Axis Umeniora paves a new path for African talent to get into the NFL

Now the 40-year-old from the UK is looking for talent to help make American football a more popular and popular game around the world.

According to the NFL, over 100 players of African descent are already in the league. Umenyora says that during his many years of visits to Nigeria, he wanted to influence the country’s youth. So in 2020, with support from the NFL, he co-founded a talent scouting platform called The Uprise with fellow Nigerian and former NBA player Ejike Ugboadja. Having camped in several African countries, three Nigerian talents from the program were signed to the NFL in 2021.
Last month, NFL Africa, the league’s official platform for reaching out to African players and establishing a presence on the continent, held its first official camp in Africa. Scouts were ready to select the best of 49 potential clients to move to the NFL. The path of the international player – which gives athletes from outside the US and Canada a chance to earn a spot on an NFL team.

CNN recently spoke with Umenyora in Abuja, Nigeria during The Uprise regional tryouts and after the first NFL camp in Ghana.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: How did the idea for the International Player Pathway come about?

Umeniora: When I left America and went to the United Kingdom as [NFL] Ambassador, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can help the game expand. So I said to myself, “You’re trying to introduce this game of American football to the United Kingdom – it’s almost necessary for you to have players from here so that the whole country can root for something or maybe at least pique your interest.”

The whole idea is… to find a way to get people from other regions of the world into the NFL so that those other countries are more interested in actually watching the game. So I went to [NFL] commissioner [Roger Goodell] with this idea. The International Player Pathway program is a program that allows people from all over the world who do not have the opportunity to go to college [and play football] in America – to be looked at.

CNN: How did NFL Africa and The Uprise get started?

Umeniora: Over the past 10 years, I have noticed a huge impact – a lot of African names in the National Football League. And when I started to notice it, I realized that in fact no one singled out these people. Edjike Ugboaya has already been [scouting] with basketball and he always had this idea in his head about American football and he came to me in 2014 to help sponsor [young Nigerian athletes].

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I was able to put two and two together because noticing all these African NFL players, I was going back home to Nigeria and [see] these big, strong, fast physical people – all they’re looking for is opportunity.

So I said that instead of just doing all the normal things we do in terms of charity, why not give people the opportunity to help themselves? I was in the NFL at the time and was an NFL ambassador, so all I had to do was tell them that this was the right thing to do. And they agreed with me – that’s when we founded The Uprise camp.

CNN: In a continent that is more focused on football and basketball, why try to recruit for college football?

Umeniora: I understand American football. And I also understand that because of the market in America and the number of players, it will give you a lot more options than playing basketball. In terms of basketball and football, you are dealing with the whole world in terms of getting into the professional leagues. In the NFL, you mostly deal with America.

Our people here have the physique and characteristics to succeed where no one else in the world can. So here we have an advantage. In some cases, the future of these children is connected with American football. If they are trying to get an education or reach the highest level, they have it. Many NFL players or people who play college football at the highest level have been basketball players. The movements are very similar, just football is much tougher.

CNN: You have three success stories from the camp already signed into the NFL. How do you know they have what it takes, and how do you identify who you think will make it to the NFL?

Umeniora: It’s kind of hard to explain, but that’s because I’ve been playing the game for so long and I’ve been in the NFL for a very long time. You start noticing the little traits that people have that can reach the highest level. So, the guys we found were not only big, strong and smart, but also aggressive.

Umenyiora (left) celebrating the Giants' Super Bowl XLVI win in February 2012 with teammate Devin Thomas.

And they have these little movements; As an offensive lineman, you have to be able to move sideways very quickly. As a linebacker, you have to be able to get down and bend under people, have power and leverage.

So even if they have never done this before, when you check them out you can see that there is a difference between [prospects] – This guy naturally does things that the other doesn’t, and if you encourage and cherish him, it could be something special.

CNN: What are your future plans for The Uprise and NFL Africa on the continent?

Umeniora: We will have a structure or facility where we will attract top-level coaches, and they will come, maybe for four or five months. When we find these athletes, we house them, feed them, train them, [and] we also teach them the basics of American football.

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I want to see a time when at least 15-20% of all players in the National Football League will be from here. [Also], people should watch American football because their brothers are very, very successful in this game. I want more people to play sports and understand success and understand the game.

CNN: Now that the auditions are done in Ghana, how did they go – and what’s next for those selected?

Umeniora: The guys were outstanding – much better than they were in Nigeria, so it was clear that they had made great strides. So now, after trials, we have six players who [aged] under 19 who are going to go to the NFL Academy in the UK, and then nine players over 20 will be selected to participate in the International Player Pathway in London. Thus, 15 players really have the opportunity to change their lives.