Brits on the Gridiron
Gary Jordan looks at the British – and German - players in the NFL International Player Pathway Program
The National Football League is expanding again. This time it's not with extra games globally, or teams – the recent well publicised relocation of some teams is enough for the League to handle right now in that area. Instead it's the turn of players to get their opportunity to place another root down in the NFL tree.
The International Player Pathway program is a new initiative that is aimed to help promising players from outside the United States collegiate system a chance to develop their skills under the expert tutelage of NFL by being placed on a team's practice squad. This is a perfect launch pad that could see them elevated to the main roster at no risk to the teams' salary cap, but first and foremost it is a to benefit the player in their development and understanding of the game.
In 2017 four teams allocated an extra spot for a Pathway player. The maximum number of teams is set at ten. The NFC South rivals have all been chosen and it's no coincidence given the ground work over the last decade in the United Kingdom that three of the four players that have been selected are from these shores, with the fourth originally from Germany.
One of the players is a familiar face. Efe Obada had only played a handful of games for perennial Britball winners, London Warriors, before being snapped in 2015 for the Dallas Cowboys. After a solid preseason, he settled into their practice squad after a showing some potential. After his release from the Cowboys, he has since been involved with Atlanta and Kansas City. This year sees him up sticks again, this time to the Carolina Panthers. "I am very happy and excited about the opportunity," he said. "I feel like this is something I need to progress and further my career. I am very grateful to the guys who have worked with us and put their neck on the lines for us. It's a chance to develop my skills and it is going to be nice to be in that NFL environment again," the 25-year-old Defensive End said of his new challenge.
The Atlanta Falcons have someone with International playing experience with the other oval shaped ball. Tight End Alex Gray, 26, was born and raised in Bishop Auckland, and captained England Rugby at Under 16, Under 18, Under 20, and International Sevens, so has a great pedigree. His stock was almost complete when chosen to compete for the Great Britain Sevens Olympic team in 2016 but injury forced him to withdraw. "I have been working hard for this goal and to be told it was going to happen was an amazing moment," he said. "This is the start of another journey. It is a fantastic thing that is happening, but I am not going to get to where I want to be without keeping myself grounded. Making the decision to give this my all from rugby, there was a big transition period and it was mentally very humbling. When you have to start from scratch again, that was a huge mental battle for me. When I look back I will be very proud of the way I approached this."
Completing the British trio is Alex Jenkins, a 24-year-old from Bath. He does have some football background having played at Bath City Academy. He then played with the Bristol Aztecs, and landed a place on the Great Britain youth team. He was invited to an all-star High School camp in Virginia, and impressed enough to gain a scholarship playing at University of Incarnate Wood in San Antonio, Texas. A consistent starter he gained 3.5 sacks in his Senior year. The Defensive Ends' new home will be with the New Orleans Saints, "This is a chance to develop and become a player in the NFL," Jenkins said. "It has been a pretty intense time. It feels too good to be true. I always thought I would be trying to do this on my own until NFL International found me. The fact that the Saints will be playing in London this season [vs Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium on October 1] makes it even more exciting for me."
Competing the quartet is another 24-year-old, Eric Nzeocha. This Linebacker started playing the game with the the Franken Knights youth team and he went on to represent Germany at Junior level as a Tight End. In 2015, he switched sides of the ball, and this is where he made his name at the University of Wyoming. Now he has another chance to impress at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, "It is overwhelming, one of the greatest moments of my life," said Nzeocha when hearing the news of his placement. "It has been my dream since I started playing football at the age of 14. When they told me this was happening I was overwhelmed. I am looking forward to it so much. It's unreal."
These four players haven't been picked at random, they were training alongside Draft hopefuls in Florida earlier in the year under the watchful eye of NFLUK Head of Football development Aden Durde, and ex-player turned broadcaster Osi Umenyiora. "This is going to change people's lives. They will inspire people around the globe; people who never thought they had a chance to make it to the NFL. Now they see they have a viable pathway. These guys have worked very hard for this chance and I am confident they will make a great contribution to their teams while improving their skills and understanding of the game," Umenyiora said.
The Pathway Program has been built not only to help players fulfil their ambitions, but also to give those that thought the road was closed, a way through. There can be no doubt that there is hidden talent across Europe, the fanbase is already there and even those attending International Series games could start thinking "what if?" No matter how young there is always an entry point here in the UK. More and more schools are taking up the game, and the boom at University level doesn't show signs of letting up soon. Who knows, with hard work and dedication, it might be you that finds yourself on the Pathway to the NFL.
For more information on how to take up the sport in this country go to www.britishamericanfootball.org