NFL’s International Pathway Program shows how Africa is ‘home of the most incredible athletes in the world’ — Andscape
When Praise Olatoke was growing up in Scotland, he had aspirations of being a soccer player.
The Nigeria native, like many boys growing up on the African continent, was an avid soccer fan. He rooted for Manchester United of the Premier League and played for his school and club teams, hoping to one day make it as a professional.
“That was my dream,” Olatoke said.
While Olatoke would eventually get into track and field, running for a season at Ohio State, his attention switched to American football when he was a teenager. The brother of a high school classmate had returned to Scotland from America one day, excited about this amazing sport he had experienced while overseas.
Olatoke started watching highlights of the sport, locking in on NFL receivers Calvin Johnson and Chad Johnson.
“I thought that’s crazy, being able to run and catch and juke people, make people fall, and there’s 150,000 in the crowd,” Olatoke said, somewhat embellishing NFL crowd sizes.
From then on, Olatoke was hooked, telling everyone he knew that “I’m gonna play American football.”
Nearly a decade later, Olatoke, 23, is on the cusp of that dream, in part due to a program the NFL started to recruit people like him.
The International Pathways Program (IPP) was created by the league in 2017 as a pilot program to help expand the NFL’s player pool from America out to the rest of the globe by providing professional-level football training to world-class athletes, many of whom have never played football.
Participants come from all walks of life and sporting backgrounds — from Australia to Great Britain, from rugby to track and field. Since 2017, 37 IPP athletes have landed on an NFL roster, with 18 still playing, including former Australian rugby player Jordan Mailata (Philadelphia Eagles) and Nigerian-British football player Efe Obada (Washington Commanders).
Olatoke, along with fellow Nigerian Sam Orji, represents the type of unconventional talent that the NFL is in search of to expand its reach across the rest of the world, particularly in Africa, where four of the 11 players selected for this year’s IPP class hail from, the NFL announced in January.
Osi Umenyiora, who spent part of his youth living in both London and his native Nigeria, played 12 seasons in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. After retiring in 2014, Umenyiora began working for the league, eventually rising to lead the NFL Africa initiative, where he foresaw a lot of potential on the continent.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, that is the home of the most incredible athletes in the world,” Umenyiora said of Africa.
In 2020, Umenyiora launched The Uprise, a Nigerian-based recruiting program tasked with finding the next crop of NFL talent in Africa. It was an immediate success: three The Uprise participants made it onto an NFL roster, with one, Chicago Bears offensive lineman Roy Mbaeteka, still on a roster.
What followed was building NFL programming on the continent, which started in 2022 in Ghana before expanding to Kenya and South Africa in 2023. According to the NFL, there are currently 127 African players in the league.
The NFL has expanded out to Africa for at least two reasons.
One is obvious: fan growth. The NFL averaged nearly 18 million viewers per game this season and had 14 of the 15 top-viewed broadcasts in 2023, including the nearly 115 million who watched the Super Bowl matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles. But as evidenced by the league adding an 17th regular-season game and extra playoff teams, it’s always in search of growth. If you can build fanbases in New York and Green Bay, Wisconsin, surely you can in Berlin and Lagos.
“Why would you limit your market to 300-something million people when you can target 8 billion people?” Umenyiora said.
The other reason is the belief that America doesn’t corner the market in football talent.
James Cook, a former British football player who now leads the IPP, said the program is about proving that these athletes from all walks of life exist outside of the United States and can offer something to the game.
“It is our belief that guys that can contribute to this game — and not only just participate in it but do really, really well in it — they exist everywhere and it’s kind of our mission to prove that,” Cook told Andscape.
Sam Orji is one of those examples.
The 23-year-old Lagos native, like Olatoke, had soccer dreams when growing up. But Orji was also into many other sports: football, basketball, swimming, table tennis, and even taekwondo.
“We didn’t really go too far,” Orji told Andscape. “I think we reached black belt; no, I’m sorry it was blue or green.”
“I was about to say, I thought black belt was the top. How good can you fight, Sam?”
“It was green,” he clarified.
While playing basketball for his school, Orji never had what he would call a “proper coach” so the players took to YouTube to learn how to play basketball. Learning from the internet means some context might be missed, so Orji didn’t know what it meant after watching a lot of John Wall and Bradley Beal highlights.
“I’m a Wizards fan, unfortunately,” he said.
While training with a basketball developmental program in Nigeria called Educational Basketball as a teenager, a clip of Orji playing was uploaded on Instagram, which caught the interest of local scouts looking for football players on behalf of Umenyiora. Orji wasn’t immediately sold.
“They told me about it, but I won’t lie, I wasn’t really that [interested] in it at the time,” he said.
But he later decided to give American football a chance, participating in The Uprise, and earning an invitation to the league’s talent identification camp in Ghana in 2022. While Orji is a giant of a man, standing at 6-foot-6, he didn’t possess the size (he was 225 pounds) and requisite skills to be selected for the IPP at the time. He was told to keep training, but also put on more muscle and weight.
“So I just went back to the drawing board and got back into training again,” Orji said.
In the year since, Orji trained two to three times a day and loaded up on protein, meats, and carbohydrates to fill out his frame. His diet also included Ogbono soup, a Southern Nigeria dish, and of course Jollof rice. Orji now weighs nearly 300 pounds.
“We have attacked everything in the weight room and on the field but prioritized his hand-eye coordination, power and lateral movements to match his outstanding raw athleticism,” Orji’s trainers from Educational Basketball, Olutobi Adepitan and Iseolupo Adepitan, wrote to Andscape in an email.
“We embraced being in the gym with him literally every single day, including Saturday afternoons. Rarely took any time off during breaks and holidays. Consistent application of seeking to improve.”
With Olatoke, Orji and nine others being selected to the 2024 class of the IPP, they will now head to Bradenton, Florida, to train at IMG Academy over the next 10 weeks in preparation for a pro day in front of NFL team scouts in March.
While at IMG, the prospects’ daily schedule will consist of meetings, classroom work, film sessions, on-field practice, weightlifting and other personal development activities. The point of the crash course is to get the prospects acclimated to working in the NFL, even the nitty gritty.
Olatoke is attempting to transition from a sprinter into a receiver. On the surface that should be pretty easy: at Ohio State, Olatoke had a personal record of 10.29 seconds in the 100-meter dash, which would place him between NFL receivers DK Metcalf (10.37) and Tyreek Hill (10.19) as far as top-end speed.
“My main superpower, for lack of a better word, is my speed,” Olatoke said. “I can run”
But how fast can Olatoke start and stop or change directions? How good is he at learning the receiver route trees? How will all the speed look in helmets and pads, things he wore for the first time while playing on the club football team at Ohio State? He has to master those things in just over two months.
Orji has the size and length to be the next great offensive tackle, but how quickly can he process blocking assignments? Orji has never played organized football, so he’ll have to learn all of the basics, including how to hold a blocking pad during drills. He has the requisite size, but football is a mental sport as well, so “being able to actually assess what they say, mentally, and actually bring out what they’re talking about, that’s something else,” he said.
Even the violence of football initially worried Orji.
“It was really scary at first, I won’t lie,” he said, before conceding that concussions and broken bones aren’t limited to football. “It happens in basketball, too.”
“They’re like your kids: you’ve got to make sure they’re ready for the real world because one day they’re going to leave home,” Cook said.
Cook and Umenyiora will be the first to tell you how difficult this process will be.
“It’s not lost on me how crazy it is what we’re trying to do,” Cook said. “We’re trying to take a group of people who have never played the sport, and in less than three months turn them into professionals at it, at a very fast level, in arguably the most competitive industry in the world.
“Yeah, it’s crazy.”
Football is “one of the hardest things, physically and mentally, that you can possibly do,” Umenyiora said. And that’s coming from someone — unlike Olatoke and Orji — who had the privilege of starting football at 14 and playing in high school and in college at Troy University. Even with all that training, he felt inadequately prepared for the pros.
“Once I got to the NFL, it’s a completely different level, and then I had to learn a completely different game,” he said. “It’s so evolved.”
But Olatoke and Orji, in particular, possess two of the traits needed to make it to the NFL. There’s the athleticism, of course. But there’s what’s colloquially known as that “Want To,” the want to make it.
Cook described both men as being intelligent, mature, confident, and willing to learn. In other words, they want this.
“If I’m being real, making it to the NFL is one thing, my goal is to last in the NFL,” Orji said. “… I’m looking at staying five-plus years in the NFL.”
“It would be an insane sort of dream from being 15 years old, just saying I want to play football, willing it into existence, [it] would just be so gnarly, it’d be amazing, it’d be a dream come true,” Olatoke said. “I can’t wait to just do it.”