democracy, and the rights and civic responsibilities of citizens. After he took the oath of citizenship, and finished waving the small American flag he had been given, he was asked what the best part of being a citizen would be.
“Voting,” he said. “I always felt I was a citizen, but this was the last step to getting my full voting rights and being able to have my opinion voiced.”
Asked about the immigration issues in the news, Amara answered like someone freshly versed in the Constitution. “I was fortunate that my family was able to immigrate here from Africa, and I would want the same opportunities for other people,” he said.
But then he added, “Everyone has their own opinion, and I’m not going to judge anyone on their choices. They have that right. That’s America.”
Schneider didn’t hesitate when asked if he saw a future for more African-born players in the NFL. “Oh, absolutely, for sure,” he said. “I personally believe in some sort of developmental league, something like we had with NFL Europe, but on a larger scale where it’s a league in and of itself, or an academy where people can go and refine their skills.”
The notion has been considered by league executives, he said, but the expense is an issue. The World League and its successor, NFL Europe, were backed by the NFL. NFL Europe folded in 2007.
This season, the NFL is testing a new International Player Pathway program. The four teams in the NFC South have been given an exemption for an overseas player to serve as an 11th practice squad member. He would be ineligible for activation during the season, but would get a full season of experience in NFL practices.
“Most guys are really good soccer players,” Odhiambo said of the African athletes he knew. “They could have speed and agility, but they’re only thinking about running and kicking the ball. Most kids don’t lift [weights] because power is not that important.”
The power of will is, though.
“When you come into an environment like [the NFL], there’s another level of maturity that has to develop,” Schneider said. “But when you think of guys who have had those things to overcome when they were young, that’s already a kind of maturity that can make them special.”