In the days after, Ndubuisi gathered his friends and visited local fields to reenact what he had observed on the videos. He lined everyone up, even though he didn’t know the position names, let alone the rules. Sometimes he practiced alone, throwing his massive frame through the air against imaginary opponents.
“I was just enjoying it. Like … this is what I want to do,” he said this week after finishing a training camp practice as a member of the Denver Broncos, shaking his head and chuckling as he traced his football origin story back to those early days in Nigeria. What happened after that was hard to believe: Ndubuisi was discovered through a talent identification program run by former NFL star Osi Umenyiora, who teamed up with former Nigerian basketball player Ejike Ugboaja to find football talent in Africa. That led to an NFL contract for Ndubuisi through the league’s International Player Pathway Program, which launched in 2017 and is designed to provide athletes from around the world with the opportunity to earn NFL roster spots.
The program has grown each year; 37 players — including those from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Austria, Chile, the Netherlands and Italy — have signed contracts since its inception, and 13 are on an NFL roster. But only over the past couple of years did the program’s reach truly extend to Africa. Ndubuisi is among six Nigerian prospects on NFL rosters for training camp, a reflection of the untapped talent in the West African nation and the league’s ambitions to develop a footprint on the continent as part of its global expansion.
“This is actually sustainable, because as long as you give people opportunities, and they’re actually able to help these teams, then we’re able to run this … and those people who are given these opportunities will go back to their communities and give back,” Umenyiora said. “The NFL is going to grow in Africa because you’re seeing these incredible stories that are not fiction. It’s not like this stuff is made up, right?”
One of those stories emerged last Saturday, when CJ Okoye, a Nigerian defensive tackle who is playing for the Los Angeles Chargers as part of the IPPP, came away with a sack in the team’s first preseason game — which doubled as his first organized game of football. His teammates mobbed him as he ran back to the sideline, and Chargers Coach Brandon Staley awarded Okoye the game ball in the locker room afterward.
The night before, Ndubuisi suited up for his first game as a defensive tackle — he competed as an offensive lineman last year in training camp with the Arizona Cardinals — and finished with two tackles. Both players are long shots to make their teams’ 53-man rosters, but as members of the IPPP, they can compete on practice squads under a roster exemption should they not make the cut. The program evolved last season to allow players to be elevated from the practice squad to the active roster during the season; each player gets three years in the IPPP, which affords them more time to develop and learn the game.
“Ever since we got signed, the interest [in Nigeria] has increased massively. People are now taking an interest in the sport of football,” Ndubuisi said. “It’s possible. There is light and there is hope. For me, there is hope back home.”
The NFL has continually fine-tuned the program since its inception. In 2018, it partnered with IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which serves as a home for training and developing prospects. It also launched an international combine, which has been held in Australia, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom. As the NFL worked to solidify the program’s identity in those early years, Umenyiora continually advocated for a presence in Africa.
“I think one of the real struggles that we had was — is this about talent development and growing the game or is this about fan development? And my answer was always, it’s both,” said Damani Leech, the former chief operating officer of NFL International who now serves as the president of the Denver Broncos. “Depending on the market, it’s going to lean one way or the other. And that’s when Osi said, ‘If it’s about talent development, then we need to be in Africa.’ ”
Though the league is still a generation away from solidifying a large market for fandom in Africa, Leech said, there is little doubt the NFL is already pulling talent from there. The league has more than 125 players who were born in Africa or are first-generation African American; last spring, it held its first event in Ghana, and Umenyiora’s initiative had held scouting events for more than 200 athletes in at least six different countries. Umenyiora said he expects an academy, which will house top prospects and provide training and development, to be built somewhere on the continent within the next couple of years.
“From a macro standpoint, what’s happening in the subcontinent of Africa where you’re seeing massive population growth, technology and infrastructure growth, that is all saying that, yeah, you’re going to continue to get football players from here,” Leech said. “We always started from a basis of there’s just a finite number of people walking the planet to have the physical tools to play this game, whether that is size, speed, quick-twitch muscles. And all of those athletes are not kids born in Texas, California and Ohio.”
Like many of the players he has mentored from Africa, Umenyiora didn’t know anything about football growing up. Born in the United Kingdom to Nigerian parents, he immigrated to the United States when he was in the tenth grade. He joined the football team at his high school in Alabama and immediately excelled, earning a chance to play at Troy University before the New York Giants drafted him and he won two Super Bowls.
“Most people would be skeptical, and rightfully so. I mean, if somebody were to tell you we’re going to bring a guy from Africa that’s never played the game before and place him on your roster and he’s going to make an impact, most people wouldn’t even believe that is possible,” Umenyiora said. “But just given my unique perspective and the things that I’ve seen and the things that I had personally done myself, I knew that it was something that was very, very possible. We just had to find people who would believe in that.”
The opportunity for Ndubuisi began at one of Umenyiora’s talent identification camps nearly two years ago. At 6-foot-7 and more than 300 pounds, he eventually earned a spot at the international combine in London, even though he still knew little about the game. He struggled with learning the technique required of offensive linemen before transitioning to defense with the Broncos. He is one of the largest players on the roster and the only one who didn’t go to college.
The defensive line suits Ndubuisi better. He loves to chase and hit players. “It’s like being me,” he said. It reminds him of those first videos he watched on YouTube years ago. He remembers showing his family, who at first didn’t understand why he would want to play football. They thought he might go to school or find other work instead.
“They are proud I took that bold step. They were scared about the hits,” he said. “But I was determined that this is what I wanted to do.”
POST AUTHOR: Roman Stubbs