Even at 48, Victor X, formerly known as Victor Ebubedike, is still in good shape. If you saw him out-and-about in London, dressed in the sharp suit and colorful bow tie synonymous with the Nation of Islam, there would be little doubt you were looking at a serious athlete; you just wouldn't assume that the sport he played was American football.
For all the flirtatious buzz around the United Kingdom and the NFL, X, perhaps its greatest gridiron export, has been largely forgotten. I had no trouble spotting him in the busy West London cafe we'd agreed to meet in, his football player's build clearly standing out in the crowd. I soon found that his imposing stature also served to amplify the already deep timbre of his voice, as he told me with poised erudition of his journey from the muddy pitches of England to the manicured fields of the National Football League.
"It was my sixteenth birthday, and I was up early," X says. "I grew up around Paddington, so I left my house and walked from there through Little Venice, Chinatown, and Soho, then all the way back across to Hyde Park. There, I saw some guys playing American football. I hung around and they asked if I wanted to play. I didn't even know the name of the team, I just joined in and that was it. That's how I spent the rest of my birthday."
X had found his calling. Football would be his life for the next 30 years. "The London Ravens," he says, "were the roots."
The Ravens were the UK's first ever amateur football team and had just begun their 1982 inaugural season. X was a natural. He had the physique, the speed, and the grit, and with him as the lead running back, the Ravens cruised to a 57 game winning streak and four British championships. X's domestic dominance was such that over a three-year period he ran for 66 touchdowns and 3,770 yards, with an average of 8.9 yards per carry.
In 1986, the now defunct football program at Harper College in Chicago gave him his first big break. Coach John Eliasik decided to import English players for his junior college squad on the recommendation of a colleague, whose son who had just spent the summer playing football in London. Eliasik saw untapped potential in the form of the 6'0", 200 lb. X. And after X's first carry at Harper went 70 yards for a score, major programs began to take notice as well. X says he received a scholarship offer from Arkansas, but Eliasik had other plans.
"The coach [Eliasik] had a problem with me coming from England. I should have been going to Arkansas after my first year there, but he wanted me to stay. I was perplexed—if someone is coming over from London and doing very well and the Razorbacks want to give him a scholarship, pay for everything, what's his problem? He was so insistent in not allowing me to go, he had me blacklisted. No colleges would touch me. Coaches at that time had the power to tarnish your reputation and label you a 'problem athlete.'"
He does have another theory as to why he didn't progress further through the college ranks.
"I totally believe if I was born in the States I would have made it. Even though I had the talent... I think there was a prejudice being English. You think everyone is the same. But for them [teammates] to be derogatory, swearing, name calling, I thought that was crass. I even asked one of the coaches, 'Have you even got a passport? No? Well shut up then.' I got in trouble for that. But it was ignorance, absolute ignorance."
X seems more disappointed than angry when he talks about his career in the United States, although it's safe to say that any issues he had with the coaching staff in Chicago weren't entirely due to his nationality, as Harper College would continue to bring in English players for the next four years. Whatever the cause was for X and Eliasik's relationship breaking down, his stint in college was over, and he left Harper after just one season.
X returned to England, and spent the next two years as a shark in the amateur pond, this time commuting 200 miles north to play for the Manchester Spartans. But he still had unfinished business in the US, so when Terry Smith, former NFL player and then-coach of the Spartans, used his contacts to set X up with a New York Jets tryout, he grabbed the second chance with both hands.
"I turned up for mini camp and ran a 4.6 on carpet in socks," he says. "I didn't know what time they wanted but they were happy, so I got a contract and went to training camp. After practice, when people were going into the locker room, I was still running gassers, first one there, last one to leave—because I felt I had to do more. The trainers would ask about my body, 'Where did that come from?' I'd say 'It's from how I eat, and how I think.'"
"I was in the last six of the running backs—they kept five. GM Dick Steinberg liked me a lot, but Coach Bruce Coslet didn't."
Getting cut is the endgame for thousands of prospects, even those with high-powered college resumes, but luckily for X, his dismissal from the Jets in 1990 coincided with the launch of the NFL's World League of of American Football, which later became NFL Europe.
"They wanted me in Canada after the Jets. Saskatchewan. Dick came and told me but I decided to go home, I didn't mind going up there but I felt I made the right decision. I didn't know about the London Monarchs then, but when I came back they said 'Do you want to be the first player signed in the World League?' I said 'OK, let's do it.'"
X was one of four British players on the Monarchs as the team posted a 9-1 record and claimed World Bowl I in 1991. During that season he became the first, and to date, the only, English player to score a touchdown at Wembley Stadium.
In 1995 he changed his name to Victor X. The X is representative of his path through the Nation of Islam, a religion that was vital in forging the discipline that defined his career.
"Getting your X comes from a process of studying," he tells me, "It's a form of achievement. Then the X goes and the X takes over, the holy name."
"All of this [gestures to his body] is nothing without this [gestures to his head]. The most important muscle in the body is the brain. For example, I tell the youngsters to stop taking the protein shakes when all you got to do is eat properly. Why take shortcuts?"
For X, the Nation's strict approach to health proved to be compatible with football. In addition to abstaining from alcohol, he followed elements of the dietary doctrine laid out in Elijah X's How to Eat to Live, an adaptation of which was also used by the religion's most famous athletic son, Muhammad Ali.
"Ask my coaches, 'Did you ever see Victor drink? Did you ever see Victor go out? Did you ever hear Victor curse?' It's not something you can pull out like a card, it's a way of life and it helped me during my career and is still helping me now. It's helped me understand how people think and how people behave. It's helped keep me on the straight and narrow—if most of the players in the NFL were in the Nation, domestic violence and all this other stuff wouldn't be taking place. You could take all that nonsense away because their focus and discipline would be on another level."
His spiritual journey still isn't over, he recently began studying dianetics with the Church of Scientology, and is currently retraining to be an auditor, following current Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's decision to integrate his religion with Scientology in 2010.
Despite the Nation's numerous controversies, X's physical and mental preparation were vital to his success, and are ultimately rooted in his interpretation of its core values.
"You have to be committed, the way you are off the field will help you on the field...I'm very religious. It's the natural order of things to believe in God, we all come from someone."
X played as a backup for the rest of the Monarchs' muted existence, finishing his career with 116 carries, 416 yards and 4 touchdowns. When the team disbanded in 1998, he drifted around Europe playing semi-pro ball, before settling back in the British domestic league, playing his last game in 2013.
It would be easy to dismiss some of what X says as the laments of a man who had some bad breaks and never made it. But according to his coaches, there was nothing apocryphal about his talent. Kippy Brown, who coached him in Jets training camp and is now on the Seahawks staff says X was "just a little green. A fine athlete, who just hadn't played enough football."
His coach in London, Larry Kennan, now head coach of the FCS team at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio said "X was an all-time special teams player; he could have been a special teams guy in the NFL, covering kicks, he was tough and fast and had a good sense of the game."
Meanwhile, his British peers unanimously recognized X as one of the greatest to ever set foot on their fields.
X was the first British skill position player to make a real impact in professional football—not to suggest that kickers don't count (shout out to John Smith), but soccer skills can transfer to the position. Running back? Not so much.
The new fan base in London, millennials who have been attending the International Series for the better part of a decade, have had the luxury of witnessing American football establish itself somewhat in the UK. But it's still worth remembering that before Menelik Watson and Lawrence Okoye, before the Monarchs, before sold out Wembley games, before GamePass and Twitter and NFL UK, before all of that, there was Victor X.
Yet X, who now works as both a coach and firefighter, is not overly concerned with his place in history.
"You know what, if the recognition comes, it comes, if it doesn't, it doesn't. You ask a Tottenham Hotspur fan if they know Walter Tull [the first black soccer player for the club]. They don't know! People forget their history! We were the ones that really made it possible for the game to exist in this country.
"I would definitely like to be involved again in the sport at a higher level. I believe I have something to give back. I can't say I'm upset though. I'm grateful.
"There's a phrase, 'When people make plans, God laughs.' Do you know how your journey is going to turn out? You might have an idea, but that's just from your perspective.
"I could say 'Oh I'm disappointed I didn't make it to play 5 years in the NFL'. But what was meant to happen, happened. Not everyone can say they played at Giants stadium. Not everyone can say they scored a TD at Wembley, the only English person to ever do it. Not everyone can say they played at Legion Field, Soldier Field, that the Barcelona Olympic Stadium was their home stadium. I've accomplished quite a bit. There's nothing to be upset about."