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Osi Umenyiora: Blazing a Trail with NFL Africa

The 2022 NFL Draft continues, and two-time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora and the NFL Africa program are hoping prospects of African descent will get their chance, too.

As day two of the NFL Draft takes place in Las Vegas on Friday, dozens of families across the country will gather, hoping to hear a loved one’s name called — giving him an opportunity to play professional football at the highest level. 

Another person that will be watching is Osi Umenyiora. The former New York Giants defensive end has been spearheading the NFL’s NFL Africa program. Over 100 current players in the league who are of African descent by either first or second generation, and Umenyiora wants that number to grow.

But what is NFL Africa?

Umenyiora explained, “The whole premise of NFL Africa came from the fact that we have a bottomless supply of talent in Africa and an unlimited demand for that talent in the United States of America, and somebody just had to connect the two to give people the opportunity to help themselves.”

The NFL has made strides to expand its global footprint beyond the U.S. in Europe and Mexico. The league recently appointed Henry Hodgson to lead its U.K. business and Charlotte Offord to be its first Australia GM. And during Super Bowl week in February, the NFL had multiple announcements about its next steps. In the upcoming season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play in Germany, and the Arizona Cardinals will play in Mexico City, while the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Jacksonville Jaguars will play in London. 

All of the announcements come after the NFL gave 18 teams access to 26 International Home Marketing Areas (IHMA) in eight different cities. 

Umenyiora said the reason NFL Africa has moved a bit slower isn’t because the NFL isn’t supportive but more so due to the fact that the league didn’t know how much talent was in the countries within the continent.

“There’s really not a lot of money to be made right now in terms of marketing in Africa, so people aren’t really checking for Africa right now,” he said. “I think what they are failing to realize is the talent is the money. That’s where the actual money is — it’s in the talent.”

“And if we’re able to increase the level of athleticism in every sport, that’s just going to bring more awareness,” he continued, “and when eventually Africa does have the money you will already be on the ground floor and be able to expose the game and expand the game.”

Ghana’s Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia backed that notion while speaking to CGTN Africa earlier this month: “Establishing the NFL Africa Academy here in the mold of a football academy like Right to Dream, will go a long way to help in the unearthing and development of talents, as well as providing alternative career pathways to the youth.”

An NFL Africa Academy may take time to develop. In the meantime, Umenyiora has alternative plans to bring players from Africa to the league. One of the roads that is slowly being paved is the league’s International Player Program, an initiative designed to increase the number of non-American players in the NFL. Umenyiora saw a win within the program recently when the New York Giants signed offensive tackle Roy Mbaeteka, a Nigerian product who participated in the league’s IPP. 

The former Giants’ defensive lineman also has his eyes set on bringing African talent to HBCUs.

“There are other ways to bring top talent to HBCUs outside of the 5-star recruits,” he said. “The top-notch high school may not want to go to HBCUs. But I know places where you can get 5-star talent, and they would do anything to get a scholarship to Jackson State, Florida A&M and other HBCUs. This NFL Africa thing can address a lot of different issues. We’re going to flood these HBCUs with top notch talent and this is going to increase the level of play in college.”

Much work remains to be done to get NFL Africa to the standard the Umenyiora wants to set. But with Ikem Ekwonu, an offensive tackle of Nigerian descent being selected sixth overall by the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, progress is being made. Now Umenyiora will wait to see if more players from Africa will have the same shot he and Ekwonu have received.

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