Although Head Coach Raheem Morris often jokingly refers to him in press conferences as "Madu Mossis," Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie running back Mossis Madu is doing his best to make a name for himself in the NFL.
His real name, that is.
Madu joined the Bucs as an undrafted rookie free agent out of the University of Oklahoma this past offseason and worked his way from the practice squad onto the active roster when Earnest Graham was lost for the season due to injury.
Although Madu has overcome long odds and has been contributing down the stretch, his path to Tampa has actually been even more improbable than you might first suspect.
Madu, a native of Norman, Oklahoma, originally planned to play anywhere else after high school except the hometown university.
"I hated OU growing up," Madu said with a laugh. "I couldn't stand them. I felt like everybody was on the bandwagon, because we were terrible in the 90s. Once we started getting good, everyone was like, 'OU this,' and 'OU that.' I just grew to dislike them, but then they started recruiting me and I started to like them."
Traditionally a powerful running team stocked with loads of talented tailbacks, Oklahoma presented Madu with a challenge – play for his local university and fight for carries, or perhaps play elsewhere and have a bigger chance to shine.
"I came in with a lot of other good running backs, but for me it was more about winning," Madu said of his choice to attend OU. "I knew my potential and how good I could be, so I had confidence in myself. But they win a lot of games there. I got five rings in five years, so it was worth it. I met a lot of good guys, and we're all like family and still talk."
Things weren't always so smooth in Norman, however. The Oklahoma coaching staff switched Madu to the slot receiver position his junior season, in part because of the wealth of talent in the backfield and only limited carries to go around.
After the position switch, Madu's production declined, as did his hopes of playing football at the next level. But he says he stuck with it, and the experience made him stronger.
"For a while there I did think I'd have a shot at the NFL, but there were times where I'd get down on myself and be like, 'It's not going to happen,'" Madu said. "I remember after my junior year and them moving me over to slot, I didn't really have a productive year. I thought about just quitting football period and just finishing school. But I talked to a lot of people about it and they told me to keep my head up and just stay, and I landed here.
"I could have definitely shown a lot more had I been given more carries, but it's just one of those things where everything happens for a reason," Madu continued. "I'm happy where I am now, so it ended up being good for me."
After leaving Oklahoma, Madu was thrown into yet another uncertain situation. He wasn't selected in the 2011 NFL draft and had to endure an offseason marred by labor issues. Unable to sign with a team until the lockout ended, Madu wasn't given a full offseason to sign with a team, learn a playbook, get comfortable with his teammates or any of the other usual steps an undrafted rookie takes.
"I definitely knew it was going to be an uphill battle," Madu said. "It was one of those things where you come in and you have no grasp of the plays at all. There's no offseason practice, there's nothing, so you come in wide-eyed. You haven't met any of the guys, so I came in and knew it was going to be the biggest uphill battle of my life."
Despite the steep learning curve, Madu says he did his best to work hard and make the most of his opportunity.
"After the first couple practices, I gained confidence," Madu said. "I had confidence in myself, but it was hard. I just kept on fighting every day. After the first practice, I was like, 'Ok, I belong here.' It was just one of those things where you go in and test the waters and see if you're going to drown or not. I was floating, and just kept on going with it."
Madu failed to make the Bucs' 53-man roster out of camp, but he impressed his coaches enough to be signed to the practice squad – an accomplishment in itself, all things considered.
Regardless, Madu says he wasn't satisfied with his spot on the practice squad, and never lost sight of his true goal – a spot on the active roster.
"I was disappointed," he said. "I set high expectations for myself. You set high goals and you try to obtain them. I didn't make the 53, and I was disappointed. But I talked to my parents, and they were like, 'Listen, you made the practice squad. You've done a lot.' I had a lot of friends back home who were just sitting on their butts because they didn't make the final cut. So I made the practice squad, but I knew I was going to come in and practice hard every day.
"I hoped I would get called up eventually. I'd heard that Tampa Bay was really good about promoting guys later on in the season, so I figured hopefully I would get a shot later on in the season, if anything. I didn't know it would happen so fast."
His chance did indeed come rather quickly, as Madu was promoted to the active roster when Graham was placed on injured reserve in late October.
Interestingly, the man whose roster spot he filled has been one of Madu's biggest inspirations and an example to follow. Graham, a former undrafted free agent himself, scratched and clawed to hang onto a roster spot in the early stages of his career before establishing himself as one of the most respected and productive players on the Bucs' roster.
Madu said Graham often gives him helpful hints, considering the similar starts to their respective careers, and he's always sure to listen.
"He always says things like that when we're in the running back room," Madu said. "He'll mention little things. And [Steve] Logan, our running backs coach, tells us things like that, to mock what 'EG' does, learn from him, and just pick up all the little things that he does, so you can have a long career whether it's with Tampa Bay or another team."
Since his promotion to the active roster, Madu has seen action in all eight games but has been given more opportunities to touch the ball as of late. In fact, all 13 of his carries and all seven of his receptions for the season have come in the last four games, highlighted by his play in Carolina last week, when he carried four times for 20 yards and caught four passes for 42 yards.
With one game left in the 2011 campaign, Madu says he's sticking to what Graham has taught him – take advantage of your opportunity to make a name for yourself.
Even if your head coach intentionally inverts it, of course.
"I'm still striving to get better every practice," Madu said. "I'm in the film room and I'm watching things on my iPad at home. I'm trying to better myself. I always try to critique myself really hard. I never let myself relax.
"You've got to put good things on film. You've got to show the coaches they can trust you in tough situations."