New York Giants legend Osi Umenyiora on a quest to find future NFL stars in Africa

ByLeonard Solms via ESPN logo
Monday, June 27, 2022
ESPN

When two-time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora sent scouts to Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana on a quest to find the next wave of African talent for the NFL, knowing anything about football of the American kind was not a prerequisite for his recruits.

Umenyiora sought only to find the best young athletes in Africa and convince anyone who would listen, even momentarily, to drop soccer, basketball, rugby -- or whatever else they were busy with -- and give his beloved sport a shot.

Thankfully, the standard of the best players at his Uprise camps was high enough to convince the NFL to bring Umenyiora and 49 prospects to their own camp, held at Ghana's Right to Dream Academy on June 22 and 23, with a view to selecting the best for their International Player Pathway (IPP) programme.

The majority of the prospects were trained by Umenyiora, while four came from Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah's previous camp in Ghana, and 12 were developed by Ezekiel Ansah's foundation.

One of the standout players at the NFL camp was Nigeria's CJ Okoye, a 6-foot-8 offensive tackle. A convert from basketball, he barely made it out of Umenyiora's initial Uprise camps, but the New York Giants legend saw a spark in the 20-year-old that he realised he could work with.

Umenyiora told ESPN: "He didn't test particularly well in the drills [at The Uprise]. The problem is -- because they have never done those drills before and it's a different kind of training to execute them properly -- when you test them, the numbers won't be that impressive.

"But then you put him in a competitive situation and he stands out. So, after watching him in competition, I decided he was well worth a chance."

His instincts proved correct as Okoye ended up being named the offensive MVP at the NFL camp last week.

"I won't lie, I didn't [think I could be offensive MVP]. When Osi brought Uprise to Nigeria, I barely made it. When he put my name down, he was like: 'This one needs to work hard,'" Okoye told ESPN.

Reflecting on his journey, Okoye said: "I was a basketball player -- a very good basketball player. I was playing in one of the local leagues [in Nigeria].

[Former Nigeria player and Cleveland Cavaliers draft pick] Ejike Ugboaja met me and said: 'Come on! You are the right guy for another game. You are built for another game.'

"I didn't give it much thought because in Nigeria, we don't have American football. Thanks to Osi, [that is changing.]"

Part of the challenge for Umenyiora was selecting positions for players who had never played football before. In Okoye's case, he made a call based on his height, weight, and statistics in combine testing.

When asked what specific qualities convinced him of Okoye's potential, Umenyiora said: "Great footwork, balance, aggression and his size."

Although he is new to football, Okoye has found at least two idols in his new sport who he aims to emulate. When asked which NFL players he looked up to, he opted for one former player and one current, both in his position: "Roman [Oben]. I know some left tackles -- Trent Williams. Those are the guys for now."

Even though Ugboaja was a catalyst behind his switch away from basketball, he too remains a source of inspiration for Okoye, encouraging the youngster to work hard and follow Umenyiora's advice.

"Ugboaja is one of my motivations. Making it to the NBA from Nigeria -- I want to make it to the NFL from Nigeria too!" he said.

Expanding further on the NFL's plans for the camp's top prospects, Umenyiora added: "IPP and then the NFL Academy -- which is the guys who are under 19 years old -- they go to the academy. The ones who are like 20, 21, 22 -- they can go to the Combine in London and then to the International Player Pathway.

"We'll sit down. All the guys who came will have a discussion. It's going to be tough. Some guys will make it, some won't, but I think we'll find the right ones."

Umenyiora later revealed at a press conference on Sunday that a final decision had been made, but the players had yet to be informed of the outcome of the camp.

Among those who assisted Umenyiora at the camp were current NFL stars Owusu-Koramoah (Cleveland Browns), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (Houston Texans), Uchenna Nwosu (Seattle Seahawks), and Kwity Paye (Indianapolis Colts), as well as former players Oben and Mathias Kiwanuka.

They could all play a central role in the fate of 49 prospects from across Africa looking to follow in their footsteps. The players, aged 16-22, will also look to emulate Umenyiora's three seminal success stories from the continent.

Haggai Chisom Ndubuisi (Arizona Cardinals), Kehinde Hassan Oginni (Kansas City Chiefs) and Chigbo Roy Mbaeteka (New York Giants) participated in Umenyiora's regional camps before receiving invites to the NFL's international combine and IPP program pro day, going on to sign with their respective teams.

Okoronkwo hailed the standard of play at the NFL camp, telling ESPN: "I didn't think that it was going to be as polished as it was -- I thought it was going to be a little bit more raw. I was really impressed with how far along they are with the game."

For the next generation of African talent, the hope is that football can be seen as a tangible option regardless of whether the parents of prospects moved them to the US at an early age or raised their children at home on the continent.

"I think our focus and what we can control is identifying and developing talent that can make it into the NFL, or younger talent that can go into our NFL Academy programme and system that's based in London," said NFL International's chief operations officer, Damani Leech.

"That is our immediate priority. Our expectation and hope is that by us creating this pathway to the NFL, that [the organisation's presence in Africa] will inspire communities, governments and countries to invest in the sport and create a structure and a system of football in various countries."

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