Obinna Eze discovered football just seven years ago, shortly after saying goodbye to her parents in Nigeria, which is still the last time she saw them in person.
His first test was a junior varsity scrimmage, an experience that went as smoothly as could be expected for a high school exchange student from a poor country on the other side of the world where the American-born and bred sport has long been a novelty. at best.
“Bad memories,” said Eze, a rookie on the Detroit Lions’ practice squad. “It was confusing, my first time at tackle. He knew what he was supposed to do, but it was just weird. He knew he was supposed to block that guy until the whistle blew, but that’s it.”
Undrafted by TCU after playing his first four college seasons in Memphis, the 6-foot-8, 335-pound Eze has come a long way in those seven-plus years since he first arrived at Davidson Academy. in Nashville, Tennessee, intending to play basketball.
The NFL has seen a growth spurt when it comes to players like Eze who were born in an African country or whose parents were.
There were 123 players of that distinction, about 5% of the league including practice teams, on the 32-team rosters for opening weekend. Nigeria (87) was the runaway leader among the 16 different nations. Ghana (10) was next.
Four current players, Uchenna Nwosu (Seattle Seahawks), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (Houston Texans), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Cleveland Browns) and Kwity Paye (Indianapolis Colts), were part of an NFL contingent that went to Accra, Ghana, to the league championship. first official event on the continent highlighted by a camp for NFL prospects.
“There was definitely a teaching course because there is no football there, but I was surprised by how many athletes knew how to play,” Nwosu said. “Those guys just keep getting better, and there will be more and more to come.”
There was also a flag football event for middle school age children and a fan festival with interactive games and displays of Super Bowl giveaways. The Philadelphia Eagles also had a presence, as they were granted international marketing rights for the league in Ghana.
Once the first videos circulated on the NFL’s social media channels, the potential for further activity became apparent.
“We were inundated by other players of African descent saying, ‘How do I get involved? I’d like to come and do this,’” said Henry Hodgson, who is now the general manager of the NFL’s UK operation.
Much of the progress is due to Osi Umenyiora, a two-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowl defensive end, who moved to his native London after retiring from the NFL in 2015.
Umenyiora lived in Nigeria from the ages of 7 to 14, when he moved to Alabama and discovered the sport, saying it “just seemed ridiculous” but quickly realized that “all the cool kids” played it.
He eventually parlayed a standout college career into Troy’s second-round draft pick by the New York Giants and became one of the first stars with Nigerian roots to follow the path blazed by former Kansas City Chiefs running back, Christian Okoy.
With his parents still living in Nigeria during his NFL playing days, Umenyiora traveled there frequently and was routinely discouraged by the vicious cycle of poverty, corruption and war there.
“Whether it’s building wells or solar panels, doing things to help, it never seemed like enough. I noticed that there was an influx of players with names like mine in the NFL that no one said anything about. It was almost like it was happening by some kind of miraculous osmosis or something,” Umenyiora said.
“A lot of the guys that are really good players, even today, they don’t get talked about or don’t really get the exposure like other people because their names are hard to pronounce.”
After retiring, Umenyiora helped found The Uprise, a system to identify and train African athletes for a potential opportunity in the NFL. His group chose the top 50 prospects from a series of regional camps for the league’s flagship event in Ghana in June. Thirteen of those players were invited to London earlier this month for the annual international players combine, which fuels the pathway program that generates four spots each year on an NFL practice squad.
Giving them a chance. That is the essence of all this effort.
“The main thing is that people are trying to find a way out,” said New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata, who grew up in Nigeria playing soccer and didn’t try soccer until he finished at the University of Manitoba. He was selected in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. “If there is a chance that people actually learn the game at home, I think it would be more useful.”
The Lions lead the league with nine players born in Africa or first-generation born in the US, including three injured players not on the active roster. That’s where Eze intends to be, ideally for long enough that he can afford to bring his parents to the US for a visit. He has to settle for video calls for now to keep trying to explain the rules of the complex sport that shares the 11-on-11 lineup structure with soccer but little else.
He has been more than happy to have so many teammates with Nigerian flag decals on their helmets like him.
“We’re very proud of it,” Eze said, “and just grateful.”
AP pro soccer writer Teresa M. Walker, AP sports writers Tim Booth, Larry Lage and Brett Martel, and AP freelance writer WG Ramirez contributed to this report.
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