Africa has long held an attraction for global sports scouts, intent on uncovering the ‘next big thing’. Football and NBA now regularly scour the continent, with a plan to enhance the game’s reputation, engage with a new generation of fans and attract the best and brightest athletes to chase fortune and glory overseas.
Now it’s American Football’s turn. Guided by Nigeria’s Osi Umenyiora, a two-time NFL Superbowl champion with the New York Giants, the search for the next quarterback, tight end or offensive lineman has already begun. Umenyiora set up The Uprise, an American Football programme focussing on recognising and nurturing new NFL talent in Nigeria.
Alongside The Uprise, the very first NFL Africa Camp was launched in Ghana last year, with more than 49 athletes from Africa taking part. As part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program (IPP), a handful of players were chosen from each camp, with some sent to London for the International Combine to compete against 38 players from 13 countries.
Following the selection last year in London, 11 players were chosen to be part of the programme, including five from Africa, - Basil ‘CJ’ Okoye, Jason ‘Chu’ Godrick, Kenneth Odumefgwu DL, Haggai Chisom Ndubisi, and Kehinde Oginni Hassan. Four of these players, excluding Odumefgwu, were first spotted when they attended selection camps in Ghana and Nigeria.
The programme was formed as part of the NFL's strategy to grow globally as it provides athletes with the opportunity to play in the league which will increase the pool of talent and ultimately drive fan growth globally.
According to Elbert Allen, the head coach of the Ghana American Football Federation, this partnership with the NFL gives African players an easier route to playing professional football.
The best African athletes scouted in Nigeria and Ghana were sent directly to the U.S., for potential inclusion in the 2022/23 NFL Draft. LeCharles Bentley’s academy in Arizona, is rumoured to be the training facility this season.
Although many of these potential rookies have never played the game, or in some cases even held a football, the scouts are confident that Africans’ raw talent, power and commitment will serve them well on the gridiron. Professional football is seen by those who take part as a stepping stone to a better life, an education and perhaps a highly lucrative sports career.
‘There are 100-plus players in the NFL who were born in Africa, or are first-generation [African American], and all of them want to do something back home.’ Umenyiora said.
‘Then we know in Africa, you have some of the best athletes, and we’re not giving them the opportunity to showcase that talent to make better lives for themselves.’
‘We also know the demand for that type of talent is in America, and we know the supply is in Africa, so it’s a matter of connecting the two.’
The selection of a number of players from Africa in International Player Pathway Program reaffirms the belief that Africa has a vast number of talented athletes that are constantly being recognised on the biggest sporting stages.
With the commitments that the NFL and other sporting organisations have established over the last few years, partnering with African athletes and showcasing the sport in major African cities, this is just the beginning for Africa’s relationship with the NFL.
‘We believe the future of the NFL is in Africa.’ Oso Umenyiora.