His mother had urged him to always have a backup plan, but John Daka was stuck. He’d told her he was going to play in the NFL one day, but now that dream seemed more impossible than inevitable, as far away as Zambia, the homeland he couldn’t really remember.
What could he do? Transferring down a level for the 2018 season, from James Madison to a Division II school, would feel like giving up. Enrolling at another school, without a scholarship to cover his tuition, wouldn’t be fair to his mother. She had already given him so much. Remaining with the Dukes wouldn’t be easy; his relationship with the staff was strained.
“I was just, like, lost,” Daka recalled thinking last week. He texted his high school coach, who’d been gauging schools’ interest in him. He said he was going to stick around at James Madison. It was the right thing to do. It was the hard thing to do. His mother had left home almost two decades earlier in search of a better life for her family. Now he would have to summon her courage, her conviction, to do the same.
“I just bucked up, made a decision and said, ‘I'm going all or nothing. This is the only thing,’ ” Daka said. “Honestly, it was like, at that moment, I was going to be successful or I'm going to die trying. It might sound serious, but that was literally my mindset.”
Two years later, Daka’s vision of American exceptionalism — “I’m going to chase what I love, because my perception of the United States was that you could do that” — has come to life. After a record-breaking career as a Dukes defensive end, Daka signed this month with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent. According to the Zambian Embassy, Daka is the first player from the south-central African country to make it to the NFL.
But Zambia’s place in the sport’s history, like Daka’s path to glory, is more complicated than that.
Fifty years before Daka, there was Howard Mwikuta. Born in 1941 in what was then known as Northern Rhodesia, a British protectorate until its 1964 independence, Mwikuta emerged as a standout soccer player. But in 1970, after three years in American soccer leagues, he joined the Dallas Cowboys as a kicker. The first native-born African to be signed and play in the modern NFL, he was cut before the season started and never played again.
That Daka would follow him all these years later is no surprise. He was an outsider here, too. Daka emigrated from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, with his twin brother, Golden, and mother, Vizzie Wayuma-Okpalobi, when he was 3. (His father is not involved in his life.) They settled in Silver Spring, sharing a cramped two-bedroom home with Daka’s aunt, grandmother and two cousins.
Daka does not remember wanting for much. His one memory of Zambia, hazy but poignant, is of an old, homeless man begging for money on a dirty road, and his family having nothing to spare. In Maryland, life was not perfect. Sometimes bills were overdue and he and his brother had to study by candlelight. But Daka always had a roof over his head and food on his plate.
“You can look back now and say it was a struggle, but at the time, that was better than what you're getting from Lusaka,” he said. “It's an American dream for an African.”
It could also be isolating. Wayuma-Okpalobi knew few other Zambians in Maryland. She had only her family and her career in nursing. Her children grew up speaking English, the official language of Zambia, but they knew little of her local Bantu language. She chuckled when she was asked whether Daka ever sprinkled Nyanja phrases into conversations with her.
In school, Daka was more like his classmates than he was different. He grew to love American foods, fashion and music. His Africanness still made him a target of prejudice. Kids teased him. “So many African jokes,” Daka said. For a year, he was placed in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes despite speaking no other languages but English.
“I couldn’t say ‘yellow,’ but that was the only word,” he said. “I was in a class with people who didn’t know any English, and I’m over here, fluent in English.”
When Daka was in middle school, he moved with his family to Clinton, in Prince George’s County. At Wise High School, he fell hard for football. As a freshman, he didn’t play the sport. As a senior, he was unblockable: a school-record 28 sacks, Washington Post first-team All-Met honors, a Class 4A state championship at M&T Bank Stadium.
Daka ignored Football Bowl Subdivision interest to sign with James Madison. The Virginia school was just a year away from making its first of three appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision final in a four-year span. Daka played in 13 games as a freshman in 2016, then just nine as a sophomore. He was a backup for the first time in his life. His relationship with his position coach soured.
Daka started to feel like he was letting his family down. He acknowledges that he’d been stubborn in pursuing football. His mother was his inspiration, but they’d disagreed on his single-mindedness. In Zambian culture, Daka said, “their view of being successful is either being a doctor or a lawyer.” He wanted to play football, “regardless of if they consider it successful or not, or if they consider it a good or bad idea.”
Daka also didn’t want to burden his family. Finances were tight. Before his twin, Golden, could enroll at Morehouse College, he first had to spend a year at community college. When John considered leaving James Madison, one of his transfer options was a school offering a redshirt year and an athletic scholarship — for the season after. “I couldn’t put that burden on my mom to try to pay for college,” he said. “That was the main goal.”
What came next, he said, was a “physical and a mental and a spiritual transformation, to be honest with you. It was just that moment — I just had to find out exactly who I am, and the only way I found out about it was by my back being against the wall.”
Daka found out he was just like his mother, who worked herself into the job of a nurse manager while raising five children. He was just like Golden, a straight-A student who’d earned a last-minute scholarship to help cover some of the cost of his college tuition. Every day, Daka said, he resolved to do something to “get ahead on somebody.”
It was a holistic approach. If his room was messy, he cleaned it. If his grades weren’t good, he made the extra trips to class. If the Dukes had morning workouts, he added another session at night. If the coaching staff was bringing in a couple of transfers — “I felt like, at that point, they were done with me,” Daka said — he would become a student of the game.
Daka’s talent became undeniable. He had four sacks in the Dukes’ 2018 spring game. That fall, he played in all 13 games, starting eight and leading the conference in sacks (10).
“With him, it was always a competition getting to the passer, because he was so fast,” said defensive lineman Mike Greene, a rising senior at James Madison. “You would almost be there, and then John would come right past you and he'd get to the quarterback. It was just always a competition.”
Daka said his 2018 season was a “warmup.” It was also an invitation for the team’s new staff. When Curt Cignetti was hired that December to replace head coach Mike Houston, who’d left for the same post at East Carolina, he understood the pass rush’s potential. He’d seen flashes of dominance from Daka and Ron’Dell Carter (Long Reach) while coaching at Elon, a conference foe.
So Cignetti and first-year defensive coordinator Cory Heatherman decided they’d turn them loose last season. With a skill set that Cignetti said “you just can’t coach,” Daka led the FCS in sacks (16½) and tackles for loss (28).
In a mid-October game against No. 5 Villanova, maybe the biggest regular-season game of a year that ended in the national championship game, the Dukes trailed early in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats called a running play that called for a tight end to block Daka. That proved unwise. Daka burst upfield as if he were shot out of a cannon, tackled the running back for a 7-yard loss and stripped the ball loose. James Madison recovered the fumble and scored the game’s final 21 points.
“John really could be a game-changer at defensive end,” Cignetti said. “I just can't say enough about the job he did for us this year.”
Daka thought it was enough to get drafted. Some teams told him they had as high as a third-round grade on him. One organization told him he’d be taken in the fifth or sixth round. Then the team drafted another player with one pick and traded away its other one. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” recalled Daka, who had to leave his house and walked around to compose himself.
Other teams offered bigger free-agent deals, Daka said, but he signed with the Ravens in part because they’d been honest about their intentions. They weren’t going to draft him. They still believed he fit their scheme as an outside linebacker, especially at a bulked-up 6 feet 2, 240 pounds. “They’re a perfect opportunity to make the team,” he said. “I feel like it’s there if I do what I’m supposed to do.”
The past month has been an unforgettable milepost in his family’s journey. Daka spends his days working out, studying and participating in team meetings for a Super Bowl favorite. His brother has accepted a postgraduate fellowship and was featured recently in The Washington Post. His mother has been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving her little time to sort through the Facebook messages she receives from old friends and complete strangers asking her about John.
She said she hopes to visit Zambia soon. John wants to join her. He hasn’t traveled to his homeland since his family left as a child. He knows how far he’s come.
And how far he still wants to go.
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“I got a whole nation behind me,” he said. “Just everybody I know, just how much support I have behind me, I’ll be doing a disservice if I don’t go out there and do what I know I could do.”