Nigerian footballer Ositadimma Umenyiora, who won the Super Bowl championships twice, is now identifying talented youth in the UK and Africa and providing them with training and scholarships to attend prestigious universities and play professional football.
The Superbowl, the annual football championship game of the National Football League (NFL), is one of America’s biggest sporting traditions. This year, over 113 million people reportedly tuned in to watch the game that saw Kansas City Chiefs emerge victorious against Philadelphia Eagles.
From Hollywood A-listers to music superstars, the Superbowl is perhaps the one all-encompassing sports event that literally grips Americans, bringing people from all walks of life together for the most epic football game each year.
It is such a big American tradition that it costs a staggering $7 million, according to The Wall Street Journal, to place a 30-second ad spot during the game. And not just anybody can perform at America’s biggest sports event.
You have to be a global superstar like Beyoncé or Rihanna to be able to grace the stage of the coveted halftime event. And to win the Superbowl championship means a player has reached the pinnacle of American football. So, when Ositadimma Umenyiora, or Osi, a Nigerian born in England, won this coveted championship twice, it was nothing short of a miracle. And this is his story.
It all started when he relocated from England to Lagos when he was seven years old. After completing his secondary school education, Umenyiora’s parents decided he should pursue his education in America when he turned 14.
“I got to America and that was what everybody was playing and talking about and it was the biggest thing where I went. I still wasn’t interested because it looked strange to me just seeing people running around and hitting each other but I had some friends who told me I was pretty athletic because I used to play basketball and I should go try out,” recalls Umenyiora.
Wanting to fit in with the other cool kids and most importantly to avoid being bullied for being the only African in Alabama, Umenyiora decided to try out. Even though he wasn’t exactly good at the sports initially, he was lucky enough to have the physique and raw talent to bag a scholarship to go to university to play football. And that is how he earned a college degree.
“All of a sudden it was like you can make a living and considerable amount of money playing this game. I got drafted into the NFL and it changed my life. So, for me, I can never underestimate what the game was able to do for me and for my family. It was an incredible experience.”
He played 12 seasons which equates to four times the average career of a footballer as a defensive end for the New York Giants.
“We won the Superbowl twice. The experience of that was surreal because when you are in America and you watch football and you understand the significance of that game to the country, you never really picture yourself getting,” says Umenyiora.
But that is exactly what happened and being there in that environment and not only getting the chance to play but actually winning the Superbowl completely transformed Umenyiora’s life. After he retired from the game, Umenyiora decided he would try and give other young people the same opportunity that the NFL blessed him with. He relocated to the United Kingdom (UK) to help grow the game and after a short period of time, realized most of the talent he was discovering for the sports were from Africa.
That was his Eureka moment.
“Going around scouting, we started to figure out that yes there were athletes in the UK but at the end of the day, a lot of the athletes were actually African and Nigerian. Then I remembered the entire time I was in the NFL, I kept on doing charity back in Nigeria building wells, scholarships etc. and it just never seemed to be enough because there were so many people who needed help and opportunities.
“I realized there are over a hundred players currently playing in the NFL who are either of African descent or born in Africa and we know that in terms of talent and athletic ability, Africa has an abundance of that probably more than anywhere in the world,” says Umenyiora.
For Umenyiora, Africa is the future. After a brief conversation with the chairman of the NFL, NFL Africa was created. For Umenyiora the business case was simple.
“I told him everything we are looking for; we all know that if you look at Africa especially as a population as a whole, we know that there is going to be capitalism development there. So, if you are looking for your next 100 million or 200 million, the youth population and massive population growth, that is where you are going to find it and Africans can play the game to a very high standard.”
The goal for Umenyiora is to give Africans the same opportunities that transformed his life. NFL Africa identifies talented youth in the UK and Africa and provides them with training and scholarships to attend prestigious universities and play professional football. The journey has been a difficult one. Firstly, there is little to no infrastructure for sports in Africa.
“You have all this talent and I’m talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of talent that is just there and there is nothing built specifically to train and build these athletes to be able to identify them,” says Umenyiora.
To overcome this challenge, Umenyiora and his team have set up camps to find the best talent across the continent and provide them with the requisite training to get them up to speed. The ones that are a bit older are put into the international player pathway program to directly try out for the NFL. So far, Umenyiora has placed seven African athletes on lucrative NFL rosters.
And this is just the beginning. As America gears up for the 2024 Superbowl, Umenyiora is hoping that another African will get to experience how it feels to play at the apex of American football and through the opportunities NFL Africa has provided, create a knock-on effect that transforms the lives of other impoverished youth on the African continent.