Osi Umenyiora believes American football and African athletes are the perfect combination. Though he didn’t start playing football until he was about 15 years old after moving to the US from Nigeria, he built a successful 12-year career in the National Football League (NFL) – including two Super Bowl wins with the New York Giants.
Now, the 40-year-old, UK-born athlete is looking to find talent who will help transform American football into a more internationally appreciated and celebrated game.
According to the NFL, there are more than 100 players of African descent already in the league. Umenyiora says on visits back to Nigeria over the years, he’s wanted to make an impact on young people in the country. So in 2020, after securing the backing of the NFL, he co-founded a talent-finding platform called The Uprise with fellow Nigerian and former NBA player Ejike Ugboaja. After holding camps in several African countries, three Nigerian talents from the program were signed to NFL rosters in 2021.
Last month, NFL Africa, the league’s official platform to highlight African players and establish a presence on the continent, held its first official camp in Africa. Scouts were on hand to select the best out of 49 prospects to go into the NFL’s International Player Pathway – which gives athletes from outside the US and Canada the chance to earn a spot on an NFL team.
CNN recently spoke with Umenyiora in Abuja, Nigeria, during The Uprise’s regional tryouts, and after the inaugural NFL camp in Ghana.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: How did the idea for the International Player Pathway program come about?
Umenyiora: When I left America and I went to the United Kingdom as the [NFL] ambassador, I was trying to figure out how I could actually help the game expand. So I said to myself, ‘you’re trying to introduce this American football game into the United Kingdom – you almost have to have players from here to give the entire country something to root for, or maybe at least pique your interest.’
The whole idea is … to find a way to get people from other areas of the world into the NFL, so those other countries will become more invested in actually watching the game. So I went to the [NFL] commissioner [Roger Goodell] with this idea. The International Player Pathway program is a program that allows people from all over the world – who don’t have the opportunities to go to college [and play football] in America – to get looked at.
Osi Umenyiora paves the way for African athletes to join the NFL
CNN: And how did NFL Africa and The Uprise start?
Umenyiora: Over the last 10 years, what I had noticed was a massive influence – a lot of African names within the National Football League. And so as I started to notice that, I realized that nobody was really highlighting these people. Ejike Ugboaja was already [scouting] with basketball and he always had this idea in his head about American football and he came to me in 2014 to help sponsor [young Nigerian athletes].
I was able to put two and two together because as I was noticing all these African players in the NFL, and then I would come back home to Nigeria and I [see] these big, strong, fast physical people – all they’re looking for is an opportunity.
So I said rather than just doing all the regular stuff that we do in terms of charity, why not give people the opportunity to help themselves? I was in the NFL and an NFL ambassador at the time, so all I had to do was tell them this is what needs to be done. And they agreed with me – that’s when we started The Uprise camp.
CNN: On a continent that’s more focused on soccer and basketball, why try to recruit for American football?
Umenyiora: I understand American football. And I also understand that because of the market in America and the amount of players, it’s going to give you much more opportunities than it will playing basketball. With basketball and soccer, you’re dealing with the entire world in terms of making it to the professional leagues. In the NFL, you’re dealing with mostly America.
Watch the full episode of African Voices featuring Osi Umenyiora
Our people here have the physical traits and the characteristics to be able to succeed where nobody else in the world could. So we have an advantage there. In some instances, a lot of these kids’ future is in American football. If they’re trying to get an education or make it to the highest level, it’s there. A lot of the NFL players or the people who play football in America at the highest level, they were basketball players. The movements are very similar – football is just a lot tougher.
CNN: You have three success stories from the camp already signed to the NFL. How did you know they had what it takes, and how do you spot those you think will make it into the NFL?
Umenyiora: It’s quite difficult to explain, but it’s because I played the game for so long and I played in the NFL for a very long period of time. You start to notice little traits that people have that can make it to the highest level. So the guys who we did find, not only were they big and strong and intelligent, they were aggressive.
And they have these little movements; like as an offensive lineman, you’ve got to be able to move laterally really quickly. As a defensive lineman, you’ve got to be able to get low and be able to bend under people and have the strength and the leverage.
So even though they had never done it before, when you test them, you can see that there’s a difference between [prospects] – this guy does things naturally that this other guy doesn’t, and if you encourage it and you nurture it, this can be something special.
CNN: What are your future plans for The Uprise and NFL Africa on the continent?
Umenyiora: We’re going to have a structure or a facility where we bring in the highest level of coaches and they come in on maybe a four- or five-month basis. When we find these athletes, we house them, we feed them, we give them schooling, [and] we also teach them the fundamentals of American football.
I want to see a time where at least 15 to 20% of all the players in the National Football League are from here. [Also], people should be watching American football because their brothers are being very, very successful playing that game. I want more people to be engaged in the sport and to understand the success and to understand the game.
CNN: Now that tryouts are done in Ghana, how did they go – and what’s next for those selected?
Umenyiora: The guys were outstanding – a lot better than they were in Nigeria, so you could clearly see that they’ve done a lot of improvement. So now after the tryouts, what we have is six players who were [aged] under 19 who are going to be going to the NFL Academy in the UK, and then nine of the players who are over 20 will be selected to go to the International Player Pathway combine in London. So a total of 15 players actually have the opportunity to change their lives.