Against the backdrop of Super Bowl LVIII, the former pro football star talks to Pulse Sports about the work he is doing with the NFL to discover the next generation of football stars in Nigeria and Africa
With Super Bowl LVIII prominent in the public consciousness, Pulse Sports spoke with former NFL star Osi Umenyiora who, through his Uprise initiative, has offered a pathway for aspiring youths to reach their goal of playing in the NFL and participating in one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
Why and how did you start NFL Africa? Tell us about the initiative, and the story behind it.
It was started as a way to give the incredibly talented people that we have in Africa the opportunity to become successful using American football. We know that Africa has by far the most talented athletes in the world, they just don’t have the mechanism to convert that talent into opportunities; so we wanted to give them those opportunities.
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Why did you start the International Player Pathway? Can you tell us a bit more about that?
IPP was basically started because we knew that in order for people to really pay attention to American football, we needed to have international players in the NFL. The NFL airs games all over the world and there are fans globally, but if you have the ability to play, there wasn’t a pathway into the NFL; so we created that pathway for them.
What are some of the biggest success and best stories of the programs so far?
Efe Obada has been extremely inspirational and a massive success. Jordan Mailata from Australia too. Overall, there were 6 players from Nigeria just from last year, who are now on NFL rosters. 5 of them got re-signed to their teams this year, which means they are liked and their potential is seen. That has been the biggest success so far. These weren’t pro-athletes in any form before. They came from Nigeria, they are now in the NFL and showed enough that the teams wanted to re-sign them.
Tell us a bit about the NFL's strategy in Africa. So far you have maintained very lean operations. It seems the focus is on identifying talent first, rather than big marketing campaigns. Can you elaborate on what the goals are, and how the different initiatives fit in?
Ultimately, in the near term, it’s about developing talent and giving them opportunities, because I feel that’s what’s needed in Africa. Marketing and growing the game will happen organically once we have enough African players in the NFL. But I don’t think going in there, trying to just market the NFL and trying to get people to pay attention is the best way of doing things at the moment. We need to give opportunities, then people will pay attention and the game will grow organically.
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If we are sitting here 5 years from now, what are the big achievements you will be telling me about? (i.e. what are you looking to achieve in the next 5 years?)
First and foremost, we need to have a lot more players coming directly from the continent into the US for college. When I go back to Nigeria, or anywhere in Africa, I want to turn on the TV and see NFL games being played, for people to understand the game and the opportunities it presents. We should be building to where we have enough infrastructure on the ground to support a game being played on the continent.
Where do you think the big trends and opportunities lie in Africa, both for the NFL and for sports more generally?
It’s talent first and foremost. You have the highest population of youth in the world and that’s not going to stop anytime soon. While everyone else is getting older, Africa is getting younger. A lot of the developments in the world are just now making their way to Africa, so it’s just a matter of time until there is an explosion of infrastructure, talent development and financial capability. So it’s smart to now be laying the foundation for what’s to come.
What’s next for the NFL in Nigeria?
We are going to have a NFL Africa camp in Lagos, but on a much bigger scale. Nigeria is going to be the focal point for most of what we are doing in Africa and we have a lot of big plans.
Talk to us a bit about the Super Bowl reveal. What does this mean for NFL Africa, and for football fans worldwide?
Africans in general have never seen themselves represented in the NFL on this level. A Super Bowl commercial, that is the flagship commercial for the NFL, and the fact that it’s focused on Africa, just shows how serious the NFL is about Africa. There are going to be a lot of people globally who see this commercial and it gives them a better understanding of what Africa is about. The sky's the limit as soon as this airs.
Editor's Note: At half-time during Super Bowl LVIII, an unprecedented two-minute ad aired, announcing the launch of the 'Born to Play' campaign. Featuring prominent players including Saquon Barkley (New York Giants), Justin Jefferson (Minnesota Vikings), Cameron Jordan (New Orleans Saints) and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Cleveland Browns), the commercial was a celebration of the growth of football across the globe.
“The momentum around the global expansion of American football is real and exciting. Our intent is to embrace and celebrate this movement through powerful communication on our biggest stage, focusing on the growth of both flag and tackle football,” said NFL Chief Marketing Officer, Tim Ellis. “This is an inspiring and warm-hearted story about a boy from Ghana who fantasizes and dreams of playing football, and it celebrates the fact that anyone, from any background, can turn that dream into reality.”
The commercial was created by 72andSunny and directed by Andrew Dosunmu, a renowned photographer-turned-director and native of Lagos, Nigeria who is celebrated for his powerful film collaborations with Travis Scott. All film production took place in Ghana, with more than 90 local Ghanian crew members and a cast of 400 local Ghanaian actors incorporated into the spot.
Can you talk a bit about the perceptions of the American audience to African and Nigerian athletes and cultures over the last few years. Both have become a lot more prevalent in the public eye. What are some of the specific trends you see, and which demographics are driving this?
When I first got to America in 1995, I felt like Africans in general were laughed at; there were a lot of negative things said. But now, with the exposure of African culture through music, movies and the massive success of the Africans in the diaspora, all of that has changed. There are a lot more people who want to understand and embrace African cultures, because it’s their culture. It’s been fantastic to see and it’s a part of NFL Africa that I think needs to be discussed.
It’s not just giving opportunities to African people, but exposing Africans to an audience using the most popular sport in America. The connection to the African diaspora, and Black Americans, is something we feel strongly about and hopefully that connection continues to happen through sport.
Content is a huge element for any sports brand these days. Can you talk a bit about the NFL's content strategy when it comes to Africa, and African athletes?
The content should be about showcasing the incredible side of Africa and its culture; trying to eliminate the stereotypes that are prevalent on both sides and that’s exactly what we are aiming to do. We want to showcase the fashion, music and draw people in through so many of the great things that are currently going on in Africa.
Tell us a bit more about your own personal history with Nigeria – how did your childhood time in Nigeria affect the rest of your life?
I was in Nigeria from the ages of 7-14 but I was raised abroad in a very Nigerian way. Anyone who was raised in a Nigerian household, you are going to be raised in the same way, so we all understand each other very well. There is a specific culture; a strict focus on education, family and a mindset that enables you to succeed in whatever environment and wherever you are. This is very important to Nigerians and more people should embrace it as it allows you to thrive.
I’m very thankful for my upbringing and wouldn’t have had it any other way. The funny thing about Nigeria is that no matter what the problems are, and there are quite a few of them, Nigerians love Nigeria. We love our country and we want to do as much as possible to make sure the country is successful.
What do you most miss (and least) about Nigeria when you are not there?
My family; the people… Nigeria is a vibe. I miss all of that. I miss going to my village, Ogbunike. I don’t miss Lagos traffic but that’s pretty much it.
Who were your childhood idols?
JJ Okocha, Rashidi Yekini and Hakeem Olajuwon.
What Afrobeats tracks are you most listening to at the moment? And do you think Nigeria was robbed at the Grammys?
'Terminator' by Asake and 'Sneakers' by Gnewzy. Any time a Nigerian doesn’t win, it’s a robbery in my opinion.
If you had never picked up a football, what do you think you would be doing instead?
Probably be a lawyer or a doctor.