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Obinna Eze discovered football just seven years ago, not long after the goodbye to his parents in Nigeria that is still the last time he saw them in person.
His first test was a junior varsity scrimmage, an experience that went about as smoothly as could be expected for a high school exchange student from a poor country halfway around the world where this American-born-and-bred sport has long been a novelty at best.
“Bad memories,” said Eze, a rookie on the practice squad with the Detroit Lions. “It was just confusing, my first time being at tackle. I kind of knew what I was supposed to do, but it was just weird. I knew I was supposed to block that guy until the whistle blew, but that’s pretty much it.”
Undrafted out of TCU after playing his first four college seasons at 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, with the intent to play basketball.
National Football League gets more players from Africa
The NFL has had a growth spurt of its own when it comes to players such as Eze who were either born in an African country or whose parents were.
There were 123 players of that distinction — about 5% of the league, including practice squads — 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, for the league’s first official event on the continent highlighted by a camp for NFL prospects.
“There was definitely a course of teaching because there is no football over there, but I was surprised by the amount of athletes that knew how to play,” Nwosu said. “Those guys keep getting better, and there’s going to be more and more in the future.”
Nigeria becomes training ground for some who want to join NFL
There was also a flag football event for middle-school age kids and a fan festival with interactive games and Super Bowl swag displays. The Philadelphia Eagles had a presence, too, since they were granted the league’s international marketing rights to Ghana.
Once the first few video clips made the rounds on the NFL’s social media channels, the potential for further activity became clear.
“We were inundated with other players of African heritage saying, ‘How do I get involved? I would like to come and do this,’” said Henry Hodgson, who’s now the general manager of the NFL’s United Kingdom operation.
Much of the progress can be traced to Osi Umenyiora, the two-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowl defensive end who resettled in his native London after retiring from the NFL in 2015.
Umenyiora lived in Nigeria from age 7 to 14, when he moved to Alabama and discovered the sport he said “just looked ridiculous” but quickly realized was played by “all the cool kids.”
Blazing a trail
He eventually turned a standout college career at Troy into being a 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 Okoye.
With his parents still living in Nigeria throughout his NFL playing days, Umenyiora traveled there frequently and was routinely discouraged by the vicious cycle of poverty, corruption and war there.
“Whether it was building wells or solar panels, doing things to help, it just never seemed like it was enough. What I realized was there was an influx of players with names like mine into the NFL that nobody really was saying anything about. It was almost like it was happening by some sort of miraculous osmosis or something,” Umenyiora said.
“A lot of the guys who are really good players, even currently, they’re not talked about or they don’t really get the exposure as other people because their names are difficult to pronounce.”
Giving African football players a chance
After he retired, Umenyiora helped found The Uprise, a system of identifying and training African athletes for a potential opportunity in the NFL. His group picked the best 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 player combine, which feeds the pathway program that yields four spots each year on an NFL practice squad.
Giving them a chance. That’s the gist of this whole endeavor.
“The main thing is people are just 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 football until winding up at the University of Manitoba. He was a fourth-round draft pick in 2016. “If there’s a chance for people to actually learn the game back home, I feel that would be more helpful.”
The Lions lead the league with nine players who were either born in Africa or first-generation born in the U.S., including three injured players not on the active roster. That’s where Eze aims to be, ideally for long enough to be able to afford to bring his parents to the U.S. for a visit. He has to settle for video calls for now to continue to try to explain the rules of the complex sport that shares the 11-on-11 lineup structure with soccer but little else.
He’s been more than happy to have so many teammates with Nigerian flag stickers on their helmets just like him.
“We’re very prideful about it,” Eze said, “and we’re just thankful.”