The NFL might sometimes be thought of as a purely American sport, but in recent years there has been a sharp increase in the number of players trying to make it from overseas. The most high- profile player to attempt the transition in recent times was British Olympian Lawrence Okoye. Despite showing obvious promise, Okoye failed to ever make the leap.
Following on from him, German amateur player Moritz Bohringer was selected in the sixth round by the Vikings back in 2016. While Bohringer again showed interesting athletic promise and base technique, the learning curve has so far proved too much for him and he is currently a free agent.
The NFL, recognising how players coming from overseas will likely need longer to adjust to the NFL game than those coming out of US colleges, decided to make a change. From the beginning of this season, four teams, the Saints, Buccaneers, Panthers and Falcons, were selected to be the trial group for a new international program.
Under the program, each team gets an additional practice squad spot for the year in order to develop an international player. While the player would be ineligible to play in games, the idea behind the scheme is that, by giving the players a year to train with an NFL team, they would then be in a better position to compete for a roster spot a year down the line.
During Training Camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina I was lucky enough to sit down with Brixton-raised Efe Obada, the Panthers’ signee, who is trying to make it after pre-season stints with the Cowboys, Chiefs and Falcons. I wanted to get his take on the program, NFL London and his transition to the NFL.
On his upbringing:
“Originally from Nigeria, grew up in south London, Brixton, then recently moved out to Stevenage.”
On what life has been like as he tries to earn a roster spot whilst still living in the UK:
“Every time I’ve had an opportunity for a team I’ve flown out and stayed wherever they put me or found somewhere to stay, but still based in the UK.”
On his experience of trying to make an NFL roster:
“It’s been up and down. Nothing’s been guaranteed, everything’s earnt in this industry. Hopefully it’ll pay off.”
On the NFL International Player Pathway program:
“I think it’s an amazing program that’ll definitely allow us time to develop. But me personally, I’m grateful for the opportunity but I don’t want to solely rely on that. I want to practice and perform as if I was competing for an active spot on the roster; as if I can get released.”
On how he has found training camp with the Panthers:
“There’s been some ups and downs; there’s been some bad days where things didn’t click and there’s been some good days where I think I’ve learnt things. Overall, I think I’m getting better, I’m improving and I’m learning the system. They’ve got some amazing players and some amazing coaches and I feel that everybody’s a product of their environment and I’m in a great environment.”
On what he thinks he needs to work on most:
“Mainly for me technique: learning how to use my body, how to play to my strengths; and the scheme as well, leaning where I have to be to be part of that bigger picture.”
On where he thinks his technique needs to improve:
“Everything; I’m never going to be satisfied with where I am. I’m just going to keep working on everything, keep working on the little things, the fundamentals; getting off the ball, using my hands, recognising where people are and just being able to react faster.”
Obada; a six-foot-six, two-hundred-and-fifty-five-pound defensive end was initially signed by the Cowboys as a tight-end back in 2015 following a work-out resulting from the Cowboys involvement of UK-based coaching interns during their NFL London game the previous season.
On being asked to transition from defensive end to tight end when he initially signed with the Cowboys back in 2015:
“Initially, when they signed me I was a tight end. I played defensive end in the UK but, because of my size at the time ( I was much smaller than I am now) and my athletic ability, they thought I’d be better suited to playing tight end because I can run. But the gap that I needed to bridge, in terms of what I had to learn, was too large so they moved me back to defensive end.”
On how players like Lawrence Okoye have helped pave the way for international players like him:
“Lawrence Okoye is an amazing athlete, I’m proud of him coming out here, he’s an Olympian at the discus and played rugby as well, he’s an amazing athlete. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and I feel like people like him trying to make that transition definitely benefitted this program, one hundred percent. It’s all about exposure, the thing that separates the Brits, or any other people that have not been involved in the sport, is exposure.”
On whether he has been to an NFL London game, and his thoughts on the experience:
“Yes I have, my first game I think was the Dolphins verses the Raiders at Wembley. It was amazing, the atmosphere was amazing. In Wembley, people don’t really come for a team they just come for the sport; you see all the different jerseys at the same game”
On whether he thinks the NFL London games are making a significant impact on NFL’s international standing:
“Definitely, without that I don’t think I’d be here right now. Without that exposure, without Dallas going over there I wouldn’t have had the chance to work out for them and be where I am today. That definitely increases the amount of people who want to play the sport, the number of people that support the sport; who follow stories and follow people.”
On whether he thinks there is enough appetite for a franchise moving to the UK:
“Yes, in short; yes. There is a huge following, there are a huge number of people who are learning about the sport and being exposed to it and going to games. I feel it would definitely work.”
On his thoughts of potentially being able to play at Wembley:
“I would love for the Panthers to go out there, that would be amazing; that would be my dream actually, to play in front of my friends and my home fans.”
Speaking to Panthers’ Head Coach Ron Rivera before the Panthers’ first pre-season game, he has the following to say about Obada’s play thus far into the pre-season:
“I think Efe’s done an outstanding job, he really has. He’s picked up what we do very nicely. We see his athleticism, his skill; he’s an explosive athlete. It’s going to be fun to see him get his opportunities on the football field.”
During the Panthers’ four pre-season games Obada had three tackles, a sack and a pass deflected in limited playing time. While he will not play throughout this season, given his athletic ability and improving technique he genuinely has a good chance to make the Panthers roster for the 2018-19 season.
I would like to thank the Panthers for the opportunity to cover their training camp and for setting up the interview and I would also like to thank Efe for spending the time to talk to me and I wish him the best of luck in his quest to make an NFL roster.