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Exclusive: Osi Umenyiora explains why the NFL and African athletes are 'the perfect combination'

Two-time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora champions a path for African talents to reach the NFL. The UK-based Nigerian athlete is taking the sport to the grassroots, recently hosting clinics and camps in Lagos, Nigeria.

Rotimi Akindele
Rotimi Akindele

Last Updated: 2024-07-09

Louis Hobbs

8 minutes read

Osi Umenyiora

Two-time Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants Osi Umenyiora has taken his drive to create a new path for African talents to transition from a basic type of sports, no matter the background, to make it to the top echelon of the National Football League (NFL). 

The UK-based athlete who is of Nigerian descent is consciously taking the sports to the grassroots with his recent stop in Lagos, Nigeria where he held a series of clinics and camps that spanned over three days.

NFL in Africa

According to Osi, the easiest way to spot a talent that is shaped for the NFL is by discovering them during college games but has always maintained that African athletes are built for the sport - American football.

Osi who only moved to the United States at the age of 15 from Nigeria revealed the reason behind such a program and what they hope to achieve from the camp series.

“So far, the camps have been an incredible success. I think we've gone to quite a few different African countries now and every single time we've been able to get embraced by the community, by the countries,” he told SportsBoom.com

“Everybody's excited to see us out there and so just seeing the excitement that the athletes have and the players who are coming from the NFL back into Africa, just seeing how excited and happy they've been.”
 

NFL Free Agency 2013: Why Osi Umenyiora Fits In Atlanta

Image Credits: The Falcoholic

Osi Explains The Drive

“Now the drive was really about finding a way to actually do some things in Africa. There are so many people who, you know, when they think of Africa, they think of just doing charity, maybe it's okay you know, whatever the case may be, but we wanted to do something that said we are going to give the people there the opportunity to help themselves.”

Also, we knew the amount of athletic talent that was in Africa and how these guys could actually use that talent to get an education or maybe even go to the NFL and make a lot of money for them and their families,” Osi said.
The current NFL Africa ambassador added that the organization was just focused on helping people with the initiative. 

“So, we wanted to do something that actually gives back to Africans and gives them the ability to help themselves and that was the motivation for us doing this initiative.”

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We also knew that there were a lot of Africans that were in America that actually wanted the chance to go back into Africa and reconnect with their people there, so that was the drive behind it and really all we want to do is just help people.

Osi Umenyiora

Africans and the Sudden Interest in the Sport

Asked about the sudden interest by Africans especially Nigerians to play the sport, Osi responded with this clarification, “Well, I wouldn't say the interest has been sudden. It's just been exposed now. I think there have been a lot of Nigerians and people in general who have been watching what's going on in the NFL for a long time. They just wanted to find a way to connect but it’s been difficult to do that.”

“And I think bringing these camps and bringing this NFL back into Africa and showing that we're on ground and not just far away making claims or doing whatever, proving that we are going to establish ourselves here on the continent and give people here on the continent opportunities have made us receive more acceptance. Once Nigerians or Africans see that in general, then they become more inclined and more interested in the game.”

He further added, “sports for a long time have been by the way, essentially by Africans. If you tried to play sports when you were a kid and tried to take it seriously, especially in Nigeria, your parents would look at you like you were crazy or a good-for nothing except you are seen studying your books. Nowadays, people are seeing that this is a real way that you can make a living and change your life so people are more interested in it and I think that they should be because there are billions of dollars in revenue just sitting there in Africa wasting away and we have to find a way to utilize their talents by presenting these opportunities.

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Image Credits: CNN

 

African Presence in the NFL 

With the league body creating an International Pathways Program (IPP) in 2017 to help expand the player pool for the sport from across the globe. The program was aimed at providing professional-level football training to athletes, many of whom have never played football before to get a look in.

Since the pilot program got off to start in 2017 with different sporting personnel from diverse sporting backgrounds going through the template, about 40 IPP athletes have featured in the league and at least four of the eleven players selected for this year's program are from Africa.

For Osi who retired from the sport in 2014 and became the lead personnel for the league's development and growth on the continent, launching a Nigerian-based program tagged as the 'The Uprise' was a perfect way to affirm his beliefs that the athletes from Africa and the sport were the perfect combination.

The program was designed to find the next set of players who would love to play in the NFL from the continent and it got off to a flying start with three participants of the program in Nigeria making it to the league in 2021.

The program eventually extended to Ghana in 2022 before making stops in Kenya and South Africa last year and according to the NFL, more than 130 players of African descent are in the league. Apart from attracting global talents to the NFL, there is a conscious move to also increase the fan growth in Africa.

Osi mentioned the likely destinations for the next set of clinics and camps in Africa.

"We really haven't made a final conclusion on that yet but we're still looking at maybe coming back to Nigeria or going into Rwanda, which would be a very big deal for us.”

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Morocco is also another place, Egypt as well but we would love to pretty much go over Africa and we want to make sure we go there and give the people their opportunities and spread the message there also.

Osi Umenyiora

 The Lagos Series and the Olympic Buzz

The recent stop in Lagos, Nigeria by NFL Africa was held over a 3-day period in June. The activities for the football talent identification camp included the NFL FLAG activities which officially underlines a commitment to develop more ways to serve athletes and fans in the country.  

Twenty-one prospects from 10 countries across Africa first took part in the 3-day NFL combine-style football camp to showcase their skills and compete for invites to join the NFL Academy in the U.K. or the International Player Pathway program.

Several current NFL players like David Njoku (Cleveland Browns), Bobby Okereke and Kayvon Thibodeaux (New York Giants), Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Seattle Seahawks) and free agent Prince Tega Wanogho all joined the talent identification camp events in Lagos.

During the Lagos camps and clinics, in collaboration with the Nigerian American Football Association (NAFA), an NFL FLAG tournament between 12 under-14 school teams took place as well. Also, they hosted an inaugural women's flag football session with U.S. scholarships available for top performers.

The excitement of flag football has seen a spike in participation globally and it's currently being played by over 20 million people across 100 countries.

In partnership with the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), the NFL is investing in the development and growth of flag football at grassroots and elite levels across the world ahead of the sport's official debut at the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

When asked about the reentrance of the sport in 2028, an excited Osi had this to say,

"American football is no longer just an American sport. It's being played all over the world. I think recently, Japan just beat the United States of America in tournaments, and they beat them pretty handily.”

“So, there are a lot of people who are playing. Obviously, the highest level of the sport is still being played in America, but as we continue to expand all over the world, you're going to see that the sport is being played at a high level in different places.”

“People just have to take it seriously and people have to see the opportunities that it presents and it's going to expand. It is going to be an Olympic sport, but it's the flag version, which is the version without the pads, without the equipment they just have flags, and that's going to be in the Olympics in 2028 and maybe in 2032.”

“So, we're really excited about that and I think there are going to be a lot of teams and a lot of countries competing at that level that are going to give America problems including Nigeria."

Rotimi Akindele
Rotimi AkindeleSports Writer

Rotimi Akindele is a sports Journalist with almost two decades' experience. He is a TV and radio host, commentator and writer who has covered major sporting events across the globe including the FIFA World Cup, Africa Cup of Nations, NBA and the BAL games, FIBA competitions, volleyball, Tennis and Table Tennis, multi-sports events (Commonwealth Games) and many more.

Akindele's sports content has been listened to and read by a global audience. He is a well-known figure within Nigeria and the African Sports scene.

Rotimi holds a New Horizons multimedia certification coupled with a bachelor's degree from SMC University and always looking to stay updated by attending relevant conferences and taking relevant courses.