British LB Ayo Oyelola sets sights on NFL in his second sports career

There comes a time in every athlete’s life where they reach a crossroads, a choice to continue their career on the field or pursue dreams in other areas.

Ayo Oyelola was just 17 when he first made his choice. A promising soccer player from East London with a contract on the table from Ebbsfleet United in Conference Premier, Oyelola decided to chase his dream of becoming a lawyer and made his way to the University of Nottingham. Focusing on his studies over the course of his first year, Oyelola set sport aside entirely, hoping to pick it up again when his degree was complete. Those plans quickly changed however, thanks to the YouTube algorithm.

“Saquon Barkley’s highlights just popped up on my screen one day,” Oyelola recalls. “My mind was blown and I said to myself that I want to be able to do what he does.”

That algorithmic twist of fate set in motion an athletic second career for the versatile Brit and Oyelola now finds himself as one of just 11 people in the world invited to participate in the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program. Soon, he’ll be off to Florida for extensive training and a chance at one of four international practice roster spots in the world’s top football league. It’s something Oyelola has always believed he’s capable of, but being named one of the world’s best seems a far cry from when he first picked up the pads at Nottingham.

“It was strange and foreign to me because I’m used to being one of the better players when I play sports and then I step onto a field wearing pads that were probably four sizes too big for me and I clearly don’t know what on earth I’m doing,” Oyelola laughs. “I was eager to learn though and I don’t like quitting things.”

That was a mentality Oyelola learned young. In a family that stressed academic success, he wasn’t allowed to play organized soccer until the age of 11. When he did finally play, Oyelola skipped the typical springboard of Sunday League entirely and immediately tried out for an academy program. He earned a spot with little prior experience and rode his ambition and drive all the way to the brink of a professional career.

Football would be no different. Though inspired by running back Saquon Barkley’s exploits, Oyelola was moved to the defensive side of the ball. His first season was a difficult learning process but by his third college game, he knew there was no turning back. After not playing in the team’s first two games, he made the travel squad for a game in Sterling and the rest was history.

“My [defensive coordinator] brought me off the bench for the last five minutes, probably because he thought it was unfair to bring me all the way to Scotland and not let me get any game time. My first snap there, they had a scholar left tackle and I was playing outside linebacker and I drove him back ten yards and sacked the quarterback,” Oyelola remembers smiling. “It was like a game-winning play and the feeling I got then… from then on I was hooked. I knew I was going to do this for a fairly long time.”

Oyelola committed himself to the game of football and it’s paid off, but in a country still learning to appreciate the gridiron game his passion often seemed fool-hardy. An intelligent student with a new law degree in hand, people often wondered why he was so focused on a foreign game.

“I’d gone and got a law degree, I’d put myself through years of education, I’d played soccer since I was young, I’d run track. There were other avenues for me, but I knew in my heart that this one was right and most people don’t always get it,” Oyelola explains.

“From their reaction, I think people thought this was some sort of phase. That eventually I would do the grown up thing and go into law. I’ve never really cared much about people doubting me. I don’t think it was malicious, it was just crazy to say and it must have been crazy to them.”

That all changed with one call from the NFL’s Head of International Player Development Will Bryce. A hybrid linebacker-defensive back, Oyelola’s quick feet and physicality at Nottingham were viewed as perfect for a modern NFL that is leaving traditional downhill thumpers in the past.

“I see myself eventually as the type of guy that the coach doesn’t have to take off. I can cover the slot if I have to, you don’t have to start rotating the nickel in. Outside zones are dead because I’m quick enough to get to the outside and strong enough to take on o-linemen,” Oyelola says. “Initially, I’m hoping my speed and physicality will translate to special teams and I’m hoping coaches will see value in that.”

Making it into the professional ranks is no guarantee for Oyelola but he now has a chance, which is all he’s ever wanted. While football is growing in Britain, Oyelola believes the lack of opportunities to play at the next level are part of the reason it has yet to gain major sport status. If it weren’t for the success of fellow Brit Efe Obada and the existence of the Pathway Program, Oyelola admits he too may have directed his energy elsewhere. Now, he’s at the head of the newest wave of British talent and hopes to show those behind him that a path to the pros exists.

“If a guy from East London who played soccer is able to make it in the NFL then maybe it will inspire others to try it as well,” Oyelola says. “There is loads of driven people, athletic people, clever people and once they see there is a clear route to the NFL if they are good enough and they work hard, I think it’s only going to get more people involved.”

While Oyelola once set sport aside in pursuit of other things, it appears his second career in sports is just beginning.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.