Godwin Igwebuike shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be on an NFL roster, playing a significant role for playoff contender.
It's not that Igwebuike hasn't worked hard to get here—he most definitely has—and it's not that he isn't talented. It's just that, in the NFL, players don't take his path and end up where he is now, having just earned a promotion from the Seahawks' practice squad to the 53-man roster after proving himself to be a valuable contributor on special teams over the past three games when he was elevated from the practice squad.
Undrafted out of Northwestern in 2018, Igwebuike began his rookie season as a safety on Tampa Bay's practice squad, eventually earning a promotion to the 53-man roster for one game before getting waived. He then caught on with the 49ers and played five more games, all in all not a bad opening campaign for an undrafted rookie.
Igwebuike's time with the 49ers came to an end the following April as San Francisco made room on their roster for that year's draft class, and he quickly found a new home when he was claimed off waivers by the Eagles. The Eagles waived Igwebuike in early August with the Jets claiming him, then the Jets released him as part of their roster cuts before the start of the 2019 regular season.
And that's when Igwebuike's phone stopped ringing. He kept in shape and kept believing his next shot was right around the corner—after all, you don't get claimed by three teams on waivers if there's not some intriguing talent there—but the 2019 season came and went without so much as a shot to prove himself on a practice squad.
Realizing his football dreams were on life support, Igwebuike decided to give it a go in the rebooted version of the XFL in 2020, landing with the Seattle Dragons where he played home games at Lumen Field, sharing the dream with teammates of someday playing on that field for an NFL team.
"I didn't get any smoke from any teams all of the 2019 season, so I was like, 'Shoot, it looks like my only shot is to try to make a splash in the XFL and maybe get some attention,'" Igwebuike said. "… It was a crazy experience. We got to play in the Seahawks' stadium, and we were like, 'How cool would it be to play here? I wonder if any coaches are watching?' I don't know if they were or not, they probably had their own things going on, but to be able to carry that on now and be on this squad and representing all my boys trying to make a dream out of nothing, it's definitely a blessing for sure."
That crazy experience in the XFL didn't last long with COVID-19 shutting the league down midway through its first season, and the pandemic also eliminated offseason workouts, erasing his best shot to get a foot in the door with an NFL team.
"2020 I was expecting to go straight into a minicamp or get an invite, but when COVID hit, obviously that all got cancelled, so it definitely went dark for a lot of guys in my position," he said.
As Igwebuike illustrates in “The Long Way,” a short documentary he released on YouTube earlier this year, this is when conventional wisdom said his NFL dream probably should have died. Undrafted players almost never come back from being out of the league an entire season, and even if they somehow get a tryout or an offseason spot on the 90-man roster, finding their way back to a 53-man roster, as Igwebuike did this week, is the longest of long shots. Things only got worse in 2020 when a couple of tryouts, including ones with the Lions and Packers, did not lead to anything.
"I was trying to figure out if I was going to hang the cleats up, really, but I just had a conviction that if I kept going, the lord would honor that, and by God's grace, Detroit ended up signing me," he said.
The Lions came calling after the 2020 season ended, signing him to a future contract in January of 2021, an opportunity he knew came with zero guarantees beyond the day he was living. At that point Igwebuike had gone more than 500 days between stints on an NFL roster, and as he experienced in 2019 with the 49ers, fringe players can get released before they've even set foot on a field to show what they can do in offseason workouts.
But Igwebuike stuck around long enough with the Lions to get to training camp, and then a conversation with then offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn changed the course of his career. Lynn, who had seen Igwebuike with the ball in his hands for a few drills in offseason workouts, was intrigued by the safety's elusiveness and asked if he'd ever played running back. Igwebuike said he had in high school, and even sent Lynn his high school recruiting tape on Hudl, and a couple weeks before camp, Lynn informed the safety that he was now a running back.
Igwebuike not only made the Lions roster out of camp, he went on to appear in all 17 games, rushing for 118 yards on 18 carries while also playing a big role on special teams, including kick return duties.
Prior to getting the call in January of 2021, Igwebuike had moved back home to Pickerington, Ohio, and, having earned his real estate license in Ohio, was working with his mom, a realtor for three decades, on flipping some houses.
"It was pretty dry at that point," he said. "I did a tryout with (Detroit) in October, I think it was… The end of January is when they hit me up… But at that point, it's like, draft coming up. I've been a guy who gets signed, draft comes up, they let you go. So every day I was in that building that whole spring, I was like, 'Thank you lord, one more day.'"
Igwebuike's 2021 season in Detroit didn't lead to long-term employment with the Lions, but it did get him on the radar of more teams, including Seattle, though he did have to wait nearly a month after the Lions waived him to join Seattle's practice squad in late September.
"I put enough on tape last year, I'm like, 'Somebody's got to holler at your boy,'" he said. "I was at the crib like, 'Damn, I didn't do nothing last year?' So it was cool to at least get a shot."
Cooler than that getting that shot has been what Igwebuike has done with it. He initially signed with Seattle to provide running back depth with Travis Homer injured, then was released from the practice squad when Homer got healthy. The Seahawks told him to stay ready, and they meant it, bringing Igwebuike back to the practice squad in early November.
"They did say that they really liked me, and I could be back," he said. "I've heard that before. I will say, I still ain't heard back from that team, so you take everything with a grain of salt in this league, but I think that says a lot about the character of this front office and our coaches. They mean what they say. I definitely stayed ready and waited for the opportunity to come back, and when they called me for sure I was excited."
Igwebuike didn't have to wait long for his opportunity to show what he could do in game action during his second stint on Seattle's practice squad. With the Seahawks dealing with multiple injuries at running back, they needed depth, and with DeeJay Dallas and Dee Eskridge both injured, they needed a kickoff returner. Igwebuike was elevated off the practice squad for Seattle's Week 14 game against the Panthers, and in his Seahawks debut he had returns of 50 yards and 35 yards, giving the offense short fields it would turn into 10 points. He added a 48-yard return last week in Kansas City, and after three games returning kicks and handling multiple other roles on special teams, Igwebuike earned his spot on the 53-man roster.
"He earned it so obviously," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He has been such a factor in the kicking game, and not just in the returns, but other aspects also. It's a really good story. He is hardnosed, tough, and was ready for it and fired up about it too. He just wants to help us, so it's a great story."
Igwebuike doesn't know what will be next for him with the Seahawks or in his football career, but for now he's just appreciating that his journey has brought him this far, no matter how unlikely that might have seemed after two seasons out of the league.
"I'm still in awe," he said Wednesday, two days after being signed to the 53-man roster. "It has definitely been an incredible blessing."