A few minutes after the clock struck midnight on his 23rd birthday, Moses Odubajo was woken by a pain so severe it seemed to judder in his bones, each jolt singeing his nerve-endings like blown fuses. He had only returned home from the hospital a few hours earlier, but the post-operative morphine had worn off and no amount of painkillers would suppress the throbbing in his knee. When he tried to go back to sleep, it banged like a drum in his ears. If he tried to stand up, manoeuvring his braced leg and clawing for the crutches at his bedside, the agony amplified into a shriek. “I was close to tears. I just wanted to say forget this and go somewhere and not come back,” he says. “It felt like it would never end. It was like a tunnel you never get out of.”
The pangs eventually subsided, but it was far longer before the anguish stopped. Back then, in the summer of 2016, Odubajo had been a key figure in Hull City’s promotion, a rising star who’d been capped by England’s U20s and seemed destined to become a staple of the Premier League. But the knee injury he suffered during pre-season would ultimately keep him off the pitch for over two years, his body betraying him after excruciating months spent rebuilding it, a cycle of torment and turmoil told in the four surgical scars that run down his leg. “I saw so many specialists but nobody could tell me why the reoccurrence kept happening,” he says. “It happened over and over again and it starts to eat inside of you. All these things start to come into your head. You blame yourself or keep ask why me? It messes you up. It changed how I was as a person and, when I look back at it, I was probably depressed.”
Odubajo’s career might not have regained the same trajectory, his momentum hollowed by misfortune, but it is certainly back on a positive track. After finally completing his comeback, he spent a year at Brentford before joining Sheffield Wednesday, where he endured two torrid seasons as managers came and went and the club succumbed to an arresting negative spiral. But after proving his fitness on trial at QPR this summer, where he’s reunited with head coach Mark Warburton, Odubajo has embraced a new beginning and been integral to the club’s bright start in the Championship.
The true reason Odubajo has been able to turn a page, though, is not because of his fitness. In fact, it’s hardly about football at all. Amid those two years suffering on the periphery, when he had no choice but to sit and reflect and the pensiveness acted like poison to his mind, the emotions he had bottled up ever since he was a teenager began to seep out. And long after he was playing regularly again, they remained impossible to stem, a scar in his subconscious that rose to the surface and began to inflict fresh tears on his relationships and life at home. Eventually, Odubajo decided to seek out help and spoke to a therapist in London. “I didn’t realise things that had happened when I was a kid could still be affecting me,” he says. “It became about pulling back the layers to get to the deeper issue.”
From that point onwards, Odubajo began to process the emotions and confront the tragedy that had underlined his childhood. Raised on a rough estate in Greenwich, he was only 13-years-old when his mother passed away after contracting malaria on a short work trip in Ghana. “I was in a state of shock for a long time,” he says. “I kept thinking it was some sort of joke, that she was still going to come back. I stopped going to school for a bit and I stopped playing football completely. It was just me and my two older brothers and we didn’t really like to open up to one another or use each other as a shoulder to cry on. We just put our trainers on and got on with it.
“I was living a different life to most kids. We were under the radar with the authorities. Years later, my mum was still getting letters through the door. We were living off a child support allowance that our stepdad would bring to us every now and again and we’d use it to buy some corned beef, sweetcorn and rice. There were times when the electric would run out but we’d just laugh about it. We went to our friends’ houses and they’d tell us to shower there. We just found a way to adapt, it was survival instincts. There wasn’t time to sit around and blame someone, we just got on with it.
“Then my eldest brother went to prison, so it was just me and my middle brother left. I didn’t even know Idris had been to prison for like three months. He was 17 or 18 and he took a lot of the weight on his shoulders when my mum passed away. He felt like he needed to step up and provide. He was coming and going and then he just stopped coming. I got a letter through the post one day and it was addressed to me and I saw it had an H.M.P stamp. At first, I thought the Queen had written to me,” Odubajo says and pauses for a second, laughing at his innocence.
“I realised it said Belmarsh. I didn’t know what that was. I read the letter and it didn’t even feel real. I spoke to Idris through letters for the majority of two years. Through those, we learnt a lot more about each other and I understood why he was there. It’s strange to look back on that because he’s changed so much. He’s doing amazing, where he is in life, and it’s a credit to him. I think that stems from the values my mum instilled in us.”
For years, Odubajo swept the trauma under a carpet, channelling all his energy back into football, using his next-door neighbour’s Oyster Card to travel for trials before earning a scholarship contract at Leyton Orient. His mum had always taught him and his brothers to never give up, “no matter how down and out you are or if you’re the only ethnic minority in the room”.
“Even when I speak about it now, I don’t even feel like I lived it,” he says. “It feels like imposter syndrome, like I’m watching someone else’s story.” But when football was taken away, the survival instincts that had sustained him as a teenager couldn’t protect him any longer. The injury acted as a final straw, cracking the years of unimaginable resilience, and pushed him towards a breaking point. “And then the carpet overflows and things come out everywhere.”
Odubajo is happy to speak about what he endured now, the therapy having helped to alleviate many of those built-up burdens. “I’m still not that much of an emotional person, but I feel more in touch with them than I ever have,” he says, and the pieces of his life which were beginning to fragment are safely back together. He wants to be open and honest about it, “as a human and an athlete,” so people can have a better understanding of what anyone could be facing at a certain time in their lives. “I feel like it’s something we need to do more of,” he says.
This is not a new version of himself or one that’s separated from his past. He has just found a way of recognising the hidden feelings that had dominated part of his life, and it’s given him a new sense of perspective, too. He’s healthy, mentally and physically, and “that’s my happiness”, he says, with a warm smile. “For me to even be back playing in a good Championship team is already a credit in itself. It shows how strong a person I am. There’s so much to be proud of for myself and my family. As a young boy playing in the estate, I never thought I’d have a playoff final medal or play alongside internationals. I never thought I’d represent my country at U20 level or play in big stadiums week in, week out.”
There is one point Odubajo wants to stress, though, because it’s been the story of his being and the backbone of his survival, never more so than when his life was railroaded by tragedy or the ligaments in his knee kept giving way. “I want to keep pushing on and striving for greatness,” he says. “I’m never going to give up, even when times are tough. I’m always going to keep going. It’s great to have those things in the locker, but I want more. I want more.”