Global domination: How the NFL is seeking its next stars beyond U.S. borders

Senior writer

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Haggai Chisom Ndubuisi never even considered becoming a football player. He played soccer and basketball like the rest of his classmates … right up until he came across the NFL via YouTube.

“I never knew anything about football. I grew up playing soccer and basketball,” Ndubuisi said this week. “My first-ever video about the NFL was the greatest hits. I was amazed by it.”

He spent the next few years teaching himself the game via YouTube, drew the interest of local scouts, joined a football academy in Ghana, and won an invitation to an international combine in London. Now — after thousands of miles, several years, and so many doubts and questions — the 6-foot-6, 298-pound Ndubuisi is a member of the Washington Commanders, the latest beneficiary of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.

The NFL has spent much of the last decade making inroads across the planet, playing games and creating fan alliances with nations all over the world. The league is also actively seeking to bring the world to the NFL, too, scouting athletes all over the globe for potential players. Since 2017, the NFL’s International Player Pathway has served as the most effective route for international athletes — some of whom, like Ndubuisi, may have only heard of the NFL in recent years — to reach the league.

Since the program’s inception, 37 international players have signed contracts with NFL teams. Roughly 20 players are now under contract, and five are on current NFL rosters. The odds are long, but with a new international roster spot for 2024, the chances of the NFL one day welcoming its version of Shohei Ohtani or Nikola Jokic just got a little better.

Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata is a product of the NFL's International Player Pathway program. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata is a product of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

How the NFL locates international talent

Patrick Murtagh is a veteran of Australian Rules Football, a chaotic cousin to the NFL game. He played three years for the Gold Coast Suns. When he was released, he turned his attention to the IPP, despite the fact that the NFL has virtually no cultural footprint yet in Australia.

“I thought, why not?” Murtagh says. “One door’s closed? Let’s open another one.”

For Murtagh, who grew up trying to explain the Peyton Manning Broncos to his father, the NFL is a dream opportunity. His background in Aussie Rules Football — where the game is constantly in motion, and every catch is contested — makes him an ideal tight end candidate.

“None of this is easy, obviously,” he said of the switch between football versions. “But you’re going from running, running, you know, 18 kilometers a game to running just a few and having pads on.”

Murtagh was a known commodity thanks to his AFL background. Many other potential players remain virtually anonymous because of the sheer scope of international recruiting. Within the borders of America, football recruiting follows a standard path — recruiters work their network of high school coaches and middlemen to target future stars and uncover diamonds. But when your recruiting territory is “the entire planet,” you’ve got to get a bit more creative to find talent.

Read the full Yahoo Sports article.