‘Freakish athlete’ Obum Gwacham hopes to sack spot with Jets
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Obum Gwacham wanted to catch footballs from the time he started playing the sport.
Now, the New York Jets linebacker is chasing after the guys who are throwing them.
“You can also catch the ball on defense, too,” Gwacham said with a big smile. “So if I’m able to do that, I would not be mad at all.”
Gwacham — oh-BOOM GWAH-chum — enters the team’s final preseason game Thursday night at Philadelphia hoping to make an impression on Todd Bowles. He’s among several sitting squarely on the roster bubble, but has flashed the type of speed and athleticism that make him an intriguing player.
“They want to see an outside linebacker that can power rush, that can speed rush and can do all those things,” Gwacham said. “They know that I can do that.”
The 27-year-old Gwacham has two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit, along with a special teams tackle in the preseason. He’s facing tough competition at the outside linebacker position, with Brandon Copeland, Frankie Luvu, Dylan Donahue, Lorenzo Mauldin and David Bass all jockeying for spots behind projected starters Jordan Jenkins and Josh Martin.
Gwacham is also still learning the nuances of playing defense after spending most of his college career at Oregon State as a wide receiver. He didn’t play defense regularly until his senior season.
“I’ve been trying to work on getting tackles’ hands off me as soon as I can, so I can turn that edge faster and get to the quarterback,” he said. “I just want to get around the edge as fast as I can.”
Gwacham is certainly used to finding different paths to achieve his goals.
He was born in Onitsha, Nigeria, and spent his early years in a high-rise in Lagos, where his mother Caroline owned a jewelry store. She and her husband Edwin raised five children — two boys, including Obum, and three girls — while trying to provide them a solid life.
“I remember school, and I had to be trilingual,” Gwacham recalled. “I had to know English, French and Igbo. My sister is planning to get married in Nigeria next year. She sent out some pictures of our old house and a lot of memories came back. I remember our auntie cooking for us when my mom was working and I remember us acting a fool in the house when I was younger.”
Gwacham — whose name means “Son of God” — was just 7 when his family packed up and headed to the United States with hopes for a brighter future.
They had won a visa lottery, which allowed them to emigrate to the U.S. The family lived with relatives in southern California before settling in their own place in Chino Hills. Sports became a bonding activity.
Gwacham played soccer and learned about football, basketball and track from his older cousins and siblings. By the time he got to high school, he was already an outstanding athlete. And, his mom finally allowed him to play football.
“I felt as though I was a little different from the other kids,” Gwacham said. “I was a little bit taller, a little bit faster than them.”
He played wide receiver and cornerback at Ayala High School. The 6-foot-5 Gwacham also excelled in track, where he ranked among California’s best athletes in the high jump, triple jump and long jump.
That’s how he first drew the attention of Joe Seumalo, then the defensive line coach at Oregon State.
“The thing that always intrigued me about Obum was his 6-foot-10 high jump,” said Seumalo, now the D-line coach at San Jose State. “I knew that validated the fact that he was explosive, a very freakish athlete. When we recruited him, I was able to get on the table and convince people that, yeah, this kid is raw, but he was 6-5, 220.”
Gwacham visited Oregon State’s campus in Corvallis and fell in love with the school. He joined the football and track teams, and continued to impress with his athleticism in both sports.
“I was probably the heaviest high jumper because at the time, I was about 225, 230, and going up against guys who were 160, 170 or so,” said a smiling Gwacham, now listed at 246.
In football, Gwacham insisted on playing wide receiver, despite Seumalo urging the youngster to play defense.
He was buried on the depth chart, though, behind the likes of Brandin Cooks and Richard Mullaney and saw little action. Gwacham played frequently on special teams, though.
Entering his senior season in 2014, he finally agreed to take Seumalo’s advice and switched to defensive end.
“I told him, ‘Boom, I just need you to run. I need you to run by or through somebody. And, you just need to go,’” Seumalo said. “And, that’s what he did.”
Gwacham finished tied for third on the team with four sacks and had 27 tackles as a top backup. It was also enough to get him an invitation to the NFL combine.
He was drafted in the sixth round by Seattle in 2015, and claimed by New Orleans off waivers later that season. Gwacham had 2½ sacks for the Saints in nine games as a rookie, but was hurt most of the 2016 season.
He was among New Orleans’ final cuts last September and was signed to Arizona’s practice squad, from where he was plucked by the Jets last October.
Gwacham had two tackles on defense and two on special teams in five games with New York. Now, he hopes to stick by catching quarterbacks.
“Once you’re in the NFL, you’ve got to find a way to stand out from everyone else,” Gwacham said. “It helps to be a little bit explosive. If I’m able to get a good turn off the edge and I feel the quarterback about to throw, I can try to anticipate and jump and swat the ball. Whatever I can do.”