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Mama, Rotimi thrive in Week 1 after tough journeys

New York Guardians OG Damien Mama

Guardians OG Damien Mama (77) on the field during New York's Week 1 victory (23-3) over the Tampa Bay Vipers on Sunday

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On opposite ends of the New York Guardians locker room at MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon, the two widest smiles in all of New Jersey belonged to an offensive guard and a defensive end who took vastly different paths to this point.

In one corner stood Damien Mama, the hulking 6-foot-3, 324-pound center out of USC, arms as big as Christmas hams, once considered among the most coveted football prospects in the country.

Despite clocking in at somewhere north of 370 pounds, Mama was the pride of the Trojans' 2015 recruiting class, the consensus top-ranked offensive guard in the nation. He was destined for fortune.

It was not his fault he arrived at USC in the midst of tumult and upheaval. 

"In the NFL, they don't have time to coach you. You have to be there to contribute. That's where I lacked. Through college, three different offensive line coaches. I didn't have that stable ground, that base of good work."

Guardians G Damien Mama

The year before his freshman season, the once-consistent Trojans had three head coaches: Lake Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton. They gave way to Steve Sarkisian, who lasted all of Mama's first year and some of his second before ceding the job to Helton, who then became full-time head coach in Mama's third season.

You go to a place like USC to get NFL-ready, but Mama was busy stuck learning new terminology every year. After a second-team All-Pac-12 showing in his junior year in 2016, Mama opted for the NFL Draft but went un-selected.

He hooked on quickly with the Kansas City Chiefs, earning a spot on their practice squad, before being signed away by the New York Giants in December 2017. He was waived the next May and signed with the Dallas Cowboys, who cut him Sept. 1.

"In the NFL, they don't have time to coach you,” Mama said. “You have to be there to contribute. That's where I lacked. Through college, three different offensive line coaches. I didn't have that stable ground, that base of good work."

After playing with the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football last year and heading to the Los Angeles Wildcats in October's XFL Draft, Mama was traded to the Guardians on Jan. 21.

Less than three weeks later, he stood at his locker at MetLife Stadium and grinned wider than his considerable shoulders.

“This is the third league I've played in; third time's the charm, right?" Mama said. "It's kind of like, make it work. The last two times, I was just trying to get by. That doesn't help you. This time around, it kind of flipped a switch, like this career might not be for you. Unless you want it. This is a different spectrum of how I think, how I approach things."

The road less traveled

Across the locker room, Bunmi Rotimi nodded and laughed along with his fellow defensive lineman.

He’d spent the afternoon hounding the Tampa Bay Vipers in a 23-3 win and pestering Vipers quarterbacks Aaron Murray, a former Georgia star who's the SEC's all-time leader in many categories, and the electric Quinton Flowers.

Unlike Mama, the USC prodigy, and Murray, the Bulldogs icon, Rotimi doesn’t have quite the same pedigree. He played for Old Dominion, emerging as a role player as a freshman and a starter by his sophomore year for the Monarchs.

After standout junior and senior season, both in which he was named all-league honorable mention, he went undrafted in 2018 but signed as a free agent with the Chicago Bears. He was waived months later.

Yet on Sunday, he looked like the best player on the field, finishing with a game-high nine tackles, including seven solo, with one sack, two quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

It was, as they say on nearby Broadway, a smashing debut.

And for Rotimi, a long time coming.

“This is a step in the right direction,” he said after the game, grinning like the Cheshire cat. “This is an opportunity all of us are trying to take advantage of, and getting this W, everyone putting on their best performance and having all hard work show up, I don't even know how to describe the feeling. It hasn't hit yet. Happy. Happy is the best word I can give you. I get to go home and sleep good tonight.”

ONE MORE CHANCE

Like Mama, Rotimi wasn’t sure if this day would ever come. He was ready to say goodbye to football, if it intended on pushing him out the door.

Mama, who was traded cross-country away from his home town, was ready to hang them up.

"I had real thoughts of stepping away from football getting traded out here," he said. "God works in mysterious ways. Definitely. It's really coming full circle for me. The last opportunity I had in New York, I didn't feel like I was contributing to the team. I was part of the team but I didn't feel like I was contributing on the field. It's really cool to come back to MetLife and to be able to compete again. It's a blessing, man."

Mama said that if it looked like the Guardians were playing with a sense of urgency on Sunday, it’s because they were.

"Just like the XFL wants to hurry up, we feel that urgency, too,” he said. “Those bonus checks don't come if you lose a game. That's enough of a kick in the rear end. It's kind of a cool thing. We're all in the same situation, we're all working toward playing quality football, getting those good reps, getting that good film."

In the egalitarian XFL locker rooms, Rotimi said, “Everyone has their story, everyone has what they've been through.

“So for us, this is monumental,” he said. “I know a lot of guys have the stories of how they’re still trying to keep their football dreams alive. They’re working a job that’s not playing much, trying to keep the dream alive. The XFL mantra is For The Love of Football, and a lot of guys just love playing this sport. A lot of guys are having fun playing football here. You almost -- not forget -- but, there's not as much pressure as the NFL might give you.”

With that, the interview was over, and Rotimi exhaled. Finally, time to rest. He slid back in his chair and smiled.

Across the locker room, Mama was putting on his clothes, still smiling too.