NFL’s growth abroad now includes giving Africa a chance, too

Oct 11, 2022, 3:22 AM | Updated: 3:27 pm
FILE - Minnesota Vikings linebacker Brian Asamoah (33) warms up prior to an NFL football game again...

FILE - Minnesota Vikings linebacker Brian Asamoah (33) warms up prior to an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Philadelphia. With a steady stream of players continuing to enter the league with African heritage, the NFL has been slowly making inroads on a continent where American football has long been a distinctly foreign sport. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File)

(AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File)

              FILE - Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah stands on the field before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022, in Minneapolis. His parents emigrated from Ghana. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn, File)
              FILE - Detroit Lions tackle Obinna Eze (65) drops into pass protection during an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, in Indianapolis. Born in Nigeria, Eze has not seen his parents in seven years. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger, File)
              FILE - Seattle Seahawks linebacker Uchenna Nwosu lines up on defense during an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022. His parents emigrated from Nigeria. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle, File)
              FILE - Former New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, right, talks with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before an NFL football game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, in East Rutherford, N.J. Umenyiora was born in London but grew up in Nigeria and is one of the NFL’s leading ambassadors now for growing the game in Africa. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun, File)
              FILE - Minnesota Vikings linebacker Brian Asamoah (33) warms up prior to an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Philadelphia. With a steady stream of players continuing to enter the league with African heritage, the NFL has been slowly making inroads on a continent where American football has long been a distinctly foreign sport. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File)

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”


AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker, AP Sports Writers Tim Booth, Larry Lage and Brett Martel and AP freelance writer W.G. Ramirez contributed to this report.


More AP NFL coverage: and

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


France's Kylian Mbappe celebrates with teammate Theo Hernandez after scoring his side's opening goa...
Associated Press

Theo Hernandez wants to win World Cup for France and brother

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Theo Hernandez wants to win the World Cup for France. And for his big brother. Lucas Hernandez was in tears when he ruptured the ACL in his right knee early in France’s 4-1 win against Australia last week. His brother Theo replaced him at left back in a straight swap, even […]
1 day ago
Spectators leave the stands before the end of the second half of the World Cup group E soccer match...
Associated Press

World Cup TV pundit under fire for disparaging Qatari attire

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Former Germany forward Sandro Wagner is under fire for a disparaging remark he made about Qatari men’s traditional attire while commentating for TV during Germany and Spain’s World Cup match on Sunday. Wagner was commentating on the teams’ 1-1 draw for German broadcaster ZDF when he said in the 79th minute […]
1 day ago
Ecuador's Enner Valencia is attended by medical personnel during the World Cup group A soccer match...
Associated Press

Ecuador frets over Valencia ahead of Senegal at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Enner Valencia has scored Ecuador’s last six World Cup goals so there’s no understating how worried his country is after he was carried off the field on a stretcher against the Netherlands . Ecuador hopes that the 33-year-old striker’s troublesome knees are OK for a decisive final group match against Senegal […]
1 day ago
Germany's head coach Hansi Flick attends a news conference on the eve of the group E World Cup socc...
Associated Press

FIFA charges Germany for no player at news conference

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Germany was charged in a disciplinary case by FIFA on Monday, though not for its players’ “hands covering mouths” protest before playing a World Cup game last week. FIFA said it opened a case against the German soccer federation for not bringing players to its mandatory news conferences one day before […]
1 day ago
Head coach Gregg Berhalter of the United States walks on the pitch during an official training sess...
Associated Press

US has clear World Cup task against Iran: win or go home

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The task is clear for the United States: beat Iran in a politically charged World Cup match or go home. U.S. players have been praised as the best generation of American soccer. But they finished third behind Canada and Mexico in World Cup qualifying and now face a must-win final group-stage […]
1 day ago
Head coach Louis van Gaal of the Netherlands applauds prior the start the World Cup group A soccer ...
Associated Press

Netherlands under Van Gaal on cusp of advancing at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The Netherlands is on the verge of reaching the knockout stage at the World Cup and an overwhelming favorite in its final Group A match on Tuesday against host nation Qatar. If the Dutch advance it will put more focus on 71-year-old coach Louis van Gaal, who stepped out of retirement […]
1 day ago
NFL’s growth abroad now includes giving Africa a chance, too