By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
As the NFL continues to expand its global reach, among the many programs that are being created are ways in which to develop players from outside of the United States. In 2017, the league debuted its International Pathway Program, which is focused on identifying foreign players who show potential talent to play at the highest level.
Through the International Pathway Program, four foreign players will spend the season on the practice squads of each of the four teams in the NFC South (the division was selected in a random draw). Each team receives an exemption for an 11th practice squad player for the duration of 2017. The players cannot be activated, nor can they be released.
NFL Executive Vice President of International & Events, Mark Waller, explained how the new program dovetails with the league’s other international endeavors.
“This is an important part of the league's overall strategy to grow internationally," Waller said. "We are building this pathway program to provide international athletes with the opportunity to play in the league, which will increase the pool of talent, inspire others and ultimately drive fan growth."
The four players in this year’s program are Alex Gray a tight end from the UK, who will be with the Atlanta Falcons, Alex Jenkins a defensive end from the UK who will be with the New Orleans Saints, Eric Nzeocha, a linebacker from Germany who will be with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Efe Obada, a defensive end from England who will be with the Carolina Panthers.
Prior to the start of training camps, the players spent three months in Florida, working and training with NFLUK head of football development Aden Durde, and two-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowler, former defensive end and linebacker Osi Umenyiora, a UK native who had a 12-year NFL career (10 with the New York Giants and two with the Atlanta Falcons).
For the players, this offers a welcome and unique opportunity to perhaps build their own successful careers.
Obada, who knew virtually nothing about the NFL having only played American football for a couple of years the London Warriors, a semi-professional team in England, describes the program as, “The opportunity of a lifetime.”
A native of Nigeria, who was raised in London, Obada signed as a free agent for the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 after playing only five games of amateur football in the UK with the semi-professional London Warriors. He played in the preseason for the Cowboys and spent part of the 2015 season on the club's practice squad. He has since had stints on the rosters of the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons.
Obada describes being a part of the IPP as, “The opportunity of a lifetime.”
"I feel like this is something I need to progress and further my career,” he said. “I am very grateful to the guys who have worked with us and put their necks 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.
“I never thought my life would be going down this route, that’s what makes me appreciate it even more,” he said. “I’m a player and I’m a fan; I’m a normal person really. Other guys have been doing this for years, they’ve been exposed to the crowds, having people wanting their signatures. It still hasn’t hit me.”
Nzeocha began playing football for the Franken Knights youth team in Neusitz, Germany, and was selected for the German national junior team. Switching from tight end to linebacker he played three years at the University of Wyoming, following in the footsteps of his brother, Mark, currently a linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys.
“My goal is to improve as a player and establish myself as a special teams guy and then hopefully get a contract,” Nzeocha said. “My brother helps me out a lot. He told me it’s a golden ticket to have these couple of months where I can adjust to everything and get better.”
Knowing that their time on the practice squad is guaranteed for the season, removes some stress, but Obada isn’t taking it for granted.
“It’s huge,” he said of the guarantee. “But I don’t want to rely on that because I don’t want to become complacent. I’m trying to get better, trying to improve, and trying to apply that to all aspects of my life.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.