|05-06-2006, 03:48 PM|
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Pastabelly: Players of Nigerian heritage find way to NFL
Standouts Ogunleye, Umenyiora of Nigerian descent
By Len Pasquarelli
All the talk about "beating the bushes," all that rhetoric about "turning over the rock" or "torturing the tape," hackneyed terms that grizzled NFL scouts so often employ to define their work ethic?
Forget about 'em.
If league bird-dogs really want to go the extra mile in pursuit of talent, they ought to think about actually going several thousand extra miles, all the way to the Nigerian veldt. Given the way recent NFL drafts have gone, including last weekend's lottery, the trip might be well worth the imposition.
It began in 1987, when the Kansas City Chiefs chose Azusa Pacific running back Christian Okoye in the second round of the draft. A native of Enugu, Nigeria, the powerful Okoye played six seasons in the NFL, rushed for 4,897 yards, led the league with 1,480 yards in 1989, earned two trips to the Pro Bowl game, and was dubbed "The Nigerian Express."
Ever since, it seems, players either born in Nigeria or the sons of Nigerian parents who have emigrated to other countries have managed to find their way onto NFL rosters. If the stream of talent emanating from the African country hasn't quite been a steady one, the flow has been enough to maintain the interest of scouts.
This year, the interest was piqued by more than the normal complement of players of Nigerian descent.
"Maybe the biggest year ever for Nigerian players," said linebacker Terna Nande of Miami (Ohio), taken by the Tennessee Titans in the fifth round, a prospect whose mother still resides in the African country. "The continent [of Africa] was certainly well [represented] in general, but the Nigerian players … it sure seemed like there were a lot of them."
At least three other players of Nigerian descent -- Indiana defensive end Victor Adeyanju (St. Louis Rams, fourth round), Stanford defensive tackle Babatunde Oshinowo (Cleveland Browns, sixth round) and Auburn wide receiver Devin Aromashodu (Miami Dolphins, seventh round) -- were selected in the draft. And at least two others, linebacker Bob Iwuchukwa of Purdue (New Orleans Saints) and Oklahoma defensive back Chijioke Onyenegecha (Washington Redskins), were signed as undrafted free agents.
Of all the emerging African countries, it is Nigeria, it seems, that is foremost in emerging as a hothouse for developing athletes capable of performing at the NFL level.
"There are just so many good athletes there," said Washington, D.C., attorney Lloyd Ukwu, a man who has been instrumental in bringing many of them to American colleges to play basketball, two years ago. "There is a strong athletic tradition and a lot of pride."
Among the several current standout players of Nigerian heritage in the NFL are defensive ends Adewale Ogunleye of the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants' Osi Umenyiora. In fact, Ogunleye's bloodlines make him African royalty.
"Those are [Nigerian] players everyone knows about," Oshinowo told reporters at the scouting combine workouts at Indianapolis nearly three months ago. "Word gets back. Those guys are heroes to a lot of young people in Nigeria. Hopefully, some of us [in this year's draft] will be the same."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.
C'mon, Len. Get it right.